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How were houses built 100 years ago?

Huck's picture

I'd love to know how houses were built a hundred years ago - at the turn of the century, prior to the first world war.  Tools and materials.  What power tools were available, what power tools were commonly used on a jobsite, what was still being done with hand tools, etc.  What framing lumber was like, common framing and finish practises, etc.  Were cranes, forklifts, etc. in use then? 

Especially in the west coast / California region. 

Would love any photos, links, insights, etc.

And for what its worth, especially as regards the work or Peter and John Hall, builders for Charles and Henry Greene of Pasadena.

"...craftsmanship is first & foremost an expression of the human spirit." - P. Korn

(post #107780, reply #29 of 143)

What I'm trying to find out is, what kind of tools did they use in building it - all hand tools, or any power tools?  Circular saws?  Drawing knives?  Pulleys, cranes, block and tackle, etc?


Gamble House 01-30-09 042

"...craftsmanship is first & foremost an expression of the human spirit." - P. Korn

Edited 2/2/2009 9:37 am by Huck

(post #107780, reply #30 of 143)

You really do want to find those books by Eric Sloane then



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Oh Well,

We did the best we could...

(post #107780, reply #31 of 143)

well, I guess I better check it out, then!  Thanks.

Gamble House 01-30-09 042

"...craftsmanship is first & foremost an expression of the human spirit." - P. Korn

(post #107780, reply #33 of 143)

one I recal seeing photos of from here is excavation for cellars.

Team of horses or oxen dragging a scoop along to haul away maybe half a yard to a yard of soil at a time, sometimes switching to a plow to loosen the dirt first



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(post #107780, reply #47 of 143)

Most of Sloanes stuff is from much earlier age.

But still very interesting.

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(post #107780, reply #51 of 143)

True, but I have noticed thread drift here, so that we are now talking from 200 years ago up to the 'ancient' 1950's when we were kids.



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(post #107780, reply #55 of 143)

Like I said before "A Reverence for Wood" is awesome and forgot to mention "A Museum of Early American Tools" is another Sloane title I have.
He has a whole bunch of other great looking books too.

(post #107780, reply #32 of 143)

Audels publishing had a series of "how to" books, including one on how to build a post and beam house, published about 1905.

If your state library system holds onto old books you might be able to borrow a copy from them through your local library, or perhaps someone here might have it.

Al Smith

(post #107780, reply #44 of 143)

Back in the early 50's when I was a kid I was fascinated by construction. There were still a few new houses going up in my neighborhood that I could watch. Of course they were also a source for wood scraps and nails for tree houses and forts. The only power tool I remember seeing was a huge circular saw that wasn't used most of the time. It was all hammers, handsaws, spirit levels and hand planes. All the framing was conventional, no trusses and the houses were small by today's standards so there was no need for cranes or other lifting devices. They even mixed the concrete and mortar in a pile on the ground.

Florida Licensed Building Contractor, 50 years experience in commercial remodeling, new homes, home remodeling and repairs and all types building maintenance.

(post #107780, reply #35 of 143)

Huck here is a good book you can look at online. You can even download it. This one is from 1916. I did not see any Hitachi framing guns in any of the pics. There are earlier books you can look at also some from 1850's. Google Books is great. I'm glad they are doing this.,M1

(post #107780, reply #37 of 143)


The sobering thought I have all the time when I visit my family in Iowa is how did they build all those barns 100 yrs ago?? Its one thng to build a house, but managing to lift beams that high

(post #107780, reply #38 of 143)

OK, now we're on the same wavelength!  And how did they do stuff like this without a circular saw and a bandsaw and a router and a belt sander and a cordless drill and... ???

Gamble House 01-30-09 062

Gamble House 01-30-09 042 "...craftsmanship is first & foremost an expression of the human spirit." - P. Korn

(post #107780, reply #39 of 143)

 A frame saw ( AKA Turning saw) could do the curves, and spoke shaves, moulding planes, and patience did the final fiddly bits.

Often hatchetts were used more than any other tool, a saw kerf and wasting splits were faster than actually sawing to a line. Using the weakness of the wood to your advantage was the key to fast good work.

Spheramid Enterprises Architectural Woodworks

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(post #107780, reply #42 of 143)

Band saws were a common shop item back then. Question is was all the work done onsite?

Many house parts were shop fabricated and hauled to the site when it came to these style buildings.
Scrapers,planes, sand paper and a lot of cheap labor did the finishing work.

As an aside we used to call those protruding beam ends Greene and Greene rot starters here in the wet NW. Dumb design for this climate and yet one that is often reproduced.

They can't get your Goat if you don't tell them where it is hidden.

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(post #107780, reply #50 of 143)

sawmills set up on streams were pretty common in New England around 1830.

