How early homes were made

How early homes were made

This article covers following points

  1. Describe how Native American housing was influenced by culture and environment.
  2. Identify primitive dwellings used by the early colonists.
  3. Analyze the characteristics of early English, German and Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, and French homes in North America.


A stroll down any street will take you past a wide variety of housing styles. You might see many of the same designs in a number of cities. If you were to examine these styles closely, you might find traces of homes designed hundreds of years ago.


Although some homes are truly modern creations, most are modifications of early American styles, such as the Cape Cod, saltbox, and Dutch Colonial. All of these styles originated in North America. As the country has grown, regional styles have spread across the continent.


The homes of the colonists were also influenced by earlier styles. These styles were modified to suit the weather and terrain of the colonists' new land.

The modifications made today are different from those made by the colonists. Technological advances have made it possible to adapt many designs. In the past, some designs would have been restricted by climate, terrain, and the building materials available. Most climate conditions can now be offset by central heating and cooling systems and by insulation. Building materials can be transported to almost any location.



Native Americans lived throughout the North American continent, from the forests of the eastern shore to the deserts of the Southwest. Each group or tribe developed a distinct way of life. Many depended on hunting or fishing for their survival. Some raised crops and domestic animals.

Environment and culture were the two main influences on the type of dwelling developed by each tribe. Environment determined which building materials were available and the type of protection from the elements that was needed. Some of the cultural considerations were social organization; religious beliefs; methods of obtaining food; and size of the group, family, or organization. Hunters of the Great Plains developed dwellings different from those of the farming tribes of the Northeast and the Inuit people of the Arctic.


Native American homes did, however, have some common characteristics. They were simple structures with dirt floors and no windows or chimneys. They tended to be dark, smoky, and crowded. Cooking was done over an open fire. There was little furniture. Weapons, tools, and other possessions were stored on shelves or hung from walls.


Tribes that depended on hunting or on gathering food had to move from place to place. Therefore, they developed dwellings that could be easily constructed at the new site or carried from place to place. The tribes of the eastern woodlands carried reed mats which were wrapped around rounded wood frames to create a domelike structure called a "wigwam." A wigwam could house one or two families. The tepee was the invention of the tribes of the central and western plains who roamed in search of game. It was a cone-shaped tent covered with buffalo hides. This tent could be put up and taken down rapidly. It was perfectly suited to the nomadic life of the people who developed it.


Farming tribes established more permanent villages. They constructed homes intended to last for many seasons. The Iroquois tribes of the Northeast, for example, developed the longhouse, built from young trees that were bent to form a long, rectangular frame with a barrel-shaped roof. The frame was covered by overlapping strips of bark. The longhouse was designed to house several families. The public buildings of the Iroquois were also built this way. Some reached lengths of almost 100 feet (30 m).


Climate was a major consideration for the Inuit people of the cold North. They lived in dwellings built partially underground and covered with sod. These dwellings had long, downward-sloping entrances. This construction kept the Inuit people well insulated from freezing temperatures and served as protection against the wind. In the snowiest regions, Inuit tribes built their dwellings from blocks of ice, lightly covered with snow. Very often, ice was the only building material available. However, when constructed properly, these snowhouses served the Inuits as well as sod homes.



The colonists who came to the New World represented many groups. Some came seeking religious freedom; others were adventurers determined to find wealth. A few were powerful aristocrats with vast land holdings. There were also individuals who had been exiled as punishment for a crime.


Upon landing in the New World, the first settlers were faced with the immediate problems of finding sources of food and building shelters. They had few tools and materials with which to accomplish these tasks. Some of them weren't able to make a home in the wilderness. In 1585, for instance, the first English settlement in North America was established on the island of Roanoke, North Carolina. This first group of settlers soon gave up and returned to England; a second group disappeared without a trace.


Those who did survive followed the example of the Native Americans. They saw how the native people adapted their dwellings to the surrounding environment and tried to do the same. Little is known of the earliest temporary shelters. Their owners usually destroyed them as soon as permanent dwellings were built. It is known, however, that huts of bark and branches, held together with clay, were used as crude shelters.


Other types of early dwellings included a triangular, tentlike structure made of logs propped against each other, as well as a shedlike roofed house built into the side of a hill. As the new colonists grew more prosperous, they replaced their primitive, one-room dwellings with larger, more permanent structures.



The first two successful English colonies were started at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. By 1640, a sprinkling of tiny English settlements dotted the eastern edge of North America. Between 1640 and 1720, small, isolated settlements grew into bustling towns with larger and more comfortable houses. Some roads were constructed. Trade by land and sea grew.

Some of these early houses were covered with shingles or clapboards. Shingles are thin, oblong pieces of material, such as wood, that are laid in overlapping rows to cover the roof or sides of a structure.

Clapboards are boards with one edge thicker than the other laid in overlapping rows to protect the walls from the elements.

A huge chimney served one or several fireplaces, which were used for cooking and for heat in the cold winters. Windows were generally small in order to reduce heat loss and minimize the use of expensive glass.


Many English settlers in the northeastern colonies built a style of home called a Cape Cod house—a house with a simple rectangular design, a central chimney, and a pitched roof. This is a two-sided roof with a steep angle. A pitched roof is often called a gable roof because it forms triangular end walls, known as gables, on the house. The Cape Cod remains a model for many American homes.


performed at or near the fireplace—weaving, sewing, and furniture making. Some family members even slept there. Although small, the Cape Cod house was built for expansion. As families grew, an ell, or extension built at right angles to the length of the structure, was sometimes added. The original house was frequently built with a chimney at the end of the structure. These were called "half-houses" because when an addition to the house was made, it was placed so the fireplace and chimney would be in the center and could heat every room.



