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Dating Your Antique Homes
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As we dwell in these structures built so many years before us, we often come to wonder about their origin, their history and their date of construction. Oftentimes there hangs an old weathered sign, affixed to the clapboards or shingles and facing passersby, that reads a name and a date; in some cases the date is preceded by a “c” or “circa.” Just as often, perhaps more so, however, there is no sign, and no hint of where to begin a search for a date or a name or how.


Tackling this chore of dating your antique home is, in many cases, a daunting task, though usually not an insurmountable one. The first thing you need to realize is that the process involves a three-tiered approach. Properly dating your home may take much more than referencing what might be written in a local town history. Indeed, to accurately date your house you should consider the information available at your local historical society, deed and probate research at the county level, and a structural analysis of the building itself. 

To get started, your local historical society is likely to have at least some general information on your house, if not a more detailed profile. Using your street address or a description of your house and property, local written histories and/or town records will usually include some information on virtually all antique homes within the town or towns they cover. When gathering this information, however, keep in mind that these records are not always accurate. It is not uncommon for a town history or other records within an historical society to be incorrect regarding dates or family names associated with a given house. Even when mistakes have been made, however, the information you retrieve from your local historical society is potentially valuable. It will at the very least serve as a good reference point for your next tier of research: deeds and probate.

     
   
     
   
     

 

Though some towns and cities may keep records differently, a common place to have them stored is at the county court house.* For example, residents in towns or cities located within Middlesex County in Massachusetts would find deed information at the County Court House in Cambridge. Keep in mind that for very old homes, say those built between 1650 and 1750, the records can be cumbersome and difficult to read you must bring your most patient and diligent state of mind with you. Indeed, the hand script, condition of the books, and old English style of the language all combine to make research an interesting, if not arduous undertaking.


If you can, though, manage to make good sense of what’s before you, deed and probate research can bring a windfall of information. If you are fairly comfortable with the records you have obtained in your first tier of research, you might want to start with the names and dates you came across there. It is likely, however, that you’ll get a more accurate result by starting with amodern name and date (perhaps the owner of the house previous to you), then working back from there. While this may take some time, especially if the property changed hands often, it is a more reliable way to go about the dating of your historic home. When you eventually get back to a deed that refers to land only, or perhaps one that speaks of a dwelling associated with a date of construction, you may have just found your home’s age and original owner/erector or maybe not.

     
   
     
   
     

 


While local historical records and deed/probate research are very useful in the dating of an antique house, all too often those doing the research stop there. It is unfortunate and ironic that what is perhaps the most reliable method for dating antique structures is also the one least utilized by their owners. The third tier of research is, in fact, the study of the structure itself. While there are professional experts in dating antique structures for hire, you may want to do some of the basics yourself. There are actually certain “signposts” to look for in the structure, especially colonial period buildings, which are more often those that have been misrepresented in the local records. (Though Victorian era and later buildings can also be misdated, it is far less likely given their relatively recent dates of construction.)


While books are available that detail what, structurally, you can look for to help you date your home, there are a few basics that might help get you started. First, look at the corner posts (they run vertically) on your second story where they meet the beams (which run horizontally). If the posts are massive and flare out near the top (known as gunstock style), the house was most likely built before 1800. If there is no flare, it was likely built around 1800 or later. This is true because prior to about 1780 or so (depending upon where the house is located) the method of construction and erecting a house necessarily involved flaring the posts where they meet the plate (horizontal front beam) and gable end rafter.


You can uncover another clue by looking at the style of nails used in construction of your house. Being careful to look in each section of your home, study the heads of the nails, paying close attention to what they look like. You can check the nails used in the floors, but it might be a better determinant to

     
   
     
     

look at those used in the hanging of the lathe strips that were put up to hold the plaster to the walls and ceiling (obviously a much easier task if there are already some exposed). You can consult a book on old nails, or perhaps a local expert, but you’re looking for an uneven, handmade head, in most cases much larger than those on modern nails. If, indeed, “hand-wrought” nails were used throughout in the laying of the floors and the hanging of the lathe, again, your house was most likely built before 1780-1800. If the nails are newer, machine cut nails, chances are it was built during or after that time.
As there are many other things to look for (decorated summer beams, interior whitewashing on beams and wall boards, roof overhangs, foundation materials, etc.), there are any number of books available to consult in your research. And this method of dating structures, in congruence with town records, local histories, and deed/probate research, is an important one. Important because, while there were exceptions to styles of homes and methods of their construction, technology allowed builders to push the envelope only so far. When push came to shove there were certain barriers (as in the cases of corner posts and nails) that they could not cross before the technology afforded them that pathway.


So, then, enjoy your old house, cherish it, respect it. And, if the bug to determine its true date of construction should bite you, take this three-tiered approach to your research. Good luck, and have fun!

*In Massachusetts, probate records prior to the mid-nineteenth century are kept at the Mass Archives in Dorchester, next to the JFK Library.



Richard Wilcox is the curator and Board member of the Malrborough Historical Society and a Realtor specializing in historic property sales.