On Moving; or, The Story of a Little Old House
October 30, 2017 2:45 PM   Subscribe

McMansion Hell writes about the history of a small row house in Baltimore, built around 1901, asking how the people living there might have managed the logistics of moving house and what sort of furniture they might have had.

Other McMansion links:
McMansion author Kate Wagner's TEDx talk What’s a McMansion — and how can we prevent more of them?
McMansion on Twitter.
An interview with Wagner from The Hairpin.
McMansion previously on MetaFilter: Zillow cease and desist, Mail Order Houses and Welcome to McMansion Hell.
posted by paduasoy (24 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I moved from a dingy (yet immensely charming) self-constructed room in what used to be a Cork and Seal Factory, to a little 812 square-foot Baltimore rowhouse.

Cork and seal factory is known in Baltimore as the Copy Cat. It's an enormous artist warehouse building.
posted by triangle at 2:57 PM on October 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Moving in the old days involved a lot of excelsior - that is, wood shavings for packing material. Twine had to do instead of packing tape. Where you found another box at 10 pm when all of yours were suddenly full, I don’t know.

May 1 used to be the traditional date for moving, although that seems to be September 1 nowadays, at least in any market influenced by the academic calendar of a local college.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:17 PM on October 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Doing some family history this past year I've found one branch of the family were immigrants living in Baltimore in the mid and late 1800s... from looking at city directories, it looks like this one family moved almost every year. (Probably a poverty thing?) At any rate, I've been wondering about what moving was like in Baltimore in the past, so will be reading this with interest!
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:22 PM on October 30, 2017

This is really cool. I live in Baltimore and even though the street names and everything are blocked out, I can pretty much figure out exactly where this lil rowhouse is. I had no idea that the McMansion Hell person lived in Baltimore, much less the Copy Cat! Well, used to live in the Copy Cat, anyway.

I love stuff like this, more please. And I love that apparently my friend Jackson helped her out with this because that is one of the things you do if you're a preservationist. This post made my night, thanks again.
posted by capnsue at 3:36 PM on October 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

I loved this story, especially the photos of working-class family homes. There is so much out there about huge fancy places in the olden days, but it seems like very little about people who weren't rich. Very little that isn't corny beige stagecraft (Les Mis and Newsies come to mind) or pumped up for maximum squalor.

The author of McMansion Hell is a really talented researcher, also. I hope she does more of these.
posted by witchen at 4:55 PM on October 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

There's a joke about moving vans in Gilbert and Sullivan's 1882 operetta, Iolanthe.
Pickford's was a moving company whose slogan was “We Carry Everything.” When the character Lord Mountararat is asked if his popular rival will be able to carry a bill in Parliament, he replies:
“Carry it? Of course he will! He’s a Parliamentary Pickford - he carries everything!”
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:06 PM on October 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

One thing I've notice, from being a bigger person who likes history museums and pioneer villages and the like, is how small the furniture was. So getting even something like a modern dinning room chair into a rowhouse might be tough today, but the equivalent chair would fit just fine in 1902.

And between the urban rowhouse and the edwardian mansion, a lot of middle class and rural families just made their own furniture or had someone else build it for them. I know I've heard aunts and uncles and grandparents more than once declare that a certain piece would never make it our of the front door in one piece because it was constructed inside the house.

Which kind of brings us full circle to Ikea
posted by thecjm at 5:15 PM on October 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

Thanks, The Underpants, I'd forgotten about that. Pickfords is still going, though Wikipedia says the original family sold out in 1816. There's a company history page but it's a bit nasty to navigate. Not sure when they dropped the slogan.

I also really liked the photographs, and the information about what was going on in them on the Library of Congress site. I did not know picking nuts was a thing.
posted by paduasoy at 5:19 PM on October 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Brick-by-Brick | Anatomy of a Rowhouse historical construction, land speculators, big name developers, and the price of labor during the building boom 1888 - WWI more or less
A Reference Guide to Baltimore Rowhouse Types how construction firms layered "luxury" and amenities on rowhouses
Guided by History: Race, Class and Neighborhood Choice in Baltimore City the usual suspects
posted by marycatherine at 6:32 PM on October 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Moving was all using chests you already had and packing soft things into baskets if you were not rich, and having custom crates made of deal (softwood) if you were rich, and not having much anyway if you were very poor. One 'flit' would do it.

