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The shotgun house: a history of diffusion

Info: 2585 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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Throughout the history of the United States, each culture group has developed or altered its own set of diagnostic traits in an attempt to adapt to their new environment. The plantation South developed the large plantation house with tall windows and covered porches. The North developed log housing structures early on and eventually sawn timber frame housing. While the Pennsylvania cities still built in red brick, tenement style housing layouts. Even the Native Americans are recognized as having specific housing styles like tee-pees and long houses. However it wasn’t until the twentieth century that African Americans began to be associated with a housing style. The shotgun house is believed to have developed from housing styles brought to America by African slaves. The shotgun house can be easily identified by its distinct form. The shotgun house is no more than one room wide and at least three rooms deep with the gable and door facing the street. The shotgun house is given its name by this specific design characteristic. Although no one is quite sure where the term originated from, the idea is quite obvious, “when looking into the entrance, one can see through the back exit, thereby making it possible to fire a shotgun the entire length of the house”. [1] 

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The historical development of the shotgun house can be traced back to West Africa and the Yoruba. According to John M. Vlach, the Yoruba dwelling is similar in both size and shape to slave huts found in Haiti. [2] The Yoruba of present day Nigeria were transported to Haiti via the French slave trade where they were sold to work the sugar plantations. The Yoruba house was made of mud and had a thatched roof with two rooms lacking a dividing door. Vlach notes that the kitchen was the first room to be entered with the other room used as a bedroom. [3] This design is very similar to that found in Haiti. However the Haitian shotgun house was modified by the slaves to better suit their new needs. The slaves added a porch and relocated the door to the narrow side of the house. As Vlach points out, the Arawak Indians of Haiti also had a housing style slightly similar to that of the Yoruba. [4] The difference was the location of the door and the addition of a porch. Most geographers believed that the shotgun house developed from the Arawaks, it was not until Vlach that the search for its origin revealed Africa as its homeland.

The shotgun house changed greatly once in Haiti. The floor plan was expanded to have three or four rooms in succession and waddle and daub construction was discarded for wood frame construction. Vlach claims that the use of large timbers reduced the amount of materials required to construct a sturdy house. [5] The frame was then either covered with vertical planks or brick was laid between the frameworks of the house, creating an aesthetic appeal. While construction methods of the shotgun house were developing so were the designs. The basic shotgun house has a steeply pitched roof which allows for tall ceilings and the appearance of more space. Starting in the late 1800s, shotgun houses started to be built with a hallway running down one side of the house. [6] It is also notable that in many cases the hallway was not interior. It was simply a raised, covered walkway that led from the front to the side door at the back of the house. The interior hallway most likely developed from an enclosed exterior walkway.

Other variations of the shotgun house started to develop after the mass influx of free blacks into Louisiana following the St. Domingo revolt. Once the shotgun house reaches the states it centers upon New Orleans and radiates across Louisiana following the bayous. In Fred B. Kniffen’s study on the distribution of house types in Louisiana, he finds shotgun houses extending far up the Ouachita and Red Rivers into Northwest Louisiana. [7] Most design innovations were brought on by the lack of space in an urban setting. According to the Encyclopedia of Louisiana, the “standard city lot size of 30 feet by 120 feet” limited the residents to only certain styles of housing. [8] One such development to this problem was the camelback shotgun house where the back rooms of the house are two stories. This design allowed for expansion of the home within the relatively cramped urban lots. Another development was the double shotgun house where two shotguns share a center wall. These are the most common style found in New Orleans and are found primarily as rows of identical houses where speculative builders built many of the same house. [9] The third major variation is the north shore shotgun house or the country shotgun house. The north shore shotgun house gets its name from it being found primarily along the North shore of Lake Ponchetrain. [10] The north shore shotgun lacks the frills of the urban shotgun houses and has a characteristic porch that wraps around three sides of the house. It is also shaped like a “T” because either the front or back room is larger than the others in width in order to intersect the porch. This is most likely in order to keep the rectangular design of the house. These primary designs became more elaborate in the urban areas but remained fairly basic in the rural areas of Louisiana. Industry began to use shotgun houses for company towns beginning after Reconstruction. George O. Carney claims that industry liked the shotgun house because it could be “quickly assembled, it required neither blueprints nor skilled carpenters, it used locally available and inexpensive materials, and it was portable and durable.” [11] These qualities made the shotgun house ideal for mass production as company housing and its portability allowed the towns to move with the resources.

