American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
Independence and the rural cottage

Gwendolyn Wright

To the majority of citizens in the early republic, the ideal American home was an independent homestead, attractive enough to encourage family pride yet unpretentious and economical. Itinerant artists, traveling across the countryside on horseback, specialized in paintings that portrayed these very qualities. Such artists decorated the interiors of homes with bright geometric patterns and naïve murals, and often did a painting of the family dwelling or a portrait of the family members. Rural women and young schoolgirls took the home as a favorite subject for their needlework samplers, surrounding the image of the simple, productive house and garden with virtuous proverbs or biblical quotations.

The country’s leaders were surprisingly attentive to American predilections in domestic architecture. A few, such as Thomas Jefferson, were distressed about the aesthetic disarray that could result from thousands of quickly built, untutored dwellings, occupied for only a short time by restless homesteaders. For those who feared attacks on private property, even the forms seemed an invitation to anarchy. Jefferson was troubled by the impermanent look of most of the simple wooden houses in his native state of Virginia. He wanted to see an end to these “ugly, uncomfortable, and—happily—more perishable” dwellings.1 A stable agrarian citizenry in substantial brick or stone houses would form a solid basis for the young nation’s strength.

For Jefferson, and for many other civic leaders, there was a problem of guiding, but not regulating, domestic settings. How could Americans create an environment that protected the respect for order, self-sufficiency, and spirituality they held in common, without imposing on the freedom of each individual and each family to live as they pleased? The answer was the concept of the model home. Some prototypes could be small and inexpensive; each would be ornamented, so that the family would recognize their home as a place of beauty, repose, and Christian virtue. There was also a mechanical image at work here, a notion of continuous improvements on a templet to make the product better and cheaper. Optimistic belief in inevitable progress encouraged the assumption that aesthetic, technological, and social breakthroughs would keep occurring. This would not be a legislated model, based on regulations or laws everyone had to follow. Instead, it would be a guide, an inspiration that each builder and each family would adapt to the circumstances at hand. Several kinds of dwellings were publicized as model homes during these years, but the greatest attention was bestowed on the detached cottage for the independent farmer and his family. This rural home, like the family for whom it was designed, was considered the basis for America’s strength and progress.

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