House Clues

one house, five families, 200 years of history

Learning from Style

How do you figure out when a house was built? Most housing forms and styles were popular in a particular place and time. In simplest terms, if you know the construction date for a house, you often have a rough date for similar houses nearby.

When researchers aren't so lucky, they rely on a range of stylistic characteristics and construction dates for houses in a region. Construction techniques can also help to date a house.

Knowlton House, Ipswich, built about 1675

Knowlton House, Ipswich, built about 1675

The rear section, or ell, of the house is part of an older dwelling. Abraham Choate incorporated it into the house he built in the 1760s. Look for the two clues to the age of the ell: the overhanging second story and carved brackets on the corner posts. Choate covered these details with clapboards. Houses with these features were built in Ipswich between about 1670 and 1725.

The newer part of the house shows the balanced front and floorplan typical of the Georgian architectural style, which was popular in Ipswich from about 1725 to 1790. The Baker House is so similar in many details that it was probably built by the same carpenter.

John N. Baker House, Ipswich, built about 1761

John N. Baker House, Ipswich, built about 1761

In the older section of the house, bricks and a mixture of clay and animal hair placed between the inner and outer walls provided insulation, called nogging.

The heavy timbers in the frame of this house were joined with mortise and tenon joints. A tongue [tenon] cut on the end of one timber was fitted into a slot [mortise] cut in the other.