Bernie Herman’s The Stolen House, first published in 1992, investigates and reconstructs a small community in the Cypress Swamp of southern Delaware during the first decades of the United States, from roughly the 1780s to the 1820s — using the taking-off point of a stolen house. Yes, a stolen house.
Basically, after Benjamin Christopher died intestate in 1784, a man named John Jacobs married Christopher’s widow, and took over management of the deceased man’s estate — including the responsibility of managing it properly for the 7 orphaned children of Christopher. But he quickly stripped the 100 acre property of anything of real value. Decades later, the orphans sued John Jacobs — accusing him of defrauding them of their inheritance by stripping the family woodlands of its valuable timber, taking down extensive wooden fencing, and—perhaps most surprisingly—stealing the new Christopher family house by moving it to his own neighboring property.
(BELOW: Totally unrelated, but I’ve always found this house-moving “oops” photo amusing)
While it may seem odd that he just moved a house, since it’s more rare today, the relocation of buildings was (to our modern sensibilities) actually surprisingly common in Delaware into the 20th century. Small buildings were often built on piers or without permanent foundations, and could be fairly easily rolled on logs or sledded on large wooden beams (like skis) to a different location. It was not uncommon for old, smaller buildings to be attached as “additions” to larger, newer houses. Even more common was disassembling a building and reconstructing it, often as an attachment to another dwelling or outbuilding.
The story of The Stolen House is fascinating — but for the general reader interested in historic houses, the best reading will probably be chapter 5, which shares its title with the book. In this chapter, Herman really dives in to the architecture and construction of early houses in southern Delaware — including the size, construction details, the layout and use of spaces, and the landscapes around the houses. Herman reconstructs these details by studying not just the court descriptions of the stolen Christopher house, but also surviving examples of similar houses in the area. The chapter includes many photographs, floorpans, and other drawings to supplement the description and analysis of small Delaware houses in the early Republic. Despite the small size of common houses of the time (by modern standards), photographs show that some of them contained beautiful architectural details and ornament.
Readers should be forewarned that telling the story of the house’s “theft” is not Herman’s only goal, and in fact, is not even his primary purpose. Instead, the wacky story at the center of The Stolen House serves as a taking-off point for Herman to explore how material culture — “things” ranging from small objects, to fences, to houses, to woodlands — mediate social relationships, embodying and reflecting social networks. He pieces together the economic and social dynamics of an interesting swamp community by exploring timber harvesting, fencing land, and so on. His first chapter, “The Discourse of Things,” is highly academic, and argues that the best historical scholarship should combine traditional historical methods, archaeological approaches, and folklore perspectives. He points out that “object-centered” studies often fail to successfully connect material culture to broader historical discussions, but “object-driven” investigations are better able to contribute more holistic pictures of the significance of “things” in historical events.