That date just triggered a memory.

Where I grew up in Western NY, the house was started in 1832 and ain't finished yet, as Dad used to say.

The original part had rubble rock trench foundation about 18" deep with brick above ground. Framing was all 8x8 timbers pegged together and doubled plank walls vertically hung outside the timbering. This was all easier to see from the barn where it was all still exposed.

Then the interior was framed in later and siding applied over the exterior. I got to see that back in the fifties when Dad had it modernized with that 12" wide asbestos siding. and they tore off the old clapboards.



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Taunton University of
Knowledge FHB Campus at Breaktime.
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Oh Well,

We did the best we could...

(post #107780, reply #43 of 143)

amazing ...isn't it...

(post #107780, reply #40 of 143)

I was living in a tract housing development that was still being built out in 1953. We used to hang out and bother the workers all day. I don't remember many power tools being used. There was a lot of cutting with hand saws and the electricians were drilling holes with a brace and bit. The only power tool I really remember seeing was a single big table saw in the middle of the site that guys brought wood to for cutting. I remember it because that was a great source for short cutoffs of 2x4 and scraps of plywood when they went home every night. They took the saw but they left the scraps.


(post #107780, reply #41 of 143)

lee valley sells books from the early 1900,s

they have a seperate publishing arm that publishes out of print books on  all manner of things  from soup to nuts

i have browsed through a few in their store library



(post #107780, reply #85 of 143)

We have home movies of us on my dads building site.

I saw a guy with a brace and bit so i asked my dad what he was doing.

He was the guy hanging wood gutters drilling the outlet holes for the downspout with a brace and bit.

Around 1962.

(post #107780, reply #109 of 143)

The funny thing is with a nice sharp bit that guy will poke a 7/8" hole in a 2x4 for Romex as fast as a spade bit in a drill. They will cut about 3/32" per revolution and a guy who does it all day goes pretty fast, maybe 80-100 RPM.


(post #107780, reply #60 of 143)

I can tell you all of it . No pics though.

They worked out of a wooden box that held hand tools . The tool box held two or three different point hand saws . They worked a wooden miter box they made . They used a plumb bob and would use water level. They dug footings by hand and every thing else . They layed stone footings here as well as the foundation walls .

100 years ago isnt all that long ago. We work on lots of houses 100 years old and its pretty easy to see tearing them apart how they were built. Whats neat for me about that era is the carpenter stayed on the job and did it all including foundaton and windows. Im not sure they site built the doors . I doubt it . But the windows yes.

It also depends on where it was built for the way it was built. The easterners had educations and money. The south was raised by backbone.



Edited 2/2/2009 7:50 pm by Mooney


(post #107780, reply #61 of 143)

Tim - the house I just toured (Gamble House) you would love.  The builders made all the doors, all the windows, all the screens, all the cabinets, all the furniture, even the picture frames!  Its really awesome to see.  built in 1908.  20 men, 11 months.  And the quality and level of detail is beyond anything I've ever seen on a modern jobsite.  I'm just still trying to figure out how they did it.


Gamble House 01-30-09 042 "...craftsmanship is first & foremost an expression of the human spirit." - P. Korn

(post #107780, reply #65 of 143)

I took a historic window restoration class this weekend and it was a real education. The instructor goes up and down the west coast restoring old windows.

Starting in 1834 machinery was made to produce all the parts in windows. He said that he has only seen a couple of instances of handmade windows. Most everything was made and sent out by train. I suspect that is the case with most of the millwork as well. Although the windows were shipped as finished product the millwork still had to be fitted in the field.

In the case of the Gamble I would think that a lot of it was made on site. However they had access to most every stationary tool we would use today, just that they were belt driven using steam power.

(post #107780, reply #67 of 143)

In the case of the Gamble I would think that a lot of it was made on site. However they had access to most every stationary tool we would use today, just that they were belt driven using steam power.

Ahh, now we are on to something!  John and Peter Hall were noted for using whatever modern technology was available to accomplish traditional results (I've heard - just didn't know what it meant at the time I heard it).  The time frame (11 months), to my mind, indicates there had to be power tools, but I needed some kind of historical confirmation to be sure.

Steam powered tools I hadn't heard of before this thread, and the photo John Cujie posted indicated a gas powered motor powering belt driven tools.  So there were two options available for power tools.

I'd love to see some jobsite photos of a Greene and Greene job, or a John and Peter Hall job, showing the tools in use.  I wonder if some of the structural timbers were processed in the shop, then sent to the jobsite.  Had to be, unless maybe they had an ersatz shop set up at the jobsite.

So the wood was likely processed at a furniture shop, then sent to the jobsite.  That would explain how they got furniture-quality craftsmanship in the structure itself!  Just a theory, but one I like!

