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What Early American Homes of the First Colonial Settlers Were Like

Ancient art and architecture are not only for historians but for people like us who’ve always been interested in periodic art and crafts.

The home designs of the first American settlers were built from rough-hewn logs felled in their localities.

The home designs of the first American settlers were built from rough-hewn logs felled in their localities.

Simple, Functional Dwellings

The early American homes of the first Colonial settlers were not much more than makeshift structures. On setting foot in America around the mid-1600s, the major concern of the first American settlers was to have a roof over their heads and a place to keep themselves safe and warm. They didn’t require modish homes, nor did they give any thought to planning the interiors of their homes in any tasteful manner.

According to historical records, the very first settlers from England that berthed on American shores built residential structures that looked more like crudely built huts or wigwams. They were made out of mud, clay, wood bark, and tree branches, and roofing materials were thatch.

Though these first American dwellings can hardly be described as decorative period arts, yet it is good to make mention of the fact that they should be considered as art styles; something fashioned to serve a very vital necessity in life.

But some schools of thought claim that it is doubtful that these first wood structures were adopted by the English settlers and are rather of the opinion that early Swede settlers who came from a country of compact log homes and settled in Delaware in 1638 might be responsible for introducing home construction methods.

The building methods applied were placing cut-down rough-hewn tree logs, one on top of another up to a little above headroom height. This will form the first exterior wall.

To create a second wall, the logs are interlocking at the ends to form the first corners and the same applies to the third and fourth external walls. That’s how they created the four outer walls of their square or rectangular box homes.

To make the structure weather-tight and sealed as much as possible to keep small creatures out, cracks and spaces were filled and hand-compacted with mud or clay, depending on what was available in their immediate environs.

Early American Home Styles

These first-generation homes were small one-story structures basically made up of one room and consisting of open space with four walls and roof covers that kept them protected from the elements.

The open-plan interior served multi-purpose functions; living, dining, kitchen, and sleeping, and a single fireplace served two purposes, as a heater to warm the home in the cold winter months, and a stove to cook family meals. Each home had crudely formed outlets for smoke generated from heating and cooking.

The homes of the first American settlers were called log cabins because they were almost completely built from logs. Building supplies were materials gathered around where they chose to erect their homes and were basically stones, rocks, tree branches, and majorly felled timber. The logs were laid horizontally and interlocked at the ends with notches to form a square or rectangular box-shaped home. They possessed only one door opening.

With time, when the Colonial settlers felt a degree of security with regard to the surrounding dangers of wild animals and the uncertainties of weather, they started to develop an interest in expanding their homes and devoting more determined efforts to providing some form of comfort in their new-found country.

By 1675 or thereabouts, structure types advanced to two-room homes and were constructed with central fireplaces that served the two rooms. They had two openings, with each opening facing one room. Chimneys were central, but with better-defined apertures.

Entrance doors were positioned centrally on the longer exterior wall of the structure while window openings were created on the narrower sides of the building. Soon, more homes added upper rooms, much like attics, that were accessible through very steep stairs that lead from a tiny hallway at the entrance of the cabin. Three-quarters of a century later, many more complex home designs were introduced.

Building Materials Used for the Early American Homes

In the early American Period of the 17th century, practically all buildings and the bare furniture required in both Virginia and New England were constructed with locally sourced wood. However, around the 1680s, other building materials were found and incorporated into their structural forms.

Naturally available materials like oyster shells for instance, though not available in abundance in many regions, were used for making lime which was used as a form of plaster. Stone or rock fragments were also used as building materials but without the use of mortar. But the stone and rock materials had their disadvantages, including the tendency to cause excessive dampness within the interior of the building.

With the availability of plaster, the first settlers used it only on the inside portion of the three perimeter walls to seal all cracks and give them smoother-looking walls. The fourth wall, which was left un-plastered, became a characteristic feature wall of the interior. For those who had an internal dividing wall, rough wood planking was used.

Roof coverings were thatch and were from dry vegetation like hay, straw, water reed, and rushes, depending again, on what they find in the regions they reside in. Thatching is done by layering the sun-dried vegetation in such a way that it sheds water away from the inner roofing material. Once the bulk of the vegetation stays dry and is densely packed, it will also serve insulating functions.

Home Styles of the First American Settlers Became More Complex by 1750

By the mid-eighteenth century, the homes of the pioneers developed into more complex structures of four-room homes. The structures had a central corridor or hallway that ran the full depth of the building and a single wooden staircase that led upstairs from the hallway to the rooms above. An attempt was made to fashion out a central fireplace and chimney, but the idea later proved clumsy and impractical.

Eventually, they found that a two-chimney feature worked out much better and was much more effective for the new style four-room buildings, with each chimney serving two rooms.

Though all the early Colonial homes were built with wood and their internal spaces were divided with roughly cut wood planks (dividing walls), it wasn’t until the 18th century that walls made of rectangular panels were introduced and became the popular choice for building construction.

By the late 1700s, the only interior décor features introduced were trims and mouldings fashioned after classical architectural forms. These can be regarded as the first forms of interior enhancements. Then came an interest in having beautiful surroundings after the 'awakening' which, incidentally, was an accidental happenstance.

The earliest productions showing some semblance of style were crafted with good proportions, and gradually, charming details were introduced, and a trend to make the home and its surrounds pleasant and comfortable soon developed.

New movements in European art almost always had their origin in a conscious effort to make luxury handmade products for royalty and the rich patrons of decorative arts because a visual appeal was supreme and was just as important as comfort and functionality.

And with the advent of industrialisation, art, design forms, and style were massively copied and eventually cheapened. This was a good thing because they became affordable for the middle class who in turn, eventually influenced peasant production.

Further reading:

Early American Pottery (18th to 19th Century Ceramic Ware)

Early American Furniture (17th Century Colonial Era)

© 2011 artsofthetimes


artsofthetimes (author) on November 16, 2011:

Thank you so much SanneL. Sorry, i have been away for a while working on some projects.

Thanks for visiting. I'm glad you found this period of American history interesting. I love to read about the past a lot and have always loved history of arts and cultures.

I appreciate your positive ratings.


SanneL from Sweden on November 06, 2011:

You have written another informative and very interesting hub!

It was fun to know that my countrymen was the ones that might be responsible for bringing the log homes into the United States.

Hmm. . .oyster shells as plastering!? interesting!

Those early structures may not be considered very decorative, but as you wrote- art is life- which is so true.

Thank you for sharing this!

Voted up and interesting.