Home Alteration in Industrial Philadelphia, 1865 to 1925

Amanda Casper is a PhD candidate in the History of Technology and Industrialization at the University of Delaware. In 2014-15, she was a Dissertation Writing Fellow at the Consortium. Read more about her research project and her experience as a Consortium Fellow below. My dissertation examines the intellectual, cultural, economic, political, and material history of home alteration in Philadelphia from 1865 to 1925. People had always altered their homes as needs and tastes changed over life cycles and across generations. Home alteration was a fix for people who could or would not buy new. The timelessness yet cyclical nature of alteration was summarized by an anonymous “builder,” who noted, “[men] are likely to continue to [rejuvenate their old houses] as long as a love of home exists, as long as families increase in numbers and men improve their own worldly condition or find the houses of their fathers inadequate to their own wants.” [1] This period marks the modernization of home alteration, when Americans developed attitudes about alteration that still persist. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, home alteration was transformed from a mundane aspect of everyday life, which was overlooked and rarely talked about, to a process that was discrete, commercialized, and regulated. For the first time, Americans conceived of home alteration as an activity worthy of study, investment, discussion, and eventually, regulation and professionalization. The transformation resulted in long-lasting social, economic, and legal ramifications for modern America including new regulations, building techniques, and conceptions about the process of building.  Alteration plan. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. During a time of dramatic material and technological change, Americans living in old homes struggled to adopt new standards of living. The building innovations that emerged during this period helped people modify obsolete utilities, “old fashioned” interiors, and inadequate spaces in a new way. As Philadelphians, like so many people around the country, surveyed the wealth of options, they ultimately made a choice that balanced their ambitions and desires with financial means. The choices reflect the complicated ways that Americans selectively adopted new modes of living, strategically used new materials and building methods, cautiously accepted technology, and opportunistically employed unskilled labor. In total, people’s upgrades, additions, and installations demonstrate the complicated negotiations that they took with new innovations, materials, technologies, and craft methods. Ironically, the modernization of home alteration at the same time affirmed for many American prevailing ideologies in the face of drastic social, economic, and political change. Projects that people did behind closed doors became the topic of a contested public discourse, challenging the earlier Victorian (idealized) divide between the domestic and the communal, the private and the public. The Progressive emphasis on public safety in decaying urban neighborhoods by way of regulation was met with stanch resistance in the courts. The perhaps American preoccupation with privacy and property rights challenged the regulation of control not through protest, but rather, through evasion. For new buildings, setting construction standards seemed clear cut; but in the realm of alteration, professionals and homeowners defended a material liberty that challenges traditional narratives of modern reform. Alteration is a useful way for understanding the ways in which Americans engaged a complicated system of commerce, followed municipal regulation, listened to marketers and designers, and strategically accepted innovations. It also is a unique lens for examining how homeowners and professionals coped during a period of rapid change in urban landscapes, industrialization, and consumerism. Perhaps most palpable is the ways in which these changes in the nineteenth century set the stage for the twentieth century, particularly the “Do-It-Yourself” (DIY) Movement that has gained popular and scholarly attention in recent years. A dissertation writing fellowship at the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine facilitated significant time for analysis and writing, and connected me with a network of scholars and institution staff that nourished and sustained intellectual curiosity and exploration beyond the scope of my academic network and area of interests. In the Consortium member collections, including the Hagley Museum and Library and Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I was able to build upon preliminary research already conducted and analyze sources. In addition, I was able to parlay the unique opportunity of working and researching in Philadelphia to expand my field work, including sending new requests for study to area property owners. Finally, the fellowship provided the rare opportunity to analyze these sources for writing, and my time enabled the completion of two chapters and the preliminary writing of the remaining two. Pivotal records held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania from the Philadelphia Contributionship, Franklin Fire Insurance Company and Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company allowed me to collect detailed examples of homeowners changing their homes, which were reflected in resurveys performed by insurance companies. Building upon this body of evidence, I created family biographical sketches and building histories. These provide key examples in the dissertation that add personal and material depth to the study. I was also able to access several professional building plans for alteration (pictured above). Few were realized, but the plans often reflected the prevailing tastes in design at the time, and I combine these examples with published prescriptive literature on architectural design. My time at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania also enabled me to explore the passionate public debate about home alteration that occurred in Philadelphia in the 1870s and 1880s. The records of the Citizen’s Municipal Association, who often investigated defective building and alteration, were of particular use and provided historical context for regulatory changes that occurred during this time. I was able to take these records and compare them with news coverage from the period, available to me as a Consortium Fellow through the University of Pennsylvania library system. In addition, the records of the Master Builder’s Exchange, a trade organization for builders who were active in politics and reform, also provided professional perspective to the debate and complimented records I also collected at Hagley Museum and Library. I surveyed their bulletins and handbooks, as well as the Book of the Exhibition Department. I also analyzed material collected from Hagley Museum and Library. Sources from Hagley concentrated on the business of building, and included trade catalogs, trade journals, and builders’ guides. As a fellow, I was able follow up on key articles from trade journals, compile company histories of trade catalog publishers, and compare prices and methods in building guides with other sources from the period. This material complicates the data collected from building permits and insurance survey records with the ebb and flow of the building industry and the professional concerns of builders and their associations. The analysis of these sources enabled me to complete two chapters. The first explored the commodification of home alteration, and combined published prescriptive literature, trade catalogs, bills, surveys, permits, and field work. The second chapter uncovered the codification of home alteration, as regulators and reformers attempted to rein home alteration into a preexisting building code. In addition, I was able to begin the draft of the remaining two chapters, which analyze the impact of professionalization and corporatization on home alteration. I want to thank the staff from the Consortium, member institutions, and my cohort of fellows for all of the assistance, guidance and advice that made my writing fellowship such a fulfilling experience. I would like to particularly thank the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine for the rare opportunity to think, contemplate, draft, edit, write, rewrite and share; time is a resource so few of us receive. Notes [1] “Making Over Old House,” Massachusetts Ploughman and New England Journal of Agriculture 43, 39 (June 28, 1884): 4.