A Woman-Designed Home of the 1800s

Women Have Always Played a Role in Home Design

1847 Farmhouse Designed by Matilda W. Howard
1847 Farmhouse Designed by Matilda W. Howard. Public Domain Image From the Transactions of the New-York State Agricultural Society, Vol. VII, 1847

Pictured here is an artist's rendering of an 1847 Gothic style farmhouse designed by Matilda W. Howard of Albany, New York. The Committee on Farm Dwellings for the New York State Agricultural Society awarded Mrs. Howard $20 and published her plan in their annual report.

In Mrs. Howard's design, the kitchen opens to a passageway leading to a functional addition to the living quarters—a wash room, a dairy room, an ice house, and a wood house are grouped behind an interior hallway and exterior piazza.

The arrangement of the rooms—and the provision for a well-ventilated dairy—were designed to "combine utility and beauty, as far as practicable with the labor-saving principle," Mrs. Howard wrote.

How Women Became Designers:

Women have always played a role in home design, but their contributions are seldom recorded. However, during the 19th century a new custom swept through rural parts of the still-young United States—agricultural societies offered prizes for farmhouse designs. Turning their thoughts from pigs and pumpkins, both husband and wife sketched simple, practical plans for their houses and barns. The winning plans were displayed at county fairs and published in farm journals. Some have been reprinted in reproduction pattern catalogs and contemporary books on historic house design.

Mrs. Howard's Farmhouse Design:

In her commentary, Matilda W. Howard described her award-winning farmhouse as follows:

"The accompanying plan is designed to front south, with an elevation of thirteen feet from the sills to the roof. It should occupy somewhat elevated ground, sloping a little to the north, and should be raised on an underpinning to suit the ground. To give chambers of the size designated, the apex of the roof should be not less than twenty-two or twenty-three feet above the sills. It is highly proper to leave a space for air, between the finish of the chambers and the roof, which will prevent the rooms from becoming heated in the summer."
"The site should be selected with a view to the easy construction of drains from the sinks, bathing house, dairy, etc., directly to the piggery or barn yard."

A Furnace in the Cellar:

Mrs. Howard is, of course, a "good farmer" who knows what is necessary to not only store vegetables but also to heat a house. She continues her description of the practical Victorian-era architecture she designed:

"It is of course expected a good farmer will have good a cellar, and in some situations, the best way of warming a house is by a hot air furnace in the cellar. The size of the cellar and its particular divisions should of course depend on the wants or circumstances of the builder. In some cases it may be expedient to have it extend under the whole of the main body of the house. It may be observed, however, that it is not advisable to store large quantities of vegetables under dwellings, as the exhalations from them, especially when unsound, are known to be decidedly prejudicial to health. Hence, the barn cellar, and not that of the dwelling house, should be the repository of such vegetables as are wanted for the use of domestic animals."
"Directions in regard to warming houses by furnaces may be found in works relating to the subject, or may be obtained from persons engaged in their construction. There are various modes; but my own experience does not enable me to decide upon their relative advantages."

Beauty and Utility Combine:

Mrs. Howard concludes her description of a most practical farmhouse:

"In the construction of this plan, it has been my object to combine utility and beauty, as far as practicable with the labor-saving principle. In the arrangement of the kitchen and dairy, particularly, special regard has been had to securing the proper requisites for those important departments with the greatest practicable degree of convenience."
"In constructing a dairy, it is proper that such an excavation should be made as will leave the floor, which should be made of stone, two or three feet below the surrounding surface. The sides should be of brick or stone, and plastered; the walls high, and the windows made so as to shut out the light, and admit the air. The advantage of thorough ventilation and pure air is acknowledged by every one who has ever paid attention to the manufacture of butter, though it is a matter generally too little thought of, in the construction of the apartments for this purpose. It will be observed, that in the plan herewith submitted, an open space of two and a half feet has been provided for on both sides the dairy."
"To render the establishment as perfect as possible, the command of a good spring of water, which may be conducted through the dairy-room, is necessary; when that cannot be had, an ice-house in direct contact, (as in the accompanying plan,) and a good well of water convenient, form the best substitute."
"The expense of such a house in this vicinity might be varied from fifteen hundred to three thousand dollars; according to the style of finish, the taste and ability of the owner. The main conveniences may be retained at the lowest estimate, by omitting the ornamental front."

Country House Plans:

Homemade American farmhouses of the 1800s may have been less elaborate than the professional designs of that time period. Yet, these homes were elegant in their efficiency, and often more usable than houses created by city architects who didn't understand the needs of farm families. And who could understand a family's needs better than the wife and mother?

Historian Sally McMurry, author of Families & Farmhouses in 19th Century America, found that many home plans published in 19th century farm journals were designed by women. These women-designed houses were not the fussy, highly ornamented structures fashionable in the cities. Designing for efficiency and flexibility rather than fashion, farm wives ignored rules set down by urban architects. Women-designed houses often had these characteristics:

1. Dominant Kitchens
Kitchens were placed on the ground level, sometimes even facing the road. How crude! "educated" architects scoffed. For a farm wife, however, the kitchen was the control center for the household. This was the place for preparing and serving meals, for producing butter and cheese, for preserving fruits and vegetables, and for conducting farm business.

2. Birthing Rooms
Women-designed houses tended to include a first floor bedroom. Sometimes called the "birthing room," the downstairs bedroom was a convenience for women in childbirth and the elderly or infirm.

3. Living Space for Workers
Many women-designed houses included private quarters for workers and their families.

The workers' living space was separate from the main household.

4. Porches
A home designed by a woman was likely to include a cool porch that served double-duty. In the hot months, the porch became a summer kitchen.

5. Ventilation
Women designers believed in the importance of good ventilation. Fresh air was considered healthy, and ventilation was also important for the manufacture of butter.

Frank Lloyd Wright can have his Prairie Style houses. Philip Johnson can keep his house made of glass. The world's most livable homes have been designed not by famous men but by forgotten women. And today updating these sturdy Victorian houses has become a new design challenge.

Learn More:

  • Families & Farmhouses in 19th Century America by Sally McMurry, University of Tennessee Press, 1997
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Source: Plan of a Farm Cottage, Transactions of the New-York State Agricultural Society, Vol. VII, 1847, HathiTrust