'Where We Lived': America's Homes

NPR's Scott Simon discusses the way the first Americans lived, and what kinds of homes they built, with historian Jack Larkin. Larkin is the author of Where We Lived: Rediscovering the Places We Once Called Home. Those who yearn for the simplicity of early colonial life might want to keep in mind that the typical homes for ordinary Americans in the 18th and early 19th centuries were dark, dirty and crowded.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We often now think of our homes as a place of refuge from the workplace. But homes were once places in which people were born and died, where they were sick, and where generations that are now divided by activities and afterschool clubs, summer camps, and senior citizen centers once lived and played under the very same roof. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Taunton Press have just produced a new book that looks at what homes used to be, from log cabins and slave quarters to mansions and estates. The book is called "Where We Lived: Discovering the Places We Once Called Home."

The text of the book has been written by Jack Larkin, professor of history at Clark University and chief historian at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. He joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Professor JACK LARKIN (Clark University): Oh, I'm very pleased to be here.

SIMON: Your book reminds us how crowded houses used to be.

Prof. LARKIN: That is really something to think about. There are houses that were perhaps 20 by 20, which might have contained eight or nine or 10 or even a dozen people.

SIMON: Now, this is because people of several different generations lived under the same roof in a way that is more rare now.

Prof. LARKIN: Sure. And the other thing, of course, the birth rate was so high. The average American family, say, in Massachusetts around the time of the Revolution had about 8.8 children. On the other hand, too, most people tended to build small because wood and the resources, labor, construction, wood, brick, stone, were relatively expensive.

SIMON: Your book reminds us that the years we're talking about here, 1775 to 1840, it was rare for people to sleep alone.

Prof. LARKIN: Very rare. Unless you were quite ill, elderly, and very well to do, you slept with someone else. You had almost certainly grown up as a child sleeping with one sibling, two siblings, sometimes even three siblings, if they could pack you in close enough. If you were traveling, men were accustomed to being asked to sleep with another man, or women with other women, just to use the beds that were available.

So people simply were close - were used to really much closer proximity of other people. Their bodies, their odors, their presence; that was just part of what life was like.

SIMON: I think a section of the book that a lot of people will notice has a wonderfully winsome title. The section is called Rarely Clean and Usually Smelly.

Prof. LARKIN: Right. One of the artifacts of early American - in fact, early European life that's rarely talked about, the chamber pot, which is the ubiquitous implement of household sanitation. And if we think of - we think of them as little ceramic containers that mostly were tucked under the bed, that were used as necessary, especially when it was so cold that people didn't want a trip outdoors to the privy.

SIMON: Can you give us some idea from when you walk in what a floor plan might have looked like?

Prof. LARKIN: Well, many American houses were - probably most - were what was called socially opened. In other words, you'd open the door and you'd walk right into the kitchen or the parlor. One-room houses basically just had...

SIMON: One room.

Prof. LARKIN: ...one room, and so what people, travelers saw was that the functions were sort of laid out in different corners of the room. So it was organized, but it was simply invisible boundaries. Even in a single room, you sort of have to be able to navigate around the fact that you were trying to read and someone else is reciting, and dad might have been in there making shoes for the family in front of the fire, and someone else was spinning. So all those things sort of had to be orchestrated in a kind of tacit way. I think everyone understood it.

SIMON: How many houses of the vintage we're talking about in your book are left? Do you have any idea or...

Prof. LARKIN: In Charleston, parts of New Orleans, there are many. Some parts of New England, where people have been very conscious for a long time of preservation, we really see quite a few. It's really difficult to make the count. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that the small houses that most ordinary families lived in are virtually all - the vast majority that have disappeared.

What remains, for the most part, you know, are the houses of the great and powerful - or at least fairly large attractive houses. So sometimes people, nostalgics, oh, I'd love to have lived back then. And I hear that in Old Sturbridge Village from visitors sometimes. Look at this house, you know, wouldn't it have been wonderful to live in this house? And of course it would with modern plumbing, with hot and cold running water, and all things we'd add to what otherwise we see an architectural gem.

SIMON: Yeah. I wonder, when you overhear visitors at Old Sturbridge says something like, I love this house, I just wish I could have lived back then, do you - are ever tempted to just put a chamber pot in their hands and say, well, be my guest?

Prof. LARKIN: Right. Well, I've suggested something like that. I've said, well, you know I wouldn't mind living back there in some ways, except of course I'd need to have all my shots. And indoor plumbing would be nice.

SIMON: Professor Larkin, thank you.

Prof. LARKIN: Thank you very much, it's been a great pleasure talking to you, Scott.

SIMON: Jack Larkin, he's written the text for a new book produced by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Taunton Press. The book is called "Where We Lived: Discovering the Places We Once Called Home, The American Home From 1775 to 1840."

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