Dating an old house

The Old House Web
Editor's note: Nancy Platteborze is sharing the story of her restoration of a 250-year-old house with The Old House Web. In this installment, she tells about researching her home's history.

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By Nancy Platteborze

Nancy's son Jude tears away plaster to reveal the original stove crane in the front parlor.

I can feel Anne's presence when I look at the stove crane -- her stove crane that still is part of the fireplace in my front parlor.

That's Anne Gunnison, left behind as a life-long tenant in my humble little worker's cottage, when her father, a blacksmith named William Gunnison and his wife Hannah, sold this house in 1839 to James Post, a mariner, and his family.

This sale carried the condition that Anne would continue to live in the front chamber with cellar privileges for her wood and garden privileges for her vegetables for the rest of her natural life.

As I attempt to revive this neglected 18th Century New England colonial, I'm rather obsessed with the lives lived here long ago. So one day in March, when my son Jude didn't have college classes, I played hookey and we did a little more research on our house.

Preliminary dating

We know from the sales deed mentioned above that this house was built before 1839. Other clues bring it back to at least the mid 1700's.

When we were framing, a carpenter found a British coin on the front sill dated 1739. King George II is on one side and a woman on the other. While she's holding a spear or staff instead of a harp, I believe she represents Ireland.

1739 coin
A 1739 British coin, with woman and harp on one side...

1739 coin
and King George II on the other side.

William and Hannah Gunnison's signatures on the sale of their house in 1839.

(Click on pictures for larger view.)

Newspapers were used for insulation, and we've found scraps of papers from the 1800s through the next century. One has the year 1880 in one of its articles, but I can't tell if it dates the paper itself.

Let me quote from this one:

"CITY HALL, Illustrated Lecture, Miss Kate O'Keefe, Entitled:

Our Country's Progress, from Columbus to Washington. Over 70 beautiful views of persons, places and events connected with our country's settlement; her brave struggle for liberty; her ultimate victory and noble stand as a Union of 'free, sovereign, and independent States.'

Tickets 25 and 35 cents. Now on sale."

Three pipes...and other finds

We found three men's pipes, one wooden and two corncob. One has 1863 on a label on the bottom of it, but that probably dates the company that made it, not the pipe itself. I don't know for sure. A farmer's almanac from the early 1900's, a boy in a flying saucer toy made out of (I think) hard rubber, a croquet set, two marbles, some tools, a wick in its box boasting "now every room can have heat!" are among the artifacts we've uncovered.

Also the original "bathroom" complete with bucket which I dug out of the dirt basement.

"The messiness of lived history"
These artifacts spanning 200 years of history were found by Nancy in her 1700s home.
(Click on pictures for larger view)

A doorstop, marble and bottle

Nails, scissors, spoon

clay pipe
Bowl of a clay pipe

Corn cob pipes, one with a label with 1863 date

Wicks for kerosene heater

phono needles
Package from phonograph needles

auto registration
1925 automobile registration

1950 newspaper announcing a Nobel Prize winner

Another clue that helps date our house is the color of the mortar. Richard Irons, mason and restoration expert, showed me that some of the mortar in the chimney is light and some is dark. According to Irons, the light mortar has lime in it and so is newer; the dark is sand, and dates it into the 1700's.

Editor's note: In seacoast towns in Colonial times, mortar was commonly mixed with crushed oyster shells, which were plentiful -- rather than expensive imported lime from England. So it's likely that Nancy's mortar is made with local materials.

The hand hewn lath in the stairway and one wall of the front parlor, and the width of the wood walls also help to date the house.

Editor's note: The hand-split lath in Nancy's house also dates it to pre-1825. Making riven lath such as Nancy's was a painstaking process. When machine split lath became available in 1825, it was widely used.

"The curator? I'm afraid he's never here."

So with these things in mind, Jude and I set off to the Old Newbury Historical Society. It was spooky at first. The door was locked so I rang the bell. The door literally creaked open a crack and I heard a voice say, "yes?"