Check out Punch: blackbeetles in the new place!

There's a whole history of New York City moving on May 1st, including a cartoon with a reference to "the bed key" -- lots of old furniture was designed to come apart but the fittings were not necessarily standardized so woe to you if you lost the unscrewing-doolally.

And many rooms and houses were let furnished; it was a sign of good housekeeping to take apart the wooden furniture, the bed and dressers, and rub turpentine and beeswax into all the surfaces, between tenants. Anti bed and other bugs. Very hard work. Can't remember where I last ran across that; Kipps, maybe.
posted by clew at 6:58 PM on October 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

This has parallels to the history of my house in Toronto, which I bought in 2006. I've learned a number of things about its history over the years by researching it at the City of Toronto archives and by looking for clues during renovations. It's a semi-detached brick house that, with the two houses it's attached to, was built for $4500 in 1912 -- I've seen the building permit. It would cost about $2 million to buy the three houses now.

My house has about 1,100 square feet and three bedrooms. The first occupant was a carpenter, and the next occupants worked as munitions workers during WWI, so it was a working class house, and given how quickly the occupants changed over the years, was likely rented out. Originally it would have felt quite a bit smaller as there was no porch, and no back kitchen area that connects the first floor to the basement, which would have been a cellar and is now a basement apartment, and the attic was unfinished -- the original ceiling trap door is still there, though it's now blocked by the attic floorboards. My two neighbours also have porches and back kitchen areas with steps down to their finished basements, but they still don't have finished attics. There were also no bathrooms. At some point the back bedroom on the second floor of my house was divided in two to make room for a very small bathroom, and there's also a bathroom in the basement apartment. There would have been an archway between my living room and dining room originally, but someone took it out at some point. There was a pantry just off the kitchen when I bought the place, but I turned it into a hallway closet. And given the bits of old wallpaper and linoleum I've come across throughout the years, I don't think my house has ever looked very nice. The city had to come in and clean it up circa 2002, just before the previous owner bought it. I also have a few reasons to believe that it was a crack house in the 1990s/early 2000s. Ah, if these walls could talk....
posted by orange swan at 7:02 PM on October 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is great research. I really wish I had had it when we were working on exhibit about a family moving in the 1880s. We had a terrible time really visually reconstructing what moving/packing was like and ended up with your basic chests with excelsior and dis-assembled furniture. But there was so much more I wanted to know.I echo:

The answer to the second question, which was how would a family move from one home to another is, sadly, we’re still not sure.

I've lived in a few Victorians, and it's common in those neighborhoods to hear stories about how people used rope-and-pulley systems to get things into the upstairs rooms (because the staircases often were narrow, with a turn) or took out the entire front windows to get sofas and the like inside. Those are the kinds of things that just stay put until someone hacks them apart.
posted by Miko at 7:10 PM on October 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

This was a lovely article, thanks for posting!
posted by latkes at 7:14 PM on October 30, 2017

(Oh wow the Anatomy of a Rowhouse blog is wonderful, thank you marycatherine.)
posted by clew at 7:16 PM on October 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I peeled off some painted over wallpaper in the front room of a small 1850s shotgun apartment, which was originally just three rooms. Between the two windows, the perfect place to hang a picture, there were dozens of spackled over nail holes in the plaster. It really brought to life how many different families had lived there over the years.
posted by jjj606 at 7:17 PM on October 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Where you found another box at 10 pm when all of yours were suddenly full, I don’t know.

Maybe someone will someday write a short history of liquor store boxes. (Seriously, in days of old when they were presumably made of wood, did they give them away, or send them back to the distributor, or what?)

