Monthly Archives: December 2013

What Can House Histories Really Tell Us?

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “There’s nothing historic about my house,” I would have…well, a lot of nickels. In the last three years or so that I’ve been digging into the history of houses, I have yet to come across one that lacks some kind of significance. Rarely has anyone famous resided in these houses; quite the contrary, most are ordinary individuals, but does that make them any less significant? Not at all.

So what exactly can a house really tell you, other than names and dates?

A house can tell you about the residents in particular, or people and society in general. They offer a glimpse of what a community valued, such as political leanings, religious culture, social norms, etc. In some instances you can see how these values evolved from one generation to the next. For instance, many older homes made room for extended family to live, whereas this idea shifted particularly after World War II when housing was geared toward the nuclear family.

This house (also pictured above c. 1920) has seen its fair share of changes in its 130 years of life.

This house (also pictured above c. 1920) has seen its fair share of changes in its 130 years of life.

The house itself makes a statement about the era it was built and the values held by its creators. The heritage of the first homeowners, their social status, and the way they made their living all affect the style and construction directly. The function of rooms evolved and reflected the changing role of spaces, too. Just in the last 125 years, parlors gave way to living rooms, bathrooms have been brought indoors, and kitchens have undergone numerous changes in how they were laid out. (Stay tuned for future blog posts on these!)

To some degree they can also provide a view of our local reactions to events and phenomenon of national importance. Many houses’ stories begin with the context of a shift in demographics, maybe to an urban or suburban setting, or people flying from one popular neighborhood to the next up-and-coming setting. When housing was in short supply, they tell a story about how we dealt with the problem by subdividing larger houses into apartments or building inexpensive homes to meet the demand for a growing working-class population.

Beyond that, you never know what kind of story your house is going to tell you that adds to the human element. There are always intriguing tales of triumph. Quirky eccentricities. Family struggles. Heartwarming stories as well as sorrowful ones. Unsolved mysteries. The variety of stories we have found will never cease to amaze and amuse me.

The most rewarding moment in what we do is when we bring your house’s history to life.  There’s so much that we can learn from the individual experiences of those who lived within your walls before you.  Revealing that significance to the homeowner is about as exciting for us as the homeowner themselves.  Every house really does have a story, just imagine what your house might have to reveal to you!

Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC


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The Importance of Storytelling

I think one could easily make an argument that storytelling is an essential part of the human experience – after all, communication is one of those little things that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, right? I’ve always imagined that the first story ever told was some kind of Big Fish story. (Or maybe Big Mammoth?) At any rate, my point is that swapping stories is linked directly to our historical accounts. They’re really the same thing, aren’t they? Generally they both have something to be learned – a moral to the story, a positive or negative experience with a takeaway. They’re teaching tools, like the myths of Ancient Greece that tell of the origins of why things are the way they are. We too, today, have origins to speak of that can give perspective.

This week I read an article in The Atlantic discussing the importance of telling stories to your children, and I have to agree that the benefits are astounding. We all know that reading to your children is paramount to building vocabulary and giving them a strong foundation to continue reading books throughout their lives. But what happens when you share about your own experiences through reminiscing, you are really teaching some extraordinary things. Not the least of these is how to critically think and share their own experiences in detail. There’s something else that connects:

“In the preteen years, children whose families collaboratively discuss everyday events and family history more often have higher self-esteem and stronger self-concepts. And adolescents with a stronger knowledge of family history have more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Family storytelling can help a child grow into a teen who feels connected to the important people in her life.”

My niece is learning in pre-school about family, and her mother – my sister – is constantly reinforcing the concept, asking about who she thinks her family is. And she’ll continue to learn about us and who we are as a family, as we continue to show her pictures and link them with stories. I can already sense that on the current trajectory she will have a strong understanding about where she came from.

I think this concept applies just as well to adults as it does to children and adolescences. Again, I was fortunate to have been born into a family of storytellers. My grandparents were always reminding us all about how things used to be back in their day, about how our ancestors came here, what hardships they faced, how they managed when facing adversity, and finding happiness among the simple things. The baton has been handed to my parents and their generation now, too, picking up the story where their parents have left off. Fortunately we’ve become more active in preserving their memories. Recently a relative began a family group on Facebook, the sole purpose of which was to recount our past and give new life to our ancestors that came here before us and shaped us into the people we are here and now. I’m amazed at how quickly even distant relatives have forged a bond with each other and found common ground, sharing photographs and old stories triggered by them. What we’ve found – and what you probably will as well – is that many of these tales seem like the stuff of fiction. All the drama. The comedy. Sometimes even mystery lingers in the stories of your experiences. And, just like the tales we read as children, there’s usually something we can learn from it all.