A major contributor to the spread of the shotgun house after Reconstruction was the expanding lumber industry. The lumber industry forever altered the landscape and culture of Louisiana. George A. Stokes points out that “by 1904 more than 2,000 miles of logging railroads had been built in the South”. [12] The lumber industry became the primary employer in Western Louisiana during the early twentieth century. With the growth of the lumber industry came sawmills that employed large numbers of men. Consequently, company towns would form around the sawmills in order to support the workers. Company towns were built and ran by the lumber companies which were always looking to save money. As a result, the shotgun house and the bungalow were adopted as two forms of cheap housing. The immense supply of sawn lumber provided by the sawmill combined with the simple design of the houses allowed for rapid construction of the company towns. Many company towns were segregated by race. African Americans were often placed in shotgun houses that were poorly insulated. The whites and skilled laborers lived in bungalows which were more spacious and not as drafty. However these houses were well built and many of them are still inhabited today. [13] Company towns would move with the railroads which allowed for the rapid diffusion of shotgun houses across large areas. Stokes notes that “the shotgun house was built in the logging camps as well as the company towns”. [14] A possible reason that shotgun houses conform to such strict size requirements is that many shotgun houses were moved by rail from one location to another. The long and narrow design is much more ideal for transport by rail than any of the other housing styles used by lumber companies. Stokes claims that two shotgun house designs were used in Louisiana logging camps, one style was designed to be portable, the other was modeled after the French and migrated its way north. [15] In addition to the expansion of shotgun houses by lumber companies, Kniffen claims that the shotgun houses found along the bayous have characteristics tying them to fishing and trapping. [16] Economy along the rivers evolved long before the railroads stretched through Louisiana. The cheap shotgun house most likely followed the bayous for that reason. The wealthy built large houses in cities or on large acreages, those that made their living from the waterways built cheap, small and close to the water so that wasted money could be minimized.

Learning from the lumber companies, oil companies also adopted shotgun houses as a cost effective form of housing. The oil field company towns were in many ways identical to their lumber industry counterparts. The oil rigs required men to operate them and unlike sawmills, there could be tens to hundreds of rigs operating out of one company town. The shotgun house flooded into Oklahoma during the 1905 Glenn Pool oilfield boom. [17] However, shotgun houses in Oklahoma can be traced back to the mid-1800s. According to Carney, this is because “black slaves came to Indian Territory with the Five Civilized Tribes in the 1830s”. [18] It has already been established by Vlach and Kniffen that shotgun houses were developed by African slaves from the designs of the Arawak and Yoruba tribes. The slaves brought by the Five Civilized Tribes brought their housing style with them and it became established as a cheap form of housing. The oil field turned the simple slave shack into one of the most dominant house forms in Oklahoma, East Texas and even Southwest Arkansas. The oil field did modify the house in order for it to be better suited to the harsh winds of Oklahoma. John Morris points out that “instead of the roofs being pointed, they are circular in shape” which allowed for a low pitched roof which reduced wind resistance and construction costs. [19] Many of the oil field shotgun houses, like the lumber industry shotgun houses, were well crafted and are still used today. Some have been relocated due to their ease of portability while others developed their own small town communities.

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Shotgun houses and variations of them are also found in Northeast Arkansas and North Carolina. The shotgun variations in North Carolina only minutely represent the shotgun houses of Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. The North Carolina shotgun house developed from housing innovations made by Europeans. Michael Ann Williams writes that “as community members turned from farm work to employment in the mines, vertical-plank construction was adopted”. [20] Vertical-plank construction was common in many shotgun houses in both Haiti and Louisiana. The building technique was fairly cheap and an abundance of lumber allowed for this style to gain popularity. In North Carolina as in Louisiana and Oklahoma, the shotgun house style of construction was used in many company towns, primarily at the mines. A description by Morris of shotgun building practices in Seminole, Oklahoma links the North Carolina building practice with the oil field shotgun houses in Oklahoma. Morris says that “the houses are constructed of boards nailed vertically” which is also the way North Carolina company houses are described. The shotgun houses found in Arkansas are also linked to industry. An article by Richard Burns highlights the Singer Sewing Machine Company (SSMC) town of Trumann, Arkansas. The SSMC first started “building shotgun houses in the 1920s” according to Burns. [21] Many of these houses are still being used even after the SSMC closed its plant in Trumann. The shotgun houses in Trumann are well built and were intended to provide housing for many years. Like the lumber companies, the SSMC owned their own logging company and thus shotgun house construction in Trumann was vertically integrated. Like the oil boom-towns and logging camps, Trumann’s shotgun houses have also moved around and spread out over the years.

The diffusion of shotgun houses across a wide range of the Mid-west and South has allowed for many types of people to inhabit them. One common theme however is that shotgun houses are primarily found in poor, all-black neighborhoods. The shotgun house, like the manufactured home, has become the icon of the poor lower-classes. However some shotgun houses like those in Trumann and New Orleans have been absorbed into the middle-class communities. Many shotgun houses have been moved to more attractive areas and have been reconditioned. Following Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans shotgun houses were rebuilt and updated by middle-class citizens. The trend is still unfortunately following that of 100 years ago. The urban shotgun houses are becoming attractive to buyers while the rural ones are entrenched in poverty. The shotgun house has been replaced by the manufactured home in nearly every case and company towns no longer form along the rails. The shotgun house is still clinging to its rich history and survives in historical districts like New Orleans and Trumann as well as in the rural backcountry of the lower Mississippi river drainage basin.



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