The Charming ‘Saltbox’ House

Today I want to tell you about a design of house that I love. The Saltbox house! This quaintly named type of house is an example of American colonial architecture and they were first built around 1650 in rural New England, but such was the strength and simplicity of their design that modern versions of them are still being built today.

Saltboxes were wooden frame houses with two stories at the front and one at the rear, under a steeply sloping roof that gave the house, with its two unequal sides, a uniquely asymmetrical appearance. It had a flat facade often several evenly placed windows and a transom (horizontal beam) and/or a set of small windows above the front door. There was usually (though not always) a sturdy, brick chimney in the centre of the roof. A textbook example of saltbox architecture is Pettengill House in Freeport, Maine. Here is the front of the house:

Here is the back:

and the side:

Photos of Pettengill House borrowed from Wikipedia

Perhaps the most famous Salt box house is in Massachusetts where the second president of the United States, John Adams, was born. It now stands in a Historic Park.

Photo borrowed from Wikipedia

Salt box houses were so called because their shape resembled the salt containers that people used in their homes during the colonial period. They were often hung on the wall near the fire for drying out lumps so that it flowed more freely. This made it easier to use for cooking and for preserving food. They were popular in the UK and Europe in colonial times but whether the design went to America from there or the other way around, I don’t know.

Antique French salt box – sold by ‘FrenchCountryMaison’ on Etsy

The earliest Saltbox homes probably began by adding a lean-to extension to the rear of the original house for extra room, often a kitchen (referred to as a “keeping room”), with smaller rooms either side, one for storage and one reserved for childbirth or illness. A number of people lived together in one house in those days, so this design was an easy and far less expensive way to add on more living space. Although this may have been the original intent, by 1680 houses were built with the sloping roof and additional space integrated as a single building. Old accounts suggest that the unusual shape of this house may have proliferated because of a tax on houses larger than one storey. As the rear of the roof was as low as a single story building, these houses were exempt from the tax. You may be amused to hear that the roof was nicknamed ‘a cat slide’ roof.

Their design had other advantages. Rural saltbox house dwellers were usually farmers who had to withstand harsh weather conditions on a regular basis. The sloping roofs of these houses deflected strong winds, prevented the build up of snow and allowed rain to slide off slid off. It was easy to climb on it to make repairs and the large central chimney gathered the family together and warmed the core of the house.

Saltbox houses were always most popular in New England and though a few did spread further across the United States and as far away as Newfoundland, by 1880 interest in them had begun to decline. There are still some second generation one-and-a-half storey settlers homes in Newfoundland referred to as Saltbox houses but many were enlarged and modified and are now more likely to be referred to as ‘Biscuit Box’ houses.

Over time, as people found the unique shape of these saltbox houses aesthetically pleasing, they began to appear on the quilts, country samplers and embroideries made by the rural communities who lived in and among them.

A ‘Pumpkin Patch Primitive’ Runner featuring two Saltbox houses – photo borrowed from Pinterest

I, too, found the shape of this old house charming and wanted to make a runner, something like the one above, for my blanket box at home. After some discussion with Nancy Ademek of Linapatchwork.com we came up with a design and she cut the paper pieces for me. Perhaps this will be the first English Paper Pieced Saltbox house.

While I am decide on the fabrics I want to use for my Runner, I thought I would make a practice one. And here it is:

I think I need to work on the design a bit more to get the perspective right, at the side of the house particularly, but I guess, as with many of these folk art designs, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look exactly like the real thing. It’s always a personal interpretation.

Mine is made from several paper pieces but you could make a simpler one for yourself from three large pieces; front, side and roof, appliquéd to a background. All he windows and front door could be appliquéd on, too, instead of just the front four windows in this case. I think I will try that next time. This house is temporarily stitched around the edge for now until I find a background that I want to sew it to. The blue fabric behind it in the photo is my ironing board.

Till next time…..

The flowers I got on Valentine’s Day. It’s so strange to have flowers like these when there is snow on the ground outside.

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