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Image Delaware Building Ways: North Midland Origins of Quaker Houses

Similar regional patterns also appeared in the vernacular architecture of the Delaware Valley. Even today, as one travels south from Manhattan on the old highways of New Jersey, the ancient buildings that stand beside the road offer many clues to the cultural history of their region. In the neighborhood of Newark, for example, the older houses tend to be rambling wooden structures like those of Massachusetts and Connecticut, whence their builders came. But forty miles further south, as one passes through the township of Princeton, the architecture begins to change. The old houses are stone-built, and very different in their style and proportions.

These were the homes of Quakers who settled in the Delaware Valley. They represent a distinct regional vernacular.

These Quaker buildings were not the first European houses in the region. During the mid-seventeenth century, Swedish and Dutch building styles had been introduced to the Delaware Valley. But an architectural historian writes that “not until 1682, when English Quaker settlers began to arrive in numbers, did this cultural hearth assume its ultimate character.”1 In 1748, the Swedish traveler Peter Kalm observed of the Delaware Valley, “ …the houses here are commonly built in the English manner.” So they were. But the choice of English architectural models was very different from those in Massachusetts and Virginia.2

These differences were most visible in building materials. At first the houses of English settlers in the Delaware Valley were made mostly of wood. “For covering the house, ends and sides,” one wrote home, “we use clapboard, which is rived feather-edged of five foot and a half long. … this may seem a mean way of building, but “‘tis sufficient and safest for ordinary beginners.” There was nothing specially American about these early structures; they were “plastered and ceil’d, as in England.”3

Within the first generation, houses in West Jersey and Pennsylvania began to be rebuilt of more durable materials. On both banks of the Delaware River, farm houses were constructed of the beautiful gray-brown fieldstone which give the vernacular architecture of this region its special character and enduring charm. These country houses of the Delaware Valley were similar in outward appearance to farm houses in the north of England. Methods of masonry in the Delaware resembled split-cobble and field-stone farm buildings of the Lake counties, north Lancashire, west Yorkshire, east Cheshire and the Peak District of Derbyshire.4

In the New World a few changes in building materials were necessary. Lintels, doorways and window frames could not easily be made of stone, and so were constructed of wood in America. But in other ways the fieldstone farmhouses of West Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania were fundamentally like domestic buildings in the North Midlands of England.


The vernacular architecture of the Delaware Valley was very different from that of New England and Virginia. Fieldstone walls, slate roofs and simple wood trim were all combined in a plain style that emerged from Quaker-Pietist values and North Midland traditions. Two distinctive building plans also developed in this region. One was the Quaker Plan House, which commonly had three rooms on the first floor, a corner stair, and a chimney stack with several fireplaces grouped economically together on one exterior wall. This design made efficient use of a limited space and materials, and was used in both urban and rural settings. Another was the Four-over-Four House, which tended to be a large symmetrical structure with four spacious rooms and central halls on both floors. These houses tended to appear wherever English Quakers made their homes. They were also adopted by other ethnic groups in the Delaware Valley.


Pent roofs and door hoods contributed to the special character of Quaker architecture in Pennsylvania. Many houses and barns in the Delaware Valley were built with these small coverings extending outward above doors and windows on the ground floor. Pent roofs had been and still are common features of vernacular architecture in the North Midlands of England, from Cheshire and Derbyshire north to Cumbria.

Strong continuities also appeared in building motifs as well as materials. A striking feature of houses, meetings, and out-buildings in Pennsylvania and West Jersey were small pent roofs projecting outward from front walls above windows and doors. Some of these roofs ran the entire breadth of the house; others were no wider than the doors and windows that they protected. They were commonly supported by white-painted wooden timbers which made a pleasing contrast with the fieldstone walls. These pent roofs had been commonly found on barns, shops and houses of northern England—from the Midlands north to Lancashire and Yorkshire, where they are called “pentise” or “pentice” roofs.5 Throughout Pennsylvania and West Jersey, houses without pent roofs were often given small gabled roof hoods which projected at right angles to the wall. Hooded roofs were covered with slate and supported by strong but simple wooden frames. The same custom may still be seen in the North Midlands of England.6

Houses in the Delaware Valley tended to be built on several distinctive plans. One is called by architectural historians the “Quaker-plan” house. This tended to be a simple cottage with three rooms on the first story, a corner stair leading to a full second story, and a chimneystack with several fireplaces on one wall. This plan often appeared in the North Midlands of England. It became common throughout West Jersey and Pennsylvania, and also appeared in other American regions where Quaker emigrants settled.7

Another common “Quaker plan” was the spacious “four over four” house in the Delaware Valley, which strongly resembled larger homes throughout the north of England.8 Historian Barry

Levy has found that Quaker houses, though very plain, tended to be larger and more comfortable than homes built by Anglicans or Congregationalists. He also discovered that the homes of Quakers had more bedrooms (and beds) in proportion to living spaces. Levy concludes that Quaker homes gave more attention to privacy and domesticity than did the more “publicly oriented Anglican houses.”9

The interiors of these buildings tended to be exceptionally bright, clean, austere and spacious. Walls were plastered with a mixture of lime and hair. The houses were furnished sparsely in an almost monastic style which Max Weber called worldly asceticism. The journals of American Friends expressed a strong and persistent hostility to what Joshua Evans called “superfluities of various sorts .such as fine houses, rich furniture and gaudy apparel.”10 Quaker meetings actively intervened in these questions; one of them admonished its members that kitchens should not be decorated with “flourishing needless pewter and brass.”11

Inventories of Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean described in detail the same austerity of house furnishings—a few rush-bottomed ladderback chairs around a plain board table in the dining room; a cupboard, a few stools and a long seat in the parlor; bedsteads and benches in the bedroom; and nothing but the necessities in the kitchen.12 Amelia Gummere remembered the simple pine tables of Burlington houses in her youth, their only decoration the golden grain of the wood itself, glowing with age.13 Rugs were condemned as “vain” and “needless” decorations. Quakers called them floorcloths.14

To these building ways, other elements were later added. German Pietists introduced sturdy barns with a special style of fachwerk construction distinguished by heavy wall braces, massive floor joists and heavy roof purlins. German immigrants also useddistinctive house plans—such as the flürkuchenhaus (corridor-kitchen house), with a spacious kitchen that spanned the full length of the building, and the kreuzhaus (crosshouse) where the long kitchen was partitioned into a pantry.15 Another ethnic style was the Swiss bank house, which was built into the side of a hill, with kitchens and workspaces on the ground floor.16

A distinctive style of urban architecture also developed in the Delaware Valley. Philadelphia quickly came to resemble parts of Bristol, London and Dublin in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century—brick fronts with raised entries on one side and cellarways on the other, and chaste details which created an atmosphere of simplicity, dignity, serenity and grace.

These various building traditions shared many qualities in common. All of them cultivated the plain style in sturdy structures that were designed for use rather than display. They developed within a culture that was dominated by the values of English Quakers and German Pietists. As time passed, they tended to fertilize each other within a regional style that was fully developed as early as the mid-eighteenth century.

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