We at Past to Present take great pride in finding the story in every house and giving it a voice. It’s sometimes quaint, sometimes gritty, often a mixture of things. Your families have similar flavors to them. Our stories, as you see, are worth telling. And certainly worth preserving.

Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC


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Mail Order Homes

If you know me at all, you know that I am a fan of bungalows. They are charming with their Craftsman-style details – regardless of how simple or complex the design — and they’re just the right size for my needs. My neighborhood consists mostly of these small- to medium-sized bungalows lining the streets, and I know fully well that they were built around the same time to serve the same purpose within this community that was blossoming during the 1920s and meeting the needs of that growing population. It’s amazing to me how they did this all in such a short amount of time. Luckily, many of these homeowners (and some investors at the time) had a little help from their friends, Sears and Roebuck.

Sears is arguably the best known of the companies that sold “kit homes” to consumers eager to own their own home. Previously, throughout the nineteenth century, house plans were circulated through publications that outlined the blueprints for construction, enabling people to build without the consultation of an architect. During the 1890s Sears began selling precut lumber and other building materials, but it wasn’t until after the turn of the century that the two ideas were combined – house blueprints and the materials to build with. Though Sears was not the first company to market this idea, it was the most trusted and recognizable by consumers, and by 1908 began to sell pre-cut kits based on popular house plans.

This was a revolutionary idea. Custom-built homes were not limited to those who could afford to hire an architect to design the plans and supervise the building process. A wide array of plans were made available to Americans of even the most modest means, using plans based on popular designs with universal appeal – bungalows, American Foursquares, Colonial Revivals, Tudor cottages, etc. These mail-order homes made it possible for anyone with even the most elementary handyman skills to build their own modern home, with their own hands, taking pride in their work every step of the way. Sears went even so far as introducing a mortgage lending program around 1918 to make this dream of homeownership come true to even more Americans.

Not only were they given the opportunity to build their homes from the ground up, they were able to pick a plan and (to a certain extent) customize it to fit their needs. Want the living room on the east side of the house rather than the west? Done. Want different siding than what was shown in the catalog? Done. Once the order was submitted a chain of events was set into motion which involved the shipping of two railcars full of materials: pre-cut lumber, nails, screws, roofing materials, everything but the kitchen sink, about 30,000 pieces in all. (Actually, plumbing and heating were usually considered “extras” and not always included in the kit.) Naturally included in the kit was an instruction manual, a 75-page leather-bound book to guide the homeowner through every step of the way.

If the idea of taking pride in your work wasn’t enough to sell you oh the idea, the economy of this option may have made you a believer. Sears estimated that their customers would save about 30% on the cost of a new home if they were to build through one of their kits versus hiring an architect or contractor. Time was another consideration: small kit homes with pre-cut lumber could be constructed with about 352 carpenter hours on average, versus 583 hours without pre-cut lumber.

Sears, of course, capitalized on extra add-ones, too. Catalogs showed interiors staged with furniture, fixtures, and décor to make the home even more comfortable, available (you guessed it!) from the Sears Catalog.

It has been estimated that Sears sold about 75,000 kit homes between 1908 and 1940. They’re more likely to be found in the Northeast and here in the Midwest, mostly due to the number of railways through these regions, and the proximity of those communities to the rail lines certainly made delivery of materials much easier.

Flipping through the catalogs, I see several designs that could easily be houses down my street. And chances are, you’ve seen one too. Knowing what I do now about mail order homes, I have a better understanding about my community and the mindset of the families that shaped and built it.

For more info on Sears homes, here’s some resources to check out:

Stevenson, Katherine Cole and Jandl, H. Ward. Houses By Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1986.

Thornton, Rosemary. The Houses That Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sears Catalog Homes. Alton, IL: Gentle Beam Publications, 2002

There are also a variety of old house plans from Sears and other kit home retailers at Antique Home Style.


Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC

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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Uncategorized


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