Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780–1830 by Bernard L. Herman
Article first published online: 23 MAR 2009
© 2009 by the American Anthropological Association
Volume 32, Issue 1, pages 75–77, Spring 2009
How to Cite
HUDGINS, C. L. (2009), Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780–1830 by Bernard L. Herman. Museum Anthropology, 32: 75–77. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1379.2009.01034.x
- Issue published online: 23 MAR 2009
- Article first published online: 23 MAR 2009
Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press , 2005 . 295 pp.
By the time this review appears, Bernie Herman's analysis of urban dwellings in the era of the new American republic will have already won accolades and awards. And deservedly so. Respected as an astute observer of commonplace buildings and for previous books that explored landscapes animated by agricultural processes, Herman pursues in this remarkable book interesting questions about a different architectural type, town houses built in the new nation's eastern seaboard towns and cities. This book is based on many years of fieldwork that has taken Herman to familiar places—Philadelphia and Boston, for example—that are among the most intensively studied in American architecture. But Herman has been busy in other, less well-studied places—Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Salem and Newburyport, Massachusetts; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Norfolk and Petersburg, Virginia; and Charleston, South Carolina, as well as London, Bristol, and other European towns and cities. Town House is, in a way, a tour of places that Herman knows well, but his itinerary is as eclectic as it is expansive, taking in well-known spaces, from the bright neoclassical parlors and dining rooms of merchant elites to the dimmer, cramped, and largely unexplored quarters of the new nation's less fortunate citizens—its laborers, widows, servants, and slaves.
Through his study of townhouses and their furnishings, Herman recovers the contours of a “transatlantic merchant society,” his shorthand term for the broad social, cultural, and economic dynamics that shaped towns, cities and the dwellings its citizens built in them.
Herman's examination reaches into towns and places left out of previous architectural histories by employing methods and pursuing themes familiar to readers of his previous books. Broadly interested in what might be called design and perception, Herman explores town houses as “symbolic representations of self and community.” That is, he is concerned with how builders and their clients designed houses and how, while acting on a wide range of cultural and social intentions in their own houses, citizens experienced and interpreted those of their neighbors.
Town House is organized into eight chapters that lead successively from broad to more constrained scales. Each chapter begins with a well-drawn, illustrative vignette and derives conclusions artfully from both close study of individual buildings, presented as typical of a time and place, and from larger samples, such as surviving late 18th to early 19th century working-class neighborhoods in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. From the configuration of spaces under roofs and from the faint trails of inventories, court cases, probate records, and the contents of the trunks into which solitary travelers packed the essence of themselves, Herman captures people shaping and being shaped by their surroundings, making sense of the world in which they lived and worked, channeling their activities and those of their guests and, if their status allowed, their servants and slaves in purposeful ways. For Herman, there is no better vehicle to “understand how and why people acted in particular ways and to assess the larger cultural significance of their actions” than the spaces and furnishings that anchored everyday lives.
Everyday life was, of course, shaped by the dynamics of race, class, and gender, and Herman captures behavior patterned by wealth, by class, by profession, by vocation, by region, and by marital status—the various and complicated ways that urban citizens sought connections with and distinction from their neighbors. One of the important contributions Herman makes to the discussion of architecture and its social purposes is his exploration of wealth and what it could buy for those who had it. Houses and their furnishings served practical functions, but they played other roles, such as the presentation of the self, or family, through objects owned and displayed. Herman suggests that wealth alone did not create status, rather it purchased opportunities to acquire or sustain status. In the wider world of the transatlantic merchant culture, it was not wealth per se but the perception of how wealth was spent that mattered. Elites everywhere had the “means, knowledge, and power to advertise and perpetuate their status” (p. 37) and, Herman suggests, we gain clearer understanding of the social dynamics of wealth by understanding architecture and household furnishings as part of a larger performance that, done well, might create opportunity, or done poorly, “could lead to embarrassment and diminished social standing” (p. 56). Herman introduces an edginess to the notions of civility and gentility that have dominated most discussions about the social and cultural purposes of architecture. Competitiveness and sociability suffused merchant houses and urban topographies, and were, Herman argues, the forces that tied the Atlantic world together. Herman's contention that modest fortunes purchased fewer opportunities to rise from one level to another addresses one of the lingering questions about the role of wealth in a presumably open society in which everybody knew the rules for success.
If Town House illuminates the role of social competition in the early national city, it also addresses other broad themes—among them continuity, connection, and hierarchy—that stitch the chapters of the book together as interpretative threads. Illustrations, of which there are thankfully many, are both visual evidence and visible threads of Herman's interpretation. Readers should be grateful that this is a generously illustrated book. Particularly valuable are the floor plans, a principal source of Herman's reconstruction of the links in preferences for particular floor plans that tied English and other European towns and cities with American cousins. Floor plans are pliant evidence that Herman uses ably to demonstrate that local preferences shaped town house plans despite the pervasive influence of broader international trends. Students of vernacular architecture have chased the reasons for regional architectural expression, and for that literature Herman's discussion of the tensions between local preferences and cosmopolitan tastes (the focus of his excellent third chapter) not only illuminates the links between Europe and America but also how and why Charleston was different from Portsmouth. Herman's explanation of how American builders and their clients accommodated the tension between traditional practice and cosmopolitan aesthetics is one reason that this book should enjoy a wider readership.
Herman threads his discussion of social and racial hierarchies through several chapters. His analysis of the relationship between service spaces (the primary domain of slaves) and formal entertaining rooms (the reserve of whites) sketch for readers the role that architecture played in hierarchies that separated rich from poor, free from slave, white from black. But Herman's deft use of architectural evidence allows him to portray servants and slaves laying claim to the spaces allocated to them, enlivening them with expressions of self every bit as clear as the neoclassical ornaments preferred by their white owners. While admitting that much remains unknown, Herman raises questions that should spark additional research of rooms and buildings that are fast disappearing.
In sum, Town House is a remarkable book. Its material culture approach will make it useful to a wide range of scholars in a wide range of disciplines, from architectural historians to historic preservationists. Herman recovers neighborhoods and histories lost to urban renewal, proving that surviving early town houses along our eastern seaboard are indeed both rare and precious. Some readers will quibble, rightly, that Herman's conclusions are overly impressionistic, drawn as they are from what some will find dizzying comparisons of discontinuous samples of buildings separated in time and space, knit together by Herman's artful prose and thus hard to understand as part of an evolutionary process. We “know” that town houses in Whitby, England must be connected to its cousins in Boston, but defining the precise character of that relationship—the who and the how and when—demands another book. For the time being, the ambition and reach of this book and its fresh insights commend it not only to readers interested in the history of America's urban places but to everyone interested in architecture as an expression of self and community. Herman's discussion of widows' dowers and travelers' portmanteaus are among the most innovative in material culture scholarship in the last quarter century. His exploration of what converted the ephemeral or strange or temporary into the personal will find wide application. So too will his thoughts on the relationship between architecture and wealth, a dynamic that he encourages us to see not simply as a reflection of “how much” but for insight into the role that wealth played in gaining access to opportunity. For inviting us to reconsider the many factors that shaped the urban dwelling of both the powerful and the powerless, Herman deserves our congratulations.
Carter L. Hudgins is the Florian N. Hofer Distinguished Professor in the Department of History and American Studies at the University of Mary Washington where he specializes in early American history. With Elizabeth C. Cromley, he is the co-editor of Gender, Class and Shelter (University of Tennessee Press, 1995) and of Shaping Communities (University of Tennessee Press, 1997).