Instant House

A blog tribute to the manufactured, mass-produced, modular and kit homes that grace the American landscape.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Prefabs Before Industrialization

Prefabs in Colonial Americas  
According to Charles Peterson in his article "Early American Prefabrication", the first prefab to arrive in America was shipped from England for a gold mining project in "the Baffin Land"--one of the large islands in Northern Canada.  It was not a success--parts were lost, walls didn't show up, and a significant part of the structure was lost fighting ice on the way.  The year was 1578.  Later attempts were more successful, with a large house for Edward Winslow being erected in 1624.  Since America had no shortage of timber, it was soon realized that it would be more cost-effective for houses to be built on American soil with American workmanship and materials for export elsewhere.

One of these things is not like the other!
Prefabs for Export  
People seek comfort in the type of dwelling they live in, which is probably why Christian missionaries from New England brought pre-cut houses with them wherever they went.  A notable example is in Hawaii--there missionaries erected what is now known as "Mission House", a frame structure which looks like it was plucked from a New England coastal town and plopped on the shores of Honolulu--mostly was.  This structure even makes itself known in Sarah Vowell's book about Hawaii, The Wordy Shipmates.  American prefabs were also sent to the Caribbean and other places in the Pacific.  Wherever Americans went, their houses went with them!

The California Gold Rush of 1849  
It seems strange that prefabricated housing was a sought-after commodity during the California Gold Rush, but when you have thousands and thousands of people descending on a section of wilderness, shelter is an absolute necessity.  Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his diary in January of 1849 that men were heading for California with "framed houses".  American built houses of lumber were being made for export in all the major cities for transport by rail and by boat.  But there were two other major sources for prefabricated dwellings--Great Britain, and...believe it or not...China.

Britain's Contribution  
Great Britain produced a multitude of prefabricated buildings for the California Gold Rush out of iron--a material the Brits were well versed in.  These structures were advertised as portable, moveable, and fireproof.  A firm in Liverpool was offering a furnished two-room iron cottage for $150.  The iron houses were not very well received in the hot California climate and were found to be not fireproof at all.

China's Contribution
Houses from Hong Kong appeared in San Francisco in 1849.  These were small affairs made of wood, complete with doors and windows.  These could be put up for a total cost of about $1500--that included all materials, labor, and import fees.

Other Thoughts  
It's amazing to think that it was cost-effective to ship houses from the Eastern US around the South American cape to the port of San Francisco, but it was.  It was equally cost-effective to cross the Pacific, with houses coming from China, Australia, and New Zealand.  The housing boom ended very quickly, however, with the market flattening out by the end of 1849.  The unused iron houses were sold off for scrap, and the wooden houses were Frankensteined for other purposes.  It would not be until the early 1900s that another housing shortage would spark the development of the American prefabricated house.

Another California Iron house.

A prefab Chapel!  
Prefab houses in the Caribbean

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