Who Invented Your House?
If it’s like 90 percent of American houses, it is built differently from houses everywhere else in the world, by a method that grew up on the old Midwestern frontier
Henry Mitchell has lived in the house next door to mine all of his 85 years. He keeps an eye on my renovations, and I often pause, hammer in hand, to listen to him describe the way his father built his own house those many years ago. When I return to my previous task—pulling a rusty square spike or dismantling a joint in the heavy timbers—I am more conscious of the building of my house a century and a half ago. I can imagine all the effort, the heading of spike from nail rod, the chiseling of mortise and tenon, the erecting of heavy timbers. Henry can make my walls tell their history.
Between the world of 1850, from which my house comes, and our own, home construction has changed dramatically. In North America builders have abandoned the bit and brace, the plane, and the chisel and have replaced the elaborate joinery of interlocked timbers with the juxtapositions and nailing of light lumber pieces. This change represents a fundamental shift. Sometime, somewhere a radical revision, a revolutionary technology, transformed our houses.
Old frame houses were constructed with large timbers. Sawing was wasteful of labor and material (early saws made wide cuts in the wood), so logs were often simply squared for ease of connection. The connections were chiseled from the timbers themselves, and then the joints were individually fitted. This required a practiced hand, particularly in places that involved intricate geometries, such as at the top corner of an exterior wall, where four timbers meet in one joint. It is no wonder that old timber-frame houses often took an entire building season to complete.
Our current system of light-wood construction was known in its earliest nineteenth-century incarnation as the “balloon” frame. Instead of interlocked heavy timbers, the balloon frame used boards no bigger in section than 2 by 12 inches, spaced 16 to 24 inches across, to form a basketlike structure of surprising strength. Early in the century new technologies had made possible massproduced lumber and nails; the balloon frame took advantage of both, relying on the quantity rather than the quality of individual connections. This saved countless hours of work, required far less skill, and took advantage of easily transportable products—boards and nails—rather than locally felled heavy logs. House building was never the same again.
The origin of the balloon frame is a matter of debate and conjecture. Was there a “Eureka!” moment of invention? Did the revolution happen by gradual change? And where did the technique get such a bizarre name?
The making of a balloon-frame house was from the start very similar to how we build most of our houses today. The walls are composed of many two-by-four verticals (studs) nailed to a common sill while lying flat on the wooden platform of the ground floor; each wall is squared and then tilted up into place. In the original balloon frame these walls and their studs reached the full two-story height of the building; today one-story walls are more common. That difference is the main distinction between balloon and contemporary construction.
A balloon frame is structurally and materially very efficient. It is both strong and light, offering a substantial improvement in strength-to-weight ratio over a log or timber frame. Builders nail the frame, the sheathing, and the clapboards to one another in many places, and each nailed connection contributes to the overall strength of the building. Because no joint is more important than any other, there has to be only a statistical probability that any particular one makes a good connection. An individual joint may fail because of a rogue piece of wood or a poor nailing job, but the overall structure is redundant enough that the whole will maintain its integrity. This conception of many joints combining into an overall rigid structure is the major innovation.
The first known publication articulating a balloon-frame design was by William E. Bell, an Illinois carpenter who wrote a construction manual in 1858. Bell had already been building balloon-frame houses for 15 years, and others had for even longer; he presented the technique as a codified system, recommending materials and procedures for various kinds of buildings. The new technology represented undeniable progress, reducing the need for expensive craft labor and custom-made components, using lightweight materials, and improving structural efficiency. But it was progress only to a point: House construction never became much more automated, and to this day it has consistently resisted many attempts to move it from a protoindustrial stage into fully industrialized factory assembly. The balloon frame was an innovation that has been surprisingly resistant to subsequent change.
The shift to the balloon frame happened in the Midwest, where in the mid-nineteenth century there was an incredible demand for new houses. The American settler starting a farm or a business near the Mississippi was inhabiting an alien landscape populated by many peoples. French, Spanish, and other European and Amerindian languages were part of a multilingual society that would eventually establish a distinctly Midwestern culture.
