Blogs: House History

Many new amateur house historians find determining their home's historic period and style to be a challenging task. You can usually find the date your house was built by looking it up in PortlandMaps or contacting your local County Assessor's office, but figuring out what it might have looked like when it was new can be difficult!

Once you've looked through a few guides to historic periods in architecture, try looking at some of these resources to get a more detailed idea of how houses were designed and decorated in the past:

  • Mail order house plans and design catalogs [blog post].  List of websites featuring scans of late 19th and early-mid 20th century house plan catalogs.  People used these catalogs to shop for a new house -- they either bought the plans and had a builder construct them, or bought a house kit, which came with plans and all the materials (neat, right?). 
  • Floor plan books [reading list]. Reprints of house plan catalogs, simliar to the ones featured in the blog post above, which you can check out from the library!
  • Using old magazines to identify house styles [blog post].  Guide to researching house-style and architectural history information in the library's collection of old (and new!) magazines.
  • Color scheme & design books [reading list]. Books focusing on the history of paint colors and color design of the late 19th and early-mid 20th century.

  Questions? Ask the Librarian.

The Brigton, a 1962 house design from the Aladdin Co. [via Flickr user Ethan]You may have heard a rumor that your house was "bought by mail order."  What does that mean, you might wonder?  Or you might have noticed that there are twins of your house dotted around your neighborhood.  Were all those twins built by the same company? 

It might be that your house was built from a mail-order plan -- or it could be that your house was bought fom a mail-order company that supplied the plans and a complete set of building materials cut to size and ready to assemble.   Mail-order houses like these are the ancestors of modern manufactured homes, but they were built on-site by carpenters using traditional techniques, just like architect-designed houses of the same historical period. 

The websites below showcase archives of house plans from mail-order home companies. They show exterior views of each house (some in color), floor plans, and prices.  Since most mail-order house companies also sold a multitude of cabinetry, fancy trim, plumbing and lighting fixtures, and furniture, you can sometimes get an idea for popular interior design of the period as well.

I should also remind you, the library has books with old mail-order floor plans in them too!  Check out the great list below for some examples. 

Questions? Ask the Librarian!  We'd be glad to offer you some personalized help with your research project.

You may have heard of Polk's city directories, but there are other companies that published city AND rural directories. These are commercial products, so were developed to help businesses.

The earliest Portland City Directory was published by S.J. McCormick in 1863. It included information on new buildings and newcomers, on fires, city improvements, locations of fire stations and alarms. It also included the names of the men who lived in the city -- and the names of some women. (Primarily those who owned a business, had an occupation, or were unmarried, living outside of the parental home.)

Businesses paid to be listed in the Directory; some purchased highly detailed advertisements, while other smaller businesses like neighborhood general stores simply listed their name and location.

Another important value to business beyond advertising, was the list of residents in the city. If someone wanted to rent or buy services from a business, the Directory could be checked to find out if the person lived locally, and where; in later years a check of earlier directories under the name, would let the business know how long they lived in the City, what their occupation was, and whether they moved often. All information that helped a business decide whether to extend credit to a customer, to hire someone to do a job, to lease or sell to a person.

The best way to find these kind of directories in the library catalog is to search using the name of the city or the county and the word "Directories" as a subject keyword search; eg, Wasco Directories. Eugene Directories, Baker Directories.

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