TCS Daily

Housing Bubble? Give Thanks for the Balloon

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - October 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Back in 1833, in the little settlement of Fort Dearborn, Ill., not far from a muddy nest of log cabins called Chicago, a man named Augustine Deodat Taylor did a remarkable thing.

He built a church.


It was St. Mary's Catholic Church, a modest 24 by 36-foot wooden structure.

What was remarkable was the way Taylor built the church, the speed with which he built it, and the low cost -- $400.


With only two helpers, he constructed the entire church in three months.


Had Taylor used the building methods prevailing at the time, the church would have taken most of a year and perhaps more to build and cost thousands of dollars. But instead of building it with heavy beams, carefully cut and put together with mortise-and-tenon joints by a small army of carpenters and laborers, Taylor employed two important and still emerging pieces of technology -- machine-made nails and machine-formed lumber.


In fact, the star of Taylor's effort was one of the most unsung yet important tools of progress in American history: the mill-formed white pine two-by-four.


Using these two-by-fours and some two-by-sixes, Taylor and his unskilled helpers built the four sides of the church by swiftly nailing together a frame. In the time it would have taken carpenters to carve the tenons on the ends of heavy beams to fit exactly into the carved mortises on other beams, Taylor and his helpers were joining the corners of the walls with nails and running joists and rafters across the top of the "box".


Building nails, which had once been expensive because they were laboriously hand-forged by apprentice "nailors" in blacksmith shops, were now available cheaply and in abundance -- kegs of them -- thanks to nail making machines that snipped them out of sheets or bars of iron.


The wood skeleton of vertical two-by-four "studs," spaced about 16 inches apart, and horizontal joists, all nailed together, would be familiar to anyone today. But back in 1833 it looked strange and flimsy. Carpenters hooted that the building would not last. They derisively called it a balloon frame that would be blown away by the first strong wind.


The name, like the frame, stuck, becoming a term of art rather than derision. And this light nailed-frame construction not only caught on (proving strong, architecturally articulate and versatile), but it revolutionized house construction in a growing nation with a voracious appetite for new homes.


It is said that by the time the first baby was being baptized in St. Marys the sound of hammers echoed in the neighborhood as "frame houses" were being built in imitation of Taylors method.


Who exactly came up with the idea of the balloon frame house is not known, but Taylor, who lived to a ripe old age as one of the leading citizens of old Chicago, was able to capitalize on a great convergence of technology that had occurred in the previous decade.


Steam power had come into its own, and steam powered saw mills resulted in an almost exponential increase in lumber production. By the 1820s, machines to edge, form and plane logs into finished lumber were creating a huge industry.


Names now all but lost in history, made this possible: Massachusetts-born Jacob Perkins, for instance, who patented a nail-making machine in 1795 (other variants soon followed), and William Wordsworth, who patented a steam-powered planing machine in 1828.


New Yorker Wordsworth's machine was capable of turning rough lumber into smoothly finished boards. This led to the development of steam-powered planing mills that poured out building lumber, molding and trim of precise dimensions and uniform quality, bringing prices down drastically. Before the advent of the planing machine, boards and trim for houses had to be slowly shaped a piece at a time by individual workers.


Over a growing network of railroads and canals, lumber wholesalers were able to ship finished products to retailers and building sites. The finished lumber was lighter and easier to handle, stack and move to the customer than heavy logs and semi-finished timbers.


Up until the time Taylor built St. Mary's, many Americans lived in either a log cabin or a house built slowly and expensively of masonry or heavy timber. These age-old European construction methods resulted in great solid houses but exacted a huge premium in time, labor and materials.


The first American reaction to this had been the sturdy but relatively crude log cabin, hewn, it almost seemed, directly from the abundant forests of the East. Even up to the decade just before the Civil War, 20 percent of the residents of New York State still lived in log houses.


But further west, on the plains, even a log house was a luxury. Timber was scarce. So was skilled labor. So the revolution in transportable finished lumber was of decisive importance in helping to house the hundreds of thousands of people settling in the West.


The new lightweight nailed construction started a break-away from the essentially box-like colonial houses and log cabins. Two-by-fours could be cut and nailed into circular turrets. Rooms and porches could jut off here and there. Elaborate decorative effects were possible. The picturesque Victorian houses that proliferated in the last half of the 19th century, lining the streets of Chicago, San Francisco and St. Louis; the architecturally interesting row houses of the big cities; the more modest frame houses dotting small towns and the countryside, all were made possible and affordable because of balloon frame construction.


As the technology became more and more refined, the houses proved extraordinarily strong and extraordinarily cheap and easy to build. They changed the American landscape with their fulfilled promise of affordable housing for the masses. It is very likely that most of you reading this live in a type of balloon frame house today.


The technological breakthrough begun at Fort Dearborn has had a most profound and widespread effect on American history and American life. And this breakthrough, in its steadily improved form (hurricane-resistant roofs, for instance), assures that the hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed in the recent hurricanes will be rebuilt much more quickly and cheaply than would otherwise be possible.


To see more of the extensive coverage of the 2005 Hurricane Season from TCS, click here.


TCS Daily Archives