Gamble House 01-30-09 042 "...craftsmanship is first & foremost an expression of the human spirit." - P. Korn

(post #107780, reply #69 of 143)

Here's an invoice.

You might want to check out the Greene and Greene Virtual Archive
Some contracts in there. Gamble House: $50,400


Edited 2/2/2009 9:51 pm ET by JohnCujie

Edited 2/2/2009 9:57 pm ET by JohnCujie

(post #107780, reply #76 of 143)

huck.... i'm a railroad buff... one of our excursions was too the old Atlantic Coast Terminal of Weyerhauser in Portsmouth

it was where a lot of the timbers and framing and other wood products came into the New England area

they had a deep water pier and a 2' guage railroad that ran out onto the pier adn then back into what had to be one of the biggest wharehouses this side of NYC

they had a large size steam boiler set up and it burned all teh wood scrap

they made finish custom orders here with huge planers, behemoth bandsaws and other machines ... all belt driven off the steam boiler

i'm guessing this operation dated from the late 1890's

wa all torn down about 1985 or so

Mike Hussein Smith Rhode Island : Design / Build / Repair / Restore

Mike Smith Rhode Island : Design / Build / Repair / Restore


(post #107780, reply #77 of 143)

i don't think we should take the Gamble house as an example of how things WERE done- but rather how they COULD be done.

I am sure you are much more knowledgeable about Greene & Greene and the whole A/C and Craftsman styles---- but they were a reaction TO something and a political,socio/economic statement.

100 years ago would be 1909.--at about that time my great- grandfather owned and operated a lumberyard in PA.( Greensburg, Greenfeild---something like that). they turned out a lot of millwork and they also ran some sort of hardwood floor installation business

My great grandfather who owned the lumber yard made sure all FIVE of his sons were trained as carpenters. My Dad told me many times that Great Grandpa was super concerned that all his sons become proficient in hammering with either hand and his favorite trick was to put them on an install project where they had to work up against a wall in a corner or inside a closet where they couldn't effectively use their right hand------ years later in the '30's and 40's my dad said he watched grandpa manytimes be nailing and simply switch hands almost mid hammer blow without missing a beat.

Dad said that Great grandpa lost the lumber yard by trusting too many people to pay him when they could and so at some point Great grandpa and all 5 sons moved here to Akron which was a boomtown at the time

If you are interested , Google Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens. It is a HUGE tudor Revival house built here in the early 1900's by Mr. Seiberling( founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. they have a nice web site and the foundation has thousands of photos-many of which show the construction process---some are shown on-line. Stone for the house was quarried on site--a small railroad was built to transport materials--- the house was built in a rural location at that time--and so Mr. Seiberling actually started what amounted to a bus line to transport workers out from town to the site. Fantastic woodwork, mostly done on site------ spectactular carved linnenfold paneling, quartersawn white oak woodwork etc. Indoor pool--and the old quarry became an outdoor swimming lagoon--- the landscaping and gardens were laid out by a man who had been an assistant to the guy who designed Central Park in NYC

Like the Gamble house- it's an example of what COULD be done. In seiberlings case the project became so expensive and he had so many resources devoted to it---- that it eventually,indirectly caused him to LOSE controll of Goodyear Tire and Rubber.- Mr. Seiberling- being a REAL man-picked himself up,dusted himself off and set to work starting all over-- founding Seiberling Rubber which in turn grew to be,i think, the worlds 5th biggest rubber company--so he was resonsible for 2 of the top 5 i think.

during the same time period as the building of Stan Hywet, akron roughly tripled in size-- construction for our ordinary houses was considerably different--- lot's and lots of stock millwork, houses built from pattern books, many Sears Kit Houses located in my neighborhood--- both Seiberling( Goodear Heights) and Firestone ( Firestone Park) developed really excellent neighborhoods for their work force within walking distance of their factories which are still desireable neighborhoods today. Quite pedestrian friendly , if built today they we doubtlessly be called examples of New Urbanism.

I love pictures of old workplaces-- notice they clearly show that carpenters and tradesmen worked with very few hand tools on their person--cloth apron and maybe a hammer with them----- refusing to turn themselves into beasts of burden or walking hardware stores the way modern frammers or trimmers do.

