Today, I want to live in a mail-order haunted
house. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Where do you go to buy a
house? A hundred years ago, the answer was, as
often as not, "To a mail-order catalog!" If that
sounds weird, let's back up to Chicago in 1833 --
the year Augustine Taylor put up the first
Balloon-frame means construction with nailed lumber
and studs spaced every sixteen inches. The
structure of the house you live in today is
probably kin to the Chicago balloon-frame. In 1833
we left the solid old dove-tailed timber beams of
European construction. We were a nation of
amateurs, and amateurs could throw together
The balloon-frame was wonderfully flexible.
Timber-beam houses were naturally square. Now a
great gallery of architectural possibility opened
up, and we took advantage of it. We built bay
windows, watchtowers, and gables. We created homes
with steeples, cupolas and porches. We added
Our midwestern immigrants were very capable people,
but few were architects. They needed designs more
than they needed carpenters. Of course the answer
was mail-order house plans.
The first catalogs of plans came out on the eve of
the Civil War. War and its aftermath faded in the
1870s, and the mail-order business took up in
earnest. When Sears and Roebuck put out their first
catalog in 1891, they were already latecomers.
But houses had to be built before they could be
stuffed with the wares of our new factories and
emporiums. And what houses we made! For example,
the Palliser architectural firm in Connecticut
published a set of designs in 1878. They gave floor
plans with estimated building costs. Once you had
the layout, you were supposed to know how to build
Here's a huge, 4000-square-foot, three-story house.
It'll cost $3000 to build. A two-room cottage is
only $325. Even the most modest ones are more
ornate than mine today. Later catalogs show the
general layout, but they charge a fee for the
I wish I could show you the pictures. Since I
can't, remember the Addams Family's house where
Morticia, Gomez, and Lurch lived. Remember Norman
Bates's house in the movie Psycho.
Fine, gaudy old houses like those became the stuff
of bad dreams in our brave new utilitarian world.
The balloon-frame opened up too much possibility.
All that fantasy blew our circuits. We finally put
aside our catalog-fed dreams of filigreed elegance.
But some days I hanker to live in a three-story,
16-room house with my study in a windswept turret
overlooking the sea. I want to see lightning
tearing into the iron weather-vane, down through a
copper wire into the ground below. Some days I
really want that romantic extravagance -- of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Palliser, Palliser, & Co., American
Victorian Cottage Homes. New York: Dover Pubs.
Culbertson, M., Mail-Order House and Plan
Catalogues in the United States. Art
Documentation, Spring 1992, pp. 17-20.
Culbertson, M., From Mail House to Your House.
Cite, Spring 1990, pp. 22--23.
Culbertson, M., Mail Order Mansions: Catalogue
Sources of Domestic Architecture in North Central
Texas. Legacies, Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall
1992, pp. 8-20.
Comstock, W.T., Victorian Domestic
Architectural Plans and Details. New York:
Dover Pubs. Inc., 1987.
Schoppell, R.W., et al., Turn-of-the-Century
Houses, Cottages and Villas. New York: Dover
Pubs. Inc., 1983.
Woodward, G.E., and Thompson, E.G., A
Victorian Housebuilder's Guide. Woodward's
National Architect of 1869. New York: Dover Pubs.
Barber, G.F., The Cottage Souvenir.
No. 2, Watkins Glen, NY: American Life Foundation
and Study Institute, 1982.
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Library, for suggesting the topic and
providing the wealth of supporting material.
Photo by Margaret Culbertson
A typical mail-order house in Calvert, Texas
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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