Also, the mention of getting big things out and/or down from upper stories reminds me of the old cartoon cliche of the piano being hauled up or down from an upper story via block and tackle... and the rope breaking just as some unlucky soul walks underneath. Wonder how often that actually happened.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:35 PM on October 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Betty Smith's A Tree Grows In Brooklyn addresses how working class people moved back in the early 1900s. When the Nolans move, their stuff is carted to the new place by the ice man's one shaggy horse and wagon, with the Nolans also riding in the wagon. When Johnny and Katie Nolan move to their last apartment together, they get a piano because the previous tenant had one and couldn't afford to move it to her next place. Smith describes how it was a huge undertaking to move a piano in those days and how onlookers would gather to watch it being lowered from the windows on ropes. It would have cost $10 to move the piano, and many people didn't make much more than that in a week. The woman asked Katie to take care of the piano, saying she hoped to be able to send for it at some point, but she never did and so the Nolans scored a free piano.
posted by orange swan at 7:46 PM on October 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

in days of old when they were presumably made of wood, did they give them away, or send them back to the distributor, or what?

People used them in garages and such for storage, and a great many of them were just scavenged and burned for heat.
posted by Miko at 8:02 PM on October 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thank you for the wonderful post, paduasoy! There is so much that is fascinating in this, from the details about furnishings to the monstrous hours worked by these men and women to the fact that the average household spent 18.4% of its income on rent in Pennsylvania in 1901. (For comparison's sake, according to this article, 32.8% of LA residents spend over 50% of their income on rent).
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 8:58 PM on October 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ha, this is taking me back to trying to move a Costco couch into a 1930s 800sqft airplane factory worker tract bungalow. Movers ended up taking the door off its hinges and it still left major scuff marks.

Most of my grandparents' old furniture comes apart nicely so you can get it through doors and up stairs. Big old Costco couches, not so much...
posted by potrzebie at 12:13 AM on October 31, 2017

>in days of old when they were presumably made of wood, did they give them away, or send them back to the distributor, or what?
People used them in garages and such for storage, and a great many of them were just scavenged and burned for heat.

Round here they went back to the brewery carrying the empty bottles to be refilled.
Amusing that the article quotes per piece shipping rates, as if you would use Fedex to move house today. There were horses and carts for rent as hauliers in the old days per hour or day, just like you can rent a van today, though you would likely have got the driver too.

But the real answer, as noted, was people had much less stuff.
My grandparents were bon in the 1910s and besides their bed (shared as little kids) they could have carried all their personal possessions in a medium suitcase when they were children.

Think of the opening seen of the Beverly Hillbillies to get a feel for how a household moved pre-war, and substitute a wagon for the car:
posted by bystander at 1:02 AM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here are some of the reference images we used in the above-mentioned project: 1885 1831 (this one's more like an eviction - the mass May 1 move - but you get the idea that carters were waiting to help; uncertain but after arrival of phone. We found that our more modern term "moving" wasn't enough to unearth info, just as the author of this blog did. Terms like "carting" "hauling" "removal" and "teamster" were more productive.
posted by Miko at 6:14 AM on October 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

(A cart has one axle and can often be pulled by one animal or person, and a wagon has at least two axles and may require a team -- multiple -- draft animals. Being a teamster was always higher-status than being a carter, but cities usually regulated carters more lightly. Cf. The Horse in the City, which is also interesting if you're thinking about modern self-driving cars and delivery services and so forth, because it discusses cities in which public road space was more limiting than labor and energy costs, and how tax and policy and licensing tried to deal with that.

Most of the cartoons about all of NYC moving on May 1st have terrible traffic jams. The theft and damage must have been considerable.)
posted by clew at 10:37 AM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love this kind of stuff. We actually paid a local historian to write up a history of our house and the previous owners. She did an amazing job even finding out the name of the original builder who had built the place on spec in 1869 before selling it to a prominent downtown lawyer. He moved in with his wife and their irish maid who presumably lived in the back room over the kitchen.

The house is mostly unchanged since then other than the addition of bathrooms and electricity so it's fun to picture how they lived there 150 years ago before the neighborhood was carved up with freeways and stadiums.
posted by octothorpe at 2:45 PM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

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