I introduced us through the crack and said we were trying to date our house.

"The curator's busy."

"Well, when would be a good time to come back?"

"I'm afraid he's never here."

I thanked her and said it was too bad he wouldn't get to see my King George II coin. Jude and I walked to the car and the door opened wide and a very nice normal-looking woman with color in her cheeks called us back.

"Let me just tell him what you're looking for and I'll see if he's too busy."

Jude and I smiled at each other, thinking, "way to go, George!"

We went in and she asked us to wait in the foyer and she ran up the stairs. I could hear her talking to a man and he to her, and then she started shouting questions down the stairs to us, and I up to her, signing for Jude (who is deaf) the whole time. Jude and I were laughing because it was just like a scene from the "Wizard of Oz"!

Then this tall, lanky man comes bounding down the stairs flashing piercing blue eyes -- and I apologized for interrupting his work and said we'd come back.


It was like they didn't want us there, but couldn't let us go.

I showed the man the 1839 sales transaction and the coin and we were a.o.k. from there. The man invited us upstairs and started going through all his books to try and find the two names, and the street -- and let me go through anything I wanted.

The only really interesting documents we came away with were an 1844 petition by the residents of Franklin Street (including our mariner Post's signature requesting the town to accept Franklin Street and also widen and lengthen it up to Milk Street.

We also found information about Post's family (father, Ebeneezer, wife Mary, her parents which includes her mother's maiden name (a woman must have written this genealogy), and five daughters!

What started out strangely, ended as a wonderful encounter, present and past.

Let the Revolution begin!

This riven lath helps date Nancy's house to pre-1825

From there we went to City Hall, and the assessor's office. There was information about 35 Franklin Street, and the assessor actually started having fun looking at the maps with us.

We found a missing link -- we are very, very lucky because the empty lot next to us, in 1900, had a house right up against ours. There couldn't have been two feet between them. If anybody builds there now, it will have to be (I think at least) 10 feet from ours.

From there we went to the planner's office. We discovered the Registry of the Historic District -- and there was our house, 35 Franklin Street, central chimney vernacular, circa 1775! Let the Revolution begin!

There was nothing on the Gunnison who sold the house to Post beyond the sales transaction. So that's yet to be dug up, and of course, as soon as the library archives open up again, I'm going hunting for Annie. Now that we know Post had five daughters, I wonder if that had something to do with her staying at the house? So James lived with seven women.

Jude said, "No wonder he went to sea!"

Mapping a restoration route

Nancy Platteborze
Nancy Platteborze with an resuscitated antique lilac. Don't put a dishwasher or television in her house!

Back at my house, I grapple with the reality of restoring a house sensitively while making it suitable for modern living.

Take my hinges. I think the hinges are original, although they're glopped over with paint. Most are attached with original nails and just a couple modern screws. I have traced what's here and sent the design to a blacksmith who wants to hand forge the hardware for the house.

I think I want him to do that, but haven't decided what period I want to go with yet or even if I want to go that "decide on a period and go with it" traditional restoration route.

Something bugs me about that. I don't believe "pure" reflects any historical stage. We live in a mix of old, new, and in-between -- I don't think anybody ever lived in a purely one period or another space.

There were shops in the 1700 and 1800s where blacksmiths went to work everyday. They got good at making certain kinds of hinges, and those hinges became more and more uniform. But some of those blacksmiths created their own designs for their own homes, and that sort of thing.

Women made new dresses and had old dresses they brought from England.

I'm not so sure the "purist" approach is the most authentic.

I think the path to authenticity is in coming to terms with the messiness of lived history and working within the spirit of our particular place.

It may be a moot point, but it bugs me nonetheless. Future generations would be wrong if they assumed I had a television or read romance novels or had a dishwasher because these things depicted my time.

They'd "replicate" things I'd hate to have in my home if they used the "pick a period" approach to restoration.

I think I've talked myself into my own approach because history's more than the mainstream.

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