In this world, so new in so many ways, one of the first enterprises that settlers got under way in a newly populated area was a sawmill. Chances were that if a settler’s house was near a river, it would be built of sawn plank. So the image of the log cabin in the wilderness is only partly true. A traveler in Indiana in the early 1830s wrote: “Near the centre of the prairie, upon a charming little lake, was the county seat, Laporte. … The court-house—so called—was a long story-and-a-half structure, with a battened roof and sides of slabs, showing that there was a sawmill in the vicinity. … The half score of dwelling-houses near the court-house were of the same material and knocked together in the same manner. It had, it seemed, reached the point in Northern Indiana where boards were cheaper than logs.”
The frontier was also a place of business. Often American settlers were moving into areas surrounding established Spanish and French towns, such as St. Louis and Vincennes, that already had businesses and building traditions. Sometimes the founding of a town was a speculative enterprise involving many entrepreneurs. Capt. Basil Hall, an officer of the Royal Navy traveling through America in 1828, described a place where numerous people were assembling structures while waiting for land to be auctioned. Whatever they built—bakery, store, hotel, law office, or house—it was ready to be moved wherever and whenever the land title became certain. “In consequence of this understanding,” Hall explained, “many of the houses were built on trucks—a sort of low, strong wheels, such as cannon are supported by—for the avowed purpose of being hurled [i.e., driven] away when the land should be sold. At least sixty frames of houses were pointed out to me, lying in piles on the ground, and got up by the carpenters on speculation, ready to answer the call of future purchasers.”
The early nineteenth century was a time of mushroom growth. The instantaneous founding of a town was occurring again and again. The sudden appearance of the frontier town could not but encourage vernacular architectural and building technique. Hall’s account describes a raw commercial culture open to new ideas.
The historical tradition has it that the balloon frame originated with a sudden, dramatic invention, but the historical tradition appears to be wrong. Most innovative construction methods grow out of the cumulative effort of many builders, and there are times when innovations combine to the point where a completely new way of building overturns the old way of doing things. That seems to have been the case with the balloon frame. However, the traditional story of its invention still has many advocates, and it deserves to be told, if only because it is an important founding myth of the city of Chicago.
The tale begins in 1833, when Chicago was just a year old and a carpenter named Augustine Deodat Taylor arrived from Connecticut. Taylor was the epitome of Yankee ingenuity: He was asked to build large numbers of houses in the vast, treeless prairie, and he responded by inventing the balloon frame.
Several historians have identified St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Chicago as the original balloon frame. It was built by either Taylor or perhaps George Washington Snow, a local merchant who traded in lumber. The church was the first or second place of worship built in the city and was moved a number of times before it was eventually torn down. There are also claims that Snow built a balloon-frame warehouse that preceded the church in 1832.
Partly because the church was located near the mouth of the Chicago River, no archeological evidence for it exists or is likely to surface. In fact no drawings and no later deed descriptions of any building are known to support the story of the invention of the balloon frame in Chicago, but there are some suggestive and tantalizing hints. A Caroline Clarke, moving west in 1835, wrote in a letter to her sister: “The buildings now are mostly small, and look as though they have been put up as quickly as possible, many of them are what they call here Balloon houses, that is built of boards entirely—not a stick of timber in them except the sills.” The travel writer Charles Latrobe reported in 1833: “The interior of the village [of Chicago] was one chaos of mud, rubbish, and confusion. Frame and clapboard houses were springing up daily under the active axes and hammers of the speculators, and piles of lumber announced the preparation for yet other édifices of an equally light character.”
These writings suggest that the balloon frame may even have already been commonplace by the 1830s. Latrobe wrote similar descriptions of houses near Independence and Little Rock. Possibly different aspects were developed at various times and places, and there was one first building to use two-story studs, one first building to dispense with mortise-andtenon joints, a first of “scantling and siding,” a first using standardized lumber, and so on. St. Mary’s probably had heavy timber sills, and since it was a one-story building supposedly introducing a two-story construction system, it was likely just one of many innovative steps.
No record indicates that Taylor or Snow ever made a claim to the invention or built any other balloon-frame buildings. The complete absence of any proprietary claim, in an era of hotly contested patents and inventions, suggests that no individual was responsible for the technology.
