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

Friday, March 30, 2018



Just a nice example of an antique saltbox house that seems to be accurately dated circa 1740.
Getting old and crochety is the stage I’m getting to rapidly. Grumpy, grouchy and similar words apply to my mood after reading annoying real estate ads which I always do although I've been out of the business for quite a few years.

My pet peeve these days is the fact that so many owners of old houses are stretching the age of their house.  Everyone, it seems, wants to push the construction date of their antique house into the previous century.  If the real date is 1720 some will be telling us that it is 1670.  If the true date is 1805, sellers will typically tell us it is 1780 and so on.  A house, unlike people, is never too old.  The owners want to be younger than they really are but want their house to be older than it really is.

Do you think if it is older it adds prestige?  Do you think if its older it is worth more money or easier to sell? Maybe, you think, there will be more buyers if you say it is 1700 something instead of 1810?  The only thing you are doing is misrepresenting the house and not fooling anyone who knows a thing or two about old houses.  There are great antique houses from any of the first three architectural periods.  

How about getting real about the age?  When selling an antique house a knowledgeable buyer will respond politely when the age of the house comes up but inside are smiling because they know, or should know the difference; and so should you, the owner and so should you, the Realtor.

Apparently lots of people are not aware that putting the wrong date on a house doesn’t fly with those that know about old houses.  There are features that tell the age and kidding yourself that your house is 20 or 50 years older than it is won’t go over well with those in the know who are serious buyers for an antique house. 

It really isn’t that hard to figure out the age range for a first, second or third period house.  Let’s start with first period…circa 1660 to 1725, approximately.  That's about a 65 year window.  I used a beginning date of 1660 because the chances of finding a house older than 1660 is negligible.

A first period house would have very heavy framing and the framing is meant to be seen.  The beams are smooth with no adz marks.  The edges of the beams are decorated with a flat chamfer.  Fancier houses have the main summer beam decorated with a quarter round chamfer ending with a carved flourish called a lamb’s tongue. The earlier houses had large dramatic chamfers.  As time went on the framing became smaller and chamfers weaker.  Therefore it is easy to judge whether the house is on be early end of the first period or the later end.  

A first period house is post medieval and has a low foundation and a steeply pitched roof.
The beams will show signs of old whitewash. If the beams are brown without traces of paint or whitewash it can’t be first period because that tells you the beams were never exposed. If the beams were originally exposed they would be covered with old flaking whitewash and old greasy smoke stains from the cooking fireplace.

The joist spacing will be narrower at the beginning of the period and wider toward the end of the period ranging from an early measurement of 18 or so inches to about 24 inches at the end of the period.  This feature is not something to hang your hat on but something to take into consideration along with the other features.

Rooms are large ranging from 20 feet square to eighteen by twenty or similar but generally with large rooms. Some walls may have vertical sheathing. 

Because of the large rooms the house my look longer than usual because it is longer.  The pitch of the roof will be steep. The earlier the house, the steeper the roof.

If a house frame is not decorated nothing in the world can make it a first period house.  Period! If the research leads you to the 17th century it simply isn’t the same house but a later house on the original lot.  Houses burned or the original house replaced.  There is nothing you can say or do to change the date always keeping in mind that there are very few 17th century houses out there to be discovered.  A house from the 1600’s is a very rare house.  You are not going to see one in your search for an antique very often, maybe never.

Moving on to the second or Georgian period there are also irreversible features that lock the date of the house somewhere between 1730 and 1800, about a 70 year window.

On the exterior there may be some foundation showing because they are beginning to realize that if the house is elevated off the ground the sills will last longer. The pitch of the roof will be lower than first period.

Beautiful example of a Georgian house with
formal door surround and twin chimneys
The inside is a giveaway to the age.  There will be NO EXPOSED BEAMS.  They are not supposed to be exposed.  Don’t expose them by ripping out original plaster.  You don’t want to see beams in a second period house.  (You may want to see them but you shouldn’t.) The beams that protrude into the room and the summer beam overhead will be boxed with smooth boards and should stay that way.  Do not remove the boards to make it look like first period because it is what it is and will never be first period.  It is a period of refinement.

The more formal rooms in a second period house will have paneled room ends on the fireplace wall.  The other three walls will be plastered.  A higher styled house may have some paneled wainscoting but the average house will not.  Paneling goes with the second period.  Vertical or horizontal sheathing goes with second period in the less formal rooms and may be feather edged.

Sometimes a first period house was updated with second period features but right now I’m not talking about exceptions but talking about the typical house that you are apt to see in your travels.  For the most part, walls of raised field paneling equals second period.  It wasn’t present in the first period and it will not be present in the third period.

Moving on to the third or Federal period there are more changes that clearly define a house of that period. Again, there is more of a foundation keeping the sills out of the dirt.  The pitch of the roof may be lower yet. There is an important message here.  Almost every Federal period house I see on the market is labeled 1700’s, typically 1780. 

