Background:

Book Review: Abbott Lowell Cummings’ “Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725″

Published in 1979, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 was a giant contribution to the study of vernacular architecture, and it remains a foundational reference work for scholars of colonial architecture in Massachusetts and beyond. Focusing on the “first period” of settlement, from roughly 1620-1720, Cummings’ excellent work is an encyclopedic and systematic evaluation of Massachusetts Bay’s seventeenth-century houses, especially in Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex counties in Massachusetts.  Well-written, painstakingly researched, crisply-organized, and full of excellent line drawings and photographs, Cummings work is a must-have for the preservationist’s library.

Cummings methodology was exhaustive—the culmination of three decades of research and personal observation—and his approach has been characterized as “archaeological.”  His primary research method was an intensive visual evaluation of the seventeenth-century houses still extant and observable during his study.  Yet he did not base his conclusions solely on first-hand observations.  Massachusetts is home to the largest number of surviving early period houses—more than 150 according to Cummings—which form the basis of his study.  Yet he was not satisfied with arriving at his conclusions using only this material culture.  Cummings used photographs and descriptions of houses no longer extant, mining primary sources such as room-by-room inventories, timber grants, and building permits to assemble an impressive documentary record, allowing him to make significant contributions to our understanding of seventeenth-century construction and society in Massachusetts.

The Framed Houses is organized into ten chapters, which might be roughly divided into three sections: English precedent and early American house forms; the builders how they timber framed the shell of a house; and the finish work of completing a house (including chimney, exteriors finishes, and interior finishes).  The first few chapters establish a continuity of English building traditions in the New World, tracing the origins of “hall and parlor” type houses in England and demonstrating their manifestation in Massachusetts Bay.  Cummings makes interesting contrasts, as well, observing for example that Americans did not build separate “service rooms,” like the butteries or dairies common in England, but instead they incorporated service rooms into the existing rooms of the main house or by building an addition or “lean-to”—which quickly evolved into the well-known Saltbox form.   Cummings explains the different uses of the “hall,” “parlor,” and “chamber” rooms, and describes the early addition of rooms called “kitchens,” which also were incorporated into Saltbox “lean-to.”

The next three chapters—“The Builders and Their Resources,” “Assembly and Rearing of the House Frame,” and “English Regional Variations and Evolutionary Trends”—are probably the most encyclopedic and useful from a reference standpoint, but they also represent the most difficult portions of the book to read recreationally. The first chapter is an interesting discussion of the importance of carpenters, joiners, and other skilled tradesmen, whose training was required to properly erect timber framed structures. Cummings demonstrates the intricacies and complexities of carpenters’ work and how their English provincial origins resulted in subtle differences in construction.  He explains the different tools of the trades, the many kinds of wood used in construction, the correct terminology of framing members, the house raising process, and the types of joints and their assembly methods.  He devotes one lengthy chapter to variants in construction methods and tries to trace these differences to practices common in specific regions in England.

The following three chapters—“The Chimney,” “Exterior Finish,” and “Interior Finish”—explain how houses were completed once their frame was erected.  Cummings discusses the manufacture of bricks and the evolution of chimney features such as bake ovens, lintels, and decorative chimney crowns.  The “finishes” chapters are perhaps most interesting for those of us who are curious about the historic fabric visible in historic houses.  Cummings explains the remaining elements of house construction, such as walls, doors, windows, and staircases, and also addresses decorative elements such as hanging pendants, chamfered beams, paneling and beading, and whitewash and color paint.

Cummings concludes his work with a chapter titled, “Toward an American Architecture,” in which he basically reiterates previous arguments—pointing out that American carpenters in Massachusetts mostly brought English methods to the New World.  However, as his title suggests, he suggests that the new climate, different resources, and unique social dynamics in New England led to a sprouting of new techniques, methods, and styles that were distinctly American. For example, the use of clapboards and shingles, the thinning of roof purlins because of the absence of thatch, the digging of cellars for cold storage, and the ells such as Saltbox lean-to’s all were evidence that architecture in America was evolving from its Anglo origins.

It should be noted that Cummings’ contributions here did not end with the main text.  His appendixes include useful tables listing dimensions of houses; timber grants; room-by-room inventories; and building permits.  Perhaps more importantly, summary abstracts of the evidence for dating all of his subject houses were published separately in Volume 51 of Publications of The Colonial Society of Massachusetts.  You can purchase The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 at Amazon.

3 Comments

  1. by House Crazy Sarah, on 03.09.13 @ 7:37 PM

     

    Excellent review! I am going to have to order this book because I find those few surviving old houses from that era so intriguing. I really appreciate that you took the time to review a book from 1979 – it seems all anyone is reading these days is recent house trend stuff or shelter mags. There is such great architectural history recorded in older books – it’s a shame that they get passed over. So thank you for bringing this book to our attention!

  2. by Bobbie, on 06.25.13 @ 6:03 AM

     

    Agreed- great review! Undoubtedly, Cummings created the best book of period architecture that I have ever found. I’m on my second copy and feel it’s a must for both old home owners and timber frame reproducers alike.

  3. by Michael, on 06.26.13 @ 1:42 PM

     

    Thanks, Sarah and Bobbie! I’m glad other people get excited about an oldie-but-goodie!

    -Michael @HHB

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI