About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Wednesday, October 23, 2013



In the last quarter of the nineteenth century following the Centennial of 1876 there arose a renewed interest in the past.  Some of this was a reaction to the sometimes "over the top" Victorian taste but also inspired by the one hundredth celebration of our independence.There was a renewed interest in the styles and object from the past.  There was also a new group of historians immersed in this trend.  Not having the sources we have for reference they invented words and promoted the trend toward Colonial Revival. Now, one hundred and thirty plus years later. some of these quaint terms have become part of our vocabulary, right or wrong.  Here are some of the most offending terms to avoid.  There are many more but let's start with ten.

1.  BORNING ROOM   A small room off the kitchen reserved for childbirth.
Plan of 18th century house showing  first floor bedroom.
FACT: A first floor bedroom located off the kitchen for the convenience of anyone in the house needing warmth, supervision, or unable to climb the stairs.

2.  MORTGAGE BUTTON An ivory decoration on the top of the newel post in the front stair hall capping a hollowed out cylinder in which the paid off mortgage or deeds were secreted.
Ivory button in middle of newel post for decoration.
FACT: Just a finishing touch; a decoration or ornament.

The colonial kitchen.
This is a typical kitchen with cooking fireplace, not a keeping room.
FACT:  A word not used in colonial New England. In old documents that room is simply called the "kitchen".

4. TORY CHIMNEY A white chimney with a black band around its top designating the home of a loyalist.

FACT: Tories needed, by necessity, to be inconspicuous. The painted                          chimney is a 20th century decoration.

5.  DUTCH OVEN:  The brick oven built into the fireplace.
A modern Dutch oven or iron pot being used in a modern
fireplace in the traditional manner.
FACT; A dutch oven is a pot used for cooking on the hearth  and has nothing to do with the construction of the fireplace or bake oven.                                

5. WIDOWS' WALKS"  A rooftop perch from which the wife would scan the horizon for a glimpse of her husband's ship returning from a voyage.
This is a widows walk, an open deck on the top of the house.
FACT: These could also be called lanterns or belvaderes. . They were often  found far away from the coast.

6.  KING BOARDS:  Boards intended for the king because of their size and used illegally by housewrights.
People are fascinated by the story of wide boards being
illegal.  Owners of old houses think they have illegal floors!
FACT: The widest boards were used like plywood would be used today to                 cover a large space quickly. They were used for attic floors and                                   sheathing. There is a kernel of truth here.  The king's men did select                              the best trees they could find for masts for the  English Navy.                                        

7.  INDIAN SHUTTERS:  Wooden interior shutters used for protection from Indians.
Folding or sliding shutter were used for privacy,
shade in summer or warmth in winter.
FACT: These folding or sliding shutters were introduced long after the days of Indians. They were used for privacy or protection from the sun and cold.

8.  SHIP CARPENTERS:  Shipbuilders who built houses in the winter or carved woodwork on shipboard  
Shipwrights at work at the shipyard.  They did
not usually become housewrights for the winter.

FACT: Houses were built by housewrights. Slanting floors, doors and  windows               are due to rotted sills. Houses were not deliberately built crooked so that the captain would feel comfortable on land.

9.  HL HINGES In religious New England HL stands for "Holy Lord".

FACT: The HL hinge is simply the usual "H" hinge with an extra leg for supporting heavier doors

10. FEDERALIST:  A three story house or captain's house from about 1800 such as those on Chestnut Street in Salem or n High Street in Newburyport, Portsmouth or elsewhere throughout the region.
A typical New England two story house
from the Federal period, circa 1800
FACT: A house from the Federal period should not be called a Federalist. A Federalist was a person and not an architectural term. Many think of Federal houses as being three stories such as often seen in Salem, Portsmouth or Newburyport.  They can also be of one or two stories.


  1. Prue teaches you things that you never knew, & you learn quite a bit from a teacher like her.

  2. If I hear someone say "borning room" one more time ...I will scream at them!! So happy you are talking about these silly terms!!

  3. I'm not familiar with the houses of New England, so everything you are writing is incredibly interesting to me. thanks! - Kay from Oregon

  4. Nice articles always attract the viewers. And your article is very attractive and informative. Keep it up and do post regularly please…

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