In 1797 Asher Benjamin published the first American pattern book and it featured details of the third or Federal period.  Benjamin’s book introduced Federal architectural features to every crack and cranny of the New England region.  Staircases were copied as were mantles and other details. There were no longer walls of raised paneling around the fireplace.  Paneling was replaced by mantles.  But unlike the second period there was always wainscoting in the more important rooms and even in some rooms that were not formal such as the kitchen.  When you see mantles and wainscoting it will most likely be an Asher Benjamin influenced design and nine times out of ten will date to 1800 or later because it took a couple of years for Benjamin’s book to be distributed to the far corners of New England.  Therefore, if the house has simple mantles, wide board wainscoting with a cap and pocket shutters at the windows you look silly if you try to pass it off as built in 1780.  Most of the Federal period houses I have encountered in the last 50 years were 1800 at the earliest and many more like 1810 to 1820.  There is a shorter window for this period, perhaps only about 35 years.

Very nice example of a Federal house with hipped roof, twin chimneys
Palladian window, fan light over door and side lights half way 
to the floor.
So you may have to do deed research to accurately date the house as well as possible but judging a house to be first, second or third period is easy and doesn’t require extensive research.  Each period is different and labeled accordingly.  There is nothing you can do to make a Federal house into a Georgian or a Georgian house into a first period house.

I once sold a moderately late first period house.  It had been expertly labeled as after 1709.  Still it was a genuinely early house.  A sign on the front of the house had a date from the 1600’s.  When the owner realized that it was incorrect he removed the sign immediately and put it in the cellar. He was very conscientious about accuracy and wanted the house was represented properly.  The house sold and  the sign was quickly brought out of the cellar and placed back on the front of the house. 

The same house was recently on the market again after many years and I looked at the listing to see what the present owners were calling it.  1652!!  Any knowledgeable person looking at this house would know that it was darn old but dating it to 1652 would make it the second oldest timber framed house in America with the oldest accepted as being the Fairbanks house in Dedham, MA.  The Fairbanks house has been accurately dated through dendrochronology, the study of the tree rings, and the most accurate way to date a house. It has been dated with its various sections being between 1637 and 1640.  The second oldest may be more like 1660 so the house I am describing is nowhere near 1652.  It is probably sixty or seventy or more years newer and in no way comparable.  When you visit the Fairbanks house you know you are looking at a house more ancient than any other you have ever seen.  Even the very old Whipple house in Ipswich dating from the 17th century is just plain different and stepping over the threshold convinces a visitor that this house is unlike most antique houses.  First period houses in private ownership don't resemble these monumental early museum houses.

An owner loses credibility when trying to pass off their house as something that it isn’t.  There is a lot more involved to get an exact date but simply distinguishing between first, second and third periods is quite simple.  Your house has mantles?  Not 1700’s.  Your house has raised field paneling around the fireplaces?  Not first period. No way.  No how.  Your house doesn’t have an extra heavy frame that is decorated.  Not first period.  Not 1600’s. 

A buyer, a seller, or a real estate broker should be able to distinguish between these first three important periods.  It is quite elementary.

Stop misrepresenting these houses.  For the many old house people that are out there looking for a good antique it is just plain annoying and a waste of time as owners or brokers try to defend a fictitious date. 

My advice is to look for quality and integrity in an old house whatever the age.  Look for a well preserved house.  I’m not talking about condition.  I’m talking about features and what remains os original material.  I’m talking about historical value and not monetary value.  A beat up old house can have historical value.  Many “restored” houses have lost their integrity and have less historical value than they did before they were "fixed up".  Look for one that hasn’t been gutted.

And don’t exaggerate the date.  It won’t sell the house faster nor will most buyers like it better. They will know. You will be left with egg on your face! 

Here are some typical examples found  in recent listings of houses on the market on North Shore towns and cities.

Figure 1 This ceiling was never meant to be seen.  It should be plastered as it always was.  Brown beams means that they weren’t ever whitewashed and were never exposed to soot from the fireplaces.  In an otherwise elegant room this rough, primitive ceiling looks ridiculous.

Figure 2  This house is truly first period and documented to sometime after 1709.  You can still see the residue of whitewash on the ceiling and the chamfer on the summer beam.  The only problem here is the date.  Are you ready for this?  1652, making it perhaps the second oldest timber framed house in America after the Fairbanks house.  Not!

Figure 3 This house may have the reverse problem.  It has lots of paneling even though the date is advertised as 1825.  This would appear to be a late 18th century house with six panel Georgian doors with the two smaller panels in the middle of the door.  Georgian for sure.  You just don’t find walls of raised field paneling in the 1800’s.