The majority of German settlers who came to North America in the late 17th century settled in southeastern Pennsylvania. The Germans built large, durable houses of wood and quarry stone. The typical German house provided entry into a first-floor kitchen. The fireplace was located in the center of the first floor. On the opposite side of the fireplace was a large family room for entertaining. Some of the larger houses had small bedrooms behind the family room. In some German houses, an abbreviated roof, or "hood," was built between the first and second stories.


were four or five stories high. The Dutch homes were noted for their decorative brickwork and intricate, stepped gables. The early roofs contained dormers—structures projecting through a steeply sloping roof. The window set in this structure is called a "dormer window." Also characteristic of Dutch styles were metal gutters, small windows with sliding shutters, and the "Dutch door"—a door divided in half horizontally. This design allowed the top half to stand open like a window while the bottom half remained closed. A favorite feature of Dutch farmhouses was a long, sweeping roof that extended over a wide front porch.




As settlers moved westward into the dense, unexplored forest, the log cabin was their most common and practical shelter. These early settlers had to clear the land for farming, so they used the trees they felled to build their dwellings. This system was used by pioneers for many years as they pushed their way across the continent. The log cabin was so common that it has become a part of American folklore and is looked upon as a truly American building style. The fact that its origins were Swedish has almost been forgotten.


In Sweden, houses were traditionally made of wood. Swedes who came to the New World called on their knowledge of log construction. They felled the trees, cut them into logs, and laid them on one another horizontally. The logs were joined with notched corners and the joints were filled with clay, bark, or moss.


The log cabin was a primitive, small building. Its length rarely exceeded that of a single log. Sometimes a cabin was divided into two rooms with an attic above, but more often there was only one room. Originally, the roof was of bark or thatch. Later, shingles were used.


Each year roughly 25,000 people build log homes. They are attracted by their warm, cozy appearance, low maintenance, energy efficiency, and relative ease of construction.


There are about 300 producers of log homes in the United States. Most make the logs by using high speed woodworking machinery. This process allows them to precision-cut the logs with speed and uniformity. There are about 300 producers of log homes in the United States. Most make the logs by using high speed woodworking machinery. This process allows them to precision-cut the logs with speed and uniformity. When all the components for a log home have been made by machine, they are shipped to the building site.

A few people still prepare the logs by hand. They select the trees and shape the logs individually to fit. They use only hand-held tools, like those used by builders for hundreds of years.


Log homes have a good record of energy efficiency. Most require no special insulation. Solid log walls are made of standard-sized logs 8 inches (20 cm) thick and 6 inches (15 cm) high. Logs store heat during the day and release it at night. In some northern climates, the exterior walls are made of half-log siding. From 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) of insulation is put between the exterior logs and the interior wall. In these super insulated homes, the interior walls • can also be half-logs. Paneling or wallboard may also be used.


The best woods for log homes are cedar, spruce, pine, fir, and larch. These woods naturally resist decay, shrinking, and warping. The wood should be dried before use. Log homes appeal to people with varying tastes in housing. Depending on whether the logs are rough-hewn or smooth-cut, the house can look rustic or contemporary. It can be any size and can be built in any location, from city to country. Owners of log homes can use natural materials without sacrificing modern comforts.





the Spaniards were the first Europeans to establish colonies in the New World, most)/ in Florida and the Southwest, in the early 1500s. The oldest Spanish house still existing in the United States is located in St. Augustine, Florida. Built about 1565, it is made of coquina (co-KEE-nuh), a soft porous limestone composed of shell and coral. Many of the Spanish houses in the South were rectangular, with balconies that faced the street. Kitchens were often separate so that the heat from the cooking fires would not affect the rest of the house. The interior was usually simple, with whitewashed plaster walls, beamed ceilings, and earthen floors. The more elaborate houses used tile on the floor or roof.


In the Southwest, the Spanish settlers at first adopted some of the features of the natives' housing. These early Spanish houses had thick adobe walls, flat roofs, rough-hewn beams projecting through the outside walls, and deep-set windows.


In the 17th century, a more elaborate style was created by Spanish settlers in California and other parts of the Southwest. These houses were covered with adobe, brick, or stucco. Stucco is a plaster material made of cement, sand, and lime. These homes featured rounded archways and windows and red tile roofs. Porches and balconies often went around the outside of the dwelling. Some homes of this type had inner courtyards.



The early French colonists who settled along the St. Lawrence River built houses of stone or wood, with the high, steep roofs common in French country cottages, particularly in Normandy, France. The typical home had small windows and heavy wooden shutters that could be closed to protect the occupants from the cold weather.


Original buildings in this style are found today in New York State and Canada. The French cottage style had to be adapted when built by settlers in the hot and humid southern Mississippi Valley. A porch was added that was covered by a broad roof extending around the house. It helped keep the house cool and protected it from the rain. Often the houses were raised on posts a full story above the ground. This was done to improve air circulation and protect the house from floods. The houses were usually painted white. The rooms had many doors and windows, which allowed for the flow of air.


As you can see, the houses of the colonial era of North America were as different and varied as the people who built them. Each culture made its distinctive contribution to the Early American period. While attempting to recreate the homes they had left behind, the colonists had to adapt their building practices to their new lifestyles and living environments. This meant their houses were similar to, but smaller and less elaborate than, those of their European counterparts. Such adaptations made these homes distinctly American.

Trending Protection Status