Today there is a growing movement to downscale the size of homes. For some of us, when we see folks trying to live in 300 square feet, we wonder how and why. But our ancestors had much larger families in not much more space. Let’s look in detail at the homes of our ancestors.
Start with Clearing Land
The best place to start is at the beginning. When our ancestors arrived where they wanted to live, they had to build a shelter. There were no catalogs to buy pre-fab homes, no real estate agents to show them the homes available for sale and no lumber yards with lumber already milled. They had to clear space for the home, both the trees and the brush, and that was without gas-powered gear. The limited availability of lumber mills is the reason most early homes in the panhandle were log homes. They were notched and lifted by hand and placed one on top of the other until the home was up. This was accomplished by the extended family and the community who often moved as a group from other areas of the South.
Florida Territorial Basic Tiny House
In the earliest period of Florida territorial settlement, these homes were not large. They were often two rooms, called pens, on either side of a long, wide hallway that opened at both ends onto a wide porch that surrounded the two rooms or was at least on the front and back of the house. This porch would essentially be part of the house. The roof extended over it, keeping the summer afternoon sun off the porch. And if the family wanted to feel some relief from the heat of summer, they would orient the hallway so that the prevailing winds would flow through and help cool the house. The roof was pitched for the same reason. Hot air rises and the space just below the roof could be used as a loft for storage or children if a second-floor loft and ladder were built for access over the bottom floor of one of the pens. This was the traditional dog-trot home and the most common homestead built in the wilds of the Florida panhandle.
The second pen was the living room. This was where guests were entertained. The kitchen would either be at the back of the parlor/living room, on the side, or it would be a separate small building somewhere near the house. This separate structure had two advantages: it kept the house cooler in the summer and it moved a source of fire hazard away from the house. These kitchens had large fireplaces to accommodate cooking, with swivel arms to hold cast iron pots and spits for meat. Fires could and did escape the confines of fireplaces and inside the house that meant the family’s shelter went up in flames. However even if the kitchen fireplace was away from the main building, the house usually had at least one fireplace for heat and sometimes both rooms had a fireplace. I’ve written before about the hardy soul who had to get up at some time during the night and stoke the fire to keep it burning.
Unfortunately, the fireplace wasn’t the only source of a fire. The house in the early 19th century was lit by candles. Early on they were either made from tallow (beef fat) that was rendered on the homestead, or they were purchased. If purchased, they were prized and used judiciously. Our ancestors didn’t lounge in the house during the day. There was planting, weeding and harvesting to be done; wood to be cut and cured for winter; repairs; feeding and harvesting of animals; making cloth, clothes and possibly thread; carding cotton and wool for spinning and weaving; quilting; cooking, canning and preserving; and any number of other projects to keep the family sheltered, fed and clothed. When dark came, they went to bed and rose the next day at the crack of dawn. Aladdin Lamps came along just a few decades before electricity but I can just imagine the joy at being able to light the house come dark, maybe read the Bible or play a game or play the piano if the family had one.
These homes were simple shelters and met basic needs. In time, if the family did well, they would add to the house with a couple more rooms. These were the homes of our rural ancestors in the Panhandle until the end of World War II. While our homes today have morphed into entertainment and nesting areas, our ancestors kept it simple. The house was the family’s shelter from bad weather and a place to eat and sleep.
Now, dog-trot log cabins weren’t the only choice our ancestors had for their tiny houses. They could also go with a shotgun cabin. Shotguns took out the wide hallway down the center of the house and just strung the two rooms back to front. While the dogtrot gave a good place for the dogs (and people) to get out of the sun and still feel a breeze, the shotgun allowed you to shoot through the front door and the shot would exit the back door, though I’m not sure that came in handy very often. A variation of these two combined together was the one-room house with a loft and no back door. The family cooked, ate, slept and entertained in just one room. The loft was for all the kids, the downstairs for the adults. Privacy was obviously tricky.
I will assume that everyone knows that what we now use bathrooms to accomplish inside our homes, was generally all outside in the early 19th century. The outhouse was set a good distance from the house, so nighttime visits could be an awakening process. Baths might be done in a local stream or in a large washtub. My Mom remembers washing after working in the fields by jumping into the river and using the leaves of a plant she says would make a bit of lather. It was possibly soapwort though she doesn’t remember what Grandmama called it. I remember taking a bath in a large washtub (at least it was inside the house) with warm water poured out of a jug to rinse off. The water was pumped with a hand-pump in the kitchen. That wasn’t in Florida but Mississippi on a visit in the late 1950s. My grandparents had inside plumbing by the time I came along. I also remember outhouses, though not fondly. While visiting family friends in Jacksonville in 1955, I was bitten by a scorpion while in one and that really put me off visiting another one. Not long afterward, we were going to my grandparents and my Dad was teasing me by telling me I was going to have to use their outhouse. After pondering that for a few minutes, I responded, “You will just have to make other arrangements for me!” He nearly ran off the road laughing.
I’m going to be honest. I love dog-trot homes with wide porches. When I was looking for my home, my friends would ask me what I was looking for and I usually started out with, “needs a good sized porch”. The rest was somewhat negotiable. I love drawing floor plans and dog-trot homes have shown up in my doodles a lot over the years. I have been in a few and visited several that belonged to my ancestors. They have a special effect on me. These houses just feel like home to me. I’m not sure if I’m channeling my ancestors or there is something to reincarnation. But I can sit down in a rocking chair on a porch under the roof of a dog-trot home and sit quietly and contemplate for as long as others will leave me alone.
These houses were focused on their primary purpose. They were easy to construct (relatively speaking) and used resources as judiciously as was possible at the time. When the family could afford it and the family needed it, it was more often added to rather than torn down and a bigger house built. That habit of replacing rather than growing the house came with urban living and more money availability, but at a high cost to long-term resources. Now with costs rising ever higher, resources more scarce and mortgages difficult to obtain, the tiny house is returning. I don’t know about you, but I could see me living in a tiny house. One room for me to cook, eat and sleep; one room for my books, office, and cat; a pantry off the kitchen and a bathroom off the office. Maybe not 300 square feet but 450 or 500. Nice wide hallway but with doors at each end with screens for air flow and a porch on the front and back. Screen in the porch on the back, put solar panels on the roof, and put in fireplace inserts in the two fireplaces and I’m not sure I wouldn’t be in dog-trot heaven.
Until next time.
- Classic Cracker: Florida’s Wood-Frame Architecture, by Ronald W. Haase, Pineapple Press, 1992.
- Florida Memory; Florida Log Cabins
- Tallow Fat Candlemaking; YouTube
- How to Render Tallow; Mommypotamus