For a balloon frame to work, the lumber used in it must be largely uniform in dimension and behavior. In 1833 processed wood could still be very variable, and as Charles Cleaver, one of the original settlers in Chicago, wrote, “In its green state … in drying it will shrink, warp and twist in every way, drawing out the nails, and, after a summer has passed, the siding will gape open, letting the wind through every joint. Such was the stuff used for building in 1833 and 1834.” Lumber was essentially a new and experimental product for house structures. Inexperience in selecting, seasoning, and storing it, and in allowing for expansion and contraction when building with it, made early balloon-frame houses very risky to attempt.
It is unlikely that carpenters, who were in great demand in early Chicago, would have been disposed to undertake the time-consuming experimentation that a major new development in construction technique would have required. Observers noted that St. Mary’s Church was built quickly, and this suggests that it was not a prototype but an example of a method of construction that had already been used. More than likely, Taylor had seen balloon-frame buildings in St. Louis the year before his arrival in Chicago.
I believe that the balloon frame originated as an innovative hybrid formed amid the cultural fusion of various types of vernacular construction. The philosopher and journalist Margaret Fuller wrote about Illinois in 1843: “There is that mixture of culture and rudeness in the aspect of things as gives a feeling of freedom, not of confusion. … The young ladies were musicians, and spoke French fluently, having been educated in a convent. Here in the prairie, they had learned to take care of the milk-room, and kill the rattlesnakes that assailed their poultry yard. Beneath the shade of heavy curtains you looked out from the high and large windows to see Norwegian peasants at work in their national dress.” A decade earlier another writer had described a Midwestern dance party: “It was such a complete medley of all ranks, ages, professions, trades, and occupations, brought together from all parts of the world, and now for the first time brought together, that it was amazing to witness the decorum with which they commingled on this festive occasion.”
In this exciting and varied context, the balloon frame emerged gradually, a popular hybrid of many ways of building. An investigation of the origin of its name leads to a much earlier use of the term, decades before Chicago was founded. The usual conjecture about the name “balloon” turns out to be wrong. It was not a scornful label made up to suggest insubstantiality.
A deed written in Missouri French and in a reasonably clear hand in 1804 specifies “a dwelling place located on [the riverbank] and three miles from this village on which there is a halfenclosed field, a balloon house and a natural spring.” The official phrasing in the document implies that maison en Boullin defined a particular building technique that was in common use by the French along the Mississippi in the first years of the nineteenth century.
The village in question is Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, a vibrant, historic Mississippi River town. There, many buildings built by the French still stand, and some of them are interesting precursors to the balloon frame. Typically, the French constructed houses with palisade walls—vertical wooden posts placed side by side at 16 inches center to center, with a continuous plate nailed across the top. Apparently they built the walls flat and then tilted them up into trenches in the ground. Eventually this palisade construction was modified so that the posts were nailed onto timber sills resting on foundations. At this point the method is close to the basic balloon frame; substitute small-dimension lumber for the posts and it is closer still. Assuming that French and Americans learned from each other, this was one stage in the gradual rise of a hybrid form of construction from the vernacular building techniques of different cultures.
Today the great majority of us live in lightwood frame houses. The way we build and the houses that result have a subtle, pervasive influence on the American way of life. Most of us share common sensory memories of construction: the abrupt whine of the Skil saw, the pine smell of sawdust, the overlapping staccato of framing hammers. Many of us have paused to watch Bob Vila on television and been reminded of a summer job or a weekend renovation. As North Americans we have our own way of making houses. This is part of our culture.
European immigrants to this country regard our wooden houses as ephemera; for them residences should bear heavily and permanently on the ground. Stone and brick are their materials of choice. Recently, Japanese builders reconstructing Kobe have been adopting our ways, but our techniques of wood framing—its procedures, assumptions, and conventions—need to be translated. How does a nail work anyway? The cultural differences are substantial. Building remains one of our basic cultural activities, and balloon-frame construction is uniquely North American—a brilliant product of a multicultural society.