Tips and Articles

The History of Housing

Housing has changed considerably since the early days of tipis and longhouses. Back then, housing was simple and practical: a place to escape the weather, sleep and prepare for another long day. Extravagances like those we have come to take for granted were unheard of - in fact a Native American family living in a tipi made from pine trees and bison hides would look upon our extravagant homes in amazement, wondering how we could ever find use for all those rooms. Those homes, assembled in just one hour, disappeared with the buffaloes and were replaced over the years by a variety of housing types from simple log cabins to grandiose stucco palaces.

North American housing has been heavily influenced over the years by colonizers who brought their preferences and construction techniques with them from countries like England, France and Spain. These European forms evolved into the heavy timber-framed houses of New England, the Dutch gabled houses of New Amsterdam, and the courtyard adobes of the Southwest. During the last half of the nineteenth century, immigrants from Europe introduced German, Irish, Polish and Swedish house and farmstead types, bringing more layers of ethnic diversity to American rural and urban housing.

Duplexes and row houses made from brick and adorned simply rose to prominence in the early 19th century. Later, as industrialization took hold, employers (including mills, mining and logging operations) built dormitories for their young workers and some provided housing for families. The style of housing was determined by the employer and varied from place to place.

Tenement housing appeared in the mid-19th century. This form of housing, intended to be subdivided and sublet, quickly grew into densely inhabited apartment buildings with four or more families per floor. Rooms had few if any windows and tenants shared sinks and bathrooms.

Apartment housing improved in the second half of 19th century; however, it continued to be reserved primarily for renters and was a distant second to home ownership. Some people were able to build and buy inexpensive houses or mail order cottages, while others were provided with ownership opportunities by their employer. Home ownership grew substantially in the 1920s when bankers, builders and realtors worked with the government to promote home building and ownership.

Financial support programs introduced during and after the Great Depression and World War II also helped to increase the number of Americans able to own their own home. Cars became more prevalent and the number of people moving to the suburbs increased. Federal funded housing - known as public housing - also became available during this time.

Over the years, housing has changed much in style, architecture and availability. While a lot of the world continues to live in hand-made houses build from grass and mud, the majority of North Americans live in comparatively lush homes or apartments constructed from wood, brick, stucco or concrete. The options available for home owners today are mind-boggling - providing comforts and luxuries the early settlers could only dream about.