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Book review: “Houses and Homes – Exploring Their History” by Barbara J. Howe, Dolores A. Fleming, Emory L. Kemp and Ruth Ann Overbeck

Every once in a while, when I’m in the basement and can see the foundations of our two-flat, or rummage in a closet and notice a crack in the plaster in the corner, or sit at my computer and look at the wallpaper that previous owners put up in the room, I wonder about the history of my home.

That history is the procession of people and families who lived here — in the second-floor apartment where we live, in the first-floor apartment which we rent to another family and in the basement where my wife has her office and I have my research files.

It’s also the time-lapse photography of what, on our block, was built first and what came next. Did our two-flat stand here as a single structure at some point a century ago? Or was it among a handful of early structures? What was along our street before that four-story apartment building at the end of the block was erected, taking up three or four lots?

I suspect many people have thoughts like these. Even if you are the first person to live in a structure, you probably wonder what was there before? A worker’s cottage? A farm?

“Houses and Homes – Exploring Their History” is a handy 168-page guide for anyone who might want to investigate the history of a home.

The authors — Barbara J. Howe, Dolores A. Fleming, Emory L. Kemp and Ruth Ann Overbeck — write:

A place to live and the activity within that space, the home life, play an important role in the lives of American. Therefore, there are many reasons to investigate the history of a home. One is that it is simply fun to do. What starts out as a trip back into the history of a house can lead to investigation of a neighborhood and to a systematic survey of the area, to educational programs, or to public relations plans with a historical slant. The research may even be undertaken in order to write a story to be presented as a gift.

This book is an overview of how to think about the history of a house and what sources to tap. For instance, the authors write about looking at a home in the setting of its neighborhood and city and about studying its type of construction and architectural style. They discuss the use of written records, such as diaries and newspapers; visual documents, such as photographs; and interviews with neighbors and former residents.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book are the Suggested Readings at the end of each chapter. These indicate a wealth of books and other sources that provide more specific information on how to do various aspects of the search.

Patrick T. Reardon

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