In my grandfathers day-- either side of WWI up to just after WWII-- in this town my dad says carpenters almost universally wore WHITE bib overalls---almost as a status symbol( this might be a local tradition as their contemporaries in the rubberfactories are reported to have worn white SILK shirts to show how much money they were making building tires.

there was a certain degree of specialization--almost certainley the craftsman who carved Mr. Seiberlings linnenfold panneling did NOT also make the windows--and THAT guy almost certainley did NOT build the forms, or frame in walls or nail up acres of lath. I know grandpa HERE in akron bought all his doors and windows and assorted millwork( I still do business with some of the same yards--- however back in PA they did make some of those things- but only because they owned a lumberyard( specialization)

so- the idea of one guy or group of guys taking a house from a hole in the ground to finish trim might be true in some areas-- but more a myth in other areas. Probably more true in lower end houses and much less true in higher end houses.
Have fun,

(post #107780, reply #82 of 143)

i don't think we should take the Gamble house as an example of how things WERE done- but rather how they COULD be done.

Stephen - seems a lot of posters misunderstood my original post, or just responded to the thread title.  Which I do myself, sometimes.  My original post, 'though, was inquiring as to what power tools were available at the turn of the century, what construction machinery was available, what lumber supply practises were in play, etc.  Basically, what was the state of the art (construction technology) at that point in time, especially, I said, as regards the west coast, and most especially, I noted, as regards the work of John and Peter Hall, builders of the Gamble House.

So I got a lot of responses about common building practises, i.e. stud spacing, hand tool use, etc.  Which is OK, its all good and informative, and like I always say, I'm here to learn.  But I never for a moment imagined that the crew that built barns in the midwest swung by Pasadena and threw the Gamble House together with their handsaws, adzes and spokeshaves.  =)

So...No, I wasn't implying that Gamble House is representative of how homes were commonly built.   What I was saying is that I wanted to know what technology would have been available to the builders at the time it was built.  Because we do know that it was built a hundred years ago, in 11 months, by a crew of about 20 men.  But contemporary photos and descriptions of the jobsite and the work process are hard to come by.

I had heard that the Hall brothers were trained in traditional Scandinavian woodworking practises, but were open to applying all the modern methodology available to them, to achieve traditional results. 

From what I now know, thanks largely to the great responses in this thread, my theory is that Gamble House was to a great extent pre-manufactured in Peter Hall's Pasadena furniture shop, using an array of state-of-the-art combustion powered belt-driven stationary power tools, and then reassembled on site by the aforementioned crew of 20 men (at any one give time, I assume - meaning not every worker stayed from foundation to cabinet pulls, but different workers were brought in as the work progressed).

For the wood to be pre-processed in a furniture shop would explain how the house itself was built to furniture-grade tolerances.  In fact, short of a magic wand, its the only explanation I can imagine.  As I said in another thread, if I took 20 of the best guys I've ever met in my 30 years of construction, I would be hard pressed to build a house like that, for any budget, using the best portable jobsite power tools, in 11 months.

However, if I had an additional separate crew working in a large nearby shop, pre-milling the lumber to furniture-grade tolerances with stationary power tools, and then shipping it to my jobsite crew to assemble on site, yeah, I could see how it could be done. 

You have to understand that the owner of the furniture/cabinet shop was the brother of the General Contractor/builder.  And these two had worked closely with the brothers Greene, and in fact had opened the furniture shop largely to provide work built to the stringent standards of Charles and Henry Greene.  So you have 4 men on a very high plane of skill and creativity, working in synchronicity to produce the best that could be produced, within their given (and chosen) parameters.

As far as your comments about the socio/political motivations of the Arts and Crafts / Craftsman style, thats a whole 'nuther conversation there.  I think its pertinent to know that, as regards Gamble House, the brothers Greene were sympathetic to the Craftsman movement, but by no means wholly defined by it.

Theirs was more of a "Zen and the Art of Creating a Positive Living Environment" type approach.  Working for millionaire clients, they hardly embodied the socialist leanings that drove William Morris to react against the ostentatious ornamentation of the Victorian styles, or the streamlined sterility of the industrial movement. Rather, working for clients with deep pockets, they sought to produce a home as functional art, almost a fine-art sculpture to enhance the lives of its occupants.

It was an unusual, expensive, impractical, and ultimately short-lived approach.  But wow, what they did accomplish in those few short years prior to WWI! 

Gamble House 01-30-09 042 "...craftsmanship is first & foremost an expression of the human spirit." - P. Korn

(post #107780, reply #83 of 143)

There are a fair amount of Craftsman/Arts and Crafts houses in my south Minneapolis neighborhood.  Something that's interesting to me is the original owners, while not poor by any means, weren't necessarily all that rich either.  For instance, my next door neighbor's house was designed in 1909 by Purcell and Feick (contemporaries of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright) and the original owner ran an automobile repair shop.  These houses are pretty small by today's standards, but the detail and construction is impressive.

(post #107780, reply #86 of 143)

In the early 90's I moved into a house built in 1845.  Looked like to me all the beams in this house were hand-hewn.  Subfloor was smooth T&G.  Roof was pine saplings, some not 2 inches at the peak.