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Forgotten Women Designers

Women Have Always Played A Role In Home Design


1847 Farmhouse Designed by Matilda W. Howard

1847 Farmhouse Designed by Matilda W. Howard

From the Transactions of the New-York State Agricultural Society, Vol. VII, 1847 Illustration of a birthing room from the 15th century

Birthing Room from 15th century. Photo by The Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

Frank Lloyd Wright can have his Prairie Style houses. Philip Johnson can keep his house made of glass. The world's most livable homes have been designed not by famous men but by forgotten women, say some architectural historians.

How Women Became Designers

Women have always played a role in home design, but their contributions are seldom recorded. However, during the 19th century a new custom swept through rural parts of the still-young United States: agricultural societies offered prizes for farmhouse designs. Turning their thoughts from pigs and pumpkins, both husband and wife sketched simple, practical plans for their houses and barns. The winning plans were displayed at county fairs and published in farm journals. Some have been reprinted in reproduction pattern catalogs and contemporary books on historic house design.

Country House Plans

Homemade farmhouses in 19th century America were less elaborate than the professional designs of that time period. Yet, these homes were elegant in their efficiency, and often more usable than houses created by city architects who didn't understand the needs of farm families. And who could understand a family's needs better than the wife and mother?

Historian Sally McMurry, author of Families & Farmhouses in 19th Century America (Compare Prices), found that many home plans published in 19th century farm journals were designed by women. These women-designed houses were not the fussy, highly ornamented structures fashionable in the cities. Designing for efficiency and flexibility rather than fashion, farm wives ignored rules set down by urban architects.

Women-Designed Houses

1. Dominant Kitchens
Kitchens were placed on the ground level, sometimes even facing the road. How crude! "educated" architects scoffed. For a farm wife, however, the kitchen was the control center for the household. This was the place for preparing and serving meals, for producing butter and cheese, for preserving fruits and vegetables, and for conducting farm business.

2. Birthing Rooms
Women-designed houses tended to include a first floor bedroom. Sometimes called the "birthing room," the downstairs bedroom was a convenience for women in childbirth and the elderly or infirm.

3. Living Space for Workers
Many women-designed houses included private quarters for workers and their families. The workers' living space was separate from the main household.

4. Porches
A home designed by a woman was likely to include a cool porch that served double-duty. In the hot months, the porch became a summer kitchen.

5. Ventilation
Women designers believed in the importance of good ventilation. Fresh air was considered healthy, and ventilation was also important for the manufacture of butter.

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