Figure 4  This listing takes the cake.  It is a gambrel cottage and clearly a second period house.  (Gambrel roofs are always second period)  What do you think of this date?  1635.  Older than any standing timber framed house in the USA.  The replacement windows are as offensive as the date.  Most houses of this style typically date to around 1760 for an average.

Figure 5  This is an example of woodwork found in an American foursquare. I was unable to get a photo of the subject house interior but these houses can range from 1900 to 1920.  The woodwork and two panel doors are indicative of the craftsman style probably 1910 or later.  A very similar house in a nearby town was dated at 1915. The house I found for sale was dated  1881.  No way.

Figure 6   The listing claims that this house was built in 1700 which would make it a first period house with heavy framing  and lack of refinement.  All the evidence points toward a date in the Federal period of 1800 or later.  The mantle is very Federal as are the six panel doors with the two smaller panels at the top as opposed to the Georgian period where the small panels are in the middle of the door. Not having seen this house there is a chance that it was "Federalized" in the 1800's.  That is a possibility but from everything seen in the photos it is a Federal house.

Figure 7   Here is an example of a pure Federal staircase.The cap on the wainscotting is 100% Federal as are the square balusters and the decoration on the side of the stairs.  The builder of this house and the date in the earliest years of the 1800's is documented in the diary of the original owner and yet the house is being advertised as built in 1750.  If anyone had checked with mhc-macris.net (see link below) they would have learned that the house was built by housewright, John Smith, of Gloucester, circa 1800.  It was built for Ebenezer Pool who hadn't even been born in 1750.

The houses illustrated here are all on the market at the present time.  All are misrepresented date-wise.  I have not shown the exteriors not wanting to hurt the reputation of the owner or broker or do harm to the listings that need to be sold.  It is too bad that so few brokers can get it right.

The real estate community relies on the dates placed on them after consulting the assessors’ records which are notoriously wrong.  For an official more accurate date Realtors should be using the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s inventory to be found at www.mhc-macris.net.  Most cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts have been extensively inventoried.  While there are mistakes this information is infinitely more accurate then what the city has on file.  I have tried for years to inspire real estate brokers to use this source without a whole lot of success.  They have been told by their companies to rely on the assessors' date rather than take the responsibility for dating the house themselves.  That makes sense.  The problem is that they are using a very flawed source for their dates that is especially needless.  A higher authority that is much more accurate is right there on their computers, grossly underutilized.

Brokers let their buyers and sellers down when representing antique houses, sometime ridiculously misrepresenting the age of the house.  For an industry so fearful of being sued for misrepresentation it appears that they are blissfully misrepresenting house after house.  I guess any date after the landing of the Pilgrims seems possible such as the 1635 house. 

There is a lot more to accurately dating a house, either visually or through research.  It takes a lot of experience and study to put a ballpark date on a house.  That is quite different from what I am talking about.  What I am talking about is assigning the right period to a house with a 50 or more year window in some cases.

Everyone interested in houses and especially people making their living selling houses should be able to recognize the period and name the style of architecture, especially the three earliest periods which comprise real antique houses. They should also know the range of dates that can be assigned to these houses.  It’s really not all that hard and safer than assigning a specific date that can't be backed up without much research.

Happy spring and happy house hunting.



  1. Hello Pru, It must be frustrating to have so many people misdating their houses. I do lots of research on old houses, and frequently come across these doubtful dates.

    The same is true of later 19th century houses. For example, if a mansard-roofed house is dated 1840, either the date is wrong or the house was updated, often both. I do find evidence of updating often in old photographs. For example, the front of a renovated house might have Victorian 2/2 windows, while a glimpse of the side will show older 6/6 ones.

    A complication we have in Ohio is that all old houses are claimed to be stops on the underground railroad, even if they were built in 1870!

    1. We have the same problem here, Jim. Everyone is fascinated with the idea of the underground railroad and every nook, crannie and cubby hole is suspect. I did see what appeared to be one in a town known to be on the route north. If attic floor boards near the big chimney were removed, it revealed a pretty good sized space. There was a ladder and an old chair in the "hole". Pru

  2. Wonderful article Pru! You probably avert your eyes when driving past historic house plaques in Ipswich.

    1. Thanks, Gordon. I always blame Waters for the Ipswich dates. I guess it didn't occur to him that the house on the lot in the 1600's isn't necessarily the house that's there now or there when he did his research! No one seems to be very eager to change them! I had a heck of a good laugh when I read your comment!

  3. Wow! Fascinating. (I live in a townhouse built in 1987. Ha.)

  4. First, there are first period gambrel houses; the BU survey from the 80s and 90s found three or four, so they're out there. Also, plaster ceilings were not uncommon in 1700, so there are many first period houses without evidence of whitewash on joists. There's even a proven first period house in Guilford, Connecticut that has an undecorated summer beam concealed beneath an original plaster ceiling; an exterior chamfered girt is the only first period feature.