GUEST CURATOR: Nicholas Sears
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD, A plantation in the bounds of Middletown.”
This notice in the Supplement to the New-York Journal advertised a large plot of land that belonged to Obadiah Bowne.
His wife, the executrix for his estate, tried to appeal to certain types of buyers, aiming for someone with some wealth, either “a farmer or a gentleman.” What I wanted to know from this advertisement was more about the type of house offered for sale. From the description of the house it seems that Anna Bowne described a Georgian style home. She wrote that the house was two floors with three rooms on a floor, had two fireplaces on each of the first and second floors, and the first floor was “handsomely finished.” According Historic New England’s Architectural Style Guide, Georgian style houses were popular in the colonies from 1700 to 1780. The article also states that the upper classes in the colonies displayed their adoption of “European taste and station by maintaining codes of dress, speech, and behavior. This status was also aptly displayed by the orderly symmetry of Georgian architecture.”
The style of the house in the advertisement suggests that interest in a higher standard of living was rising in colonial America. Colonists wanted to live more refined lives.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
The trading networks that connected faraway places around the Atlantic world facilitated more than just an exchange of goods. Ideas and cultural practices traveled with people and their possessions. As Nicholas notes, colonists like those who lived in houses like the one offered for sale in today’s advertisement would have looked to Europe for cues about how to dress, which household wares to purchase, and how to comport themselves. They may have lived in a colonial outpost, but many were determined to demonstrate that did not mean they were backwater relations who lacked the taste and gentility of their cousins in England. Through their participation in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century, colonists outfitted their homes with the vast assortments of European goods listed in so many advertisements regularly featured by the Adverts 250 Project.
In addition to the things that filled these homes, the architecture of the homes themselves also testified to the flow of ideas across the Atlantic. Georgian architecture in the American colonies had its roots in the Italian Renaissance, especially the work of Andrea Palladio. In 1570, Palladio published The Four Books of Architecture, which “emphasized classicism, order, and symmetry regardless of function.” In turn, Palladio influenced English architects, including Christopher Wren, and, eventually, his ideas started appearing in the colonies around 1700. Imported architectural pattern books aided colonists in designing homes during the Georgian period.
Historic New England provides a list of several characteristics of Georgian homes. The exterior features include:
- Symmetry, centered façade entry with windows aligned horizontally and vertically
- One or two-story box, two rooms deep
- Raised foundation
- Paneled front doors, capped with a decorative crown (entablature); often supported by decorative pilasters; and with a rectangular transom above
- Double-hung sash window with small lights (nine or twelve panes) separated by thick wooden muntins
- Center chimneys are found in examples before 1750; later examples have paired chimneys
- Wood-frame with shingle or clapboard walls
Interior features include:
- Central hall plan
- High ceilings (10-11 feet) smoothly plastered, painted and decorated with molded or carved ornament (high style)
- Elaborate mantelpieces, paneling, stairways and arched openings copied from pattern books (high-style)
While it is impossible to know if the house from Anna Bowne’s advertisement possessed all of these features, it appears that several were present. The “large entry” could indicate a central hall plan. That “the whole house is shingled with cedar” aligns with “shingle or clapboard walls” from Historic New England’s list. The “good stone cellar under the whole house” indicates a raised foundation. Bowne noted that “the lower story is handsomely finished,” which also corresponds with Georgian style. She did not state how elaborately the lower floor had been finished, but the fact that the second floor had not received similar treatment suggests that the house had been completed to a middling, rather than high, style. Even as colonists used consumer goods and architecture to assert their status and identity, they also had to operate within their budgets.