In this essay, Cavanagh (1999) traces the evolution of house-building; how houses came to be what they are, and what major thoughts informed that evolution. His main task here is to trace the birth (the when and who) of the Balloon system.
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To him, what has always led to the changes in style is the perpetual search for an ‘easier’ way to build without sacrificing- maybe even increase- stability. In the early 1800s, for instance, building was characterized by “elaborate joinery of interlocked timbers” (Cavanagh, 1999).
There were limitations. Sawing involved too much labor and wasted material. Stability of the house rested on individual joints, which took what Cavanagh calls ‘practiced hands” to work out. Building was hard enough it took a whole season to complete.
Balloon houses are both materially and structurally efficient and offer a “substantial improvement in strength-to-weight ratio” (Cavanagh, 1999).
With this system, stability was based on the premise of integrity; that stability rests on the togetherness of many joints (quantity) rather than the strength of a few particular joints (quality). These structures became easier to build and took less skill. They also utilized easily transportable products like nails and boards.
The balloon system itself has also evolved. The studs in earlier balloon houses, for instance, covered the full height of an entire two-floor house. Later, to date, sets of studs for every floor are used. Despite undergoing changes of its own, the balloon system has been relatively resistant to changes, with most subsequent styles merely being versions of it rather than novel styles per se.
Although one cannot point to a specific year, many agree that the balloon style began in the 19th century in the Midwest. It became more prominent in the mid 19th century. This period was characterized by a mushrooming of towns and an increased need for new houses by settlers looking for new land around these (mushroom) towns.
There was need for mobility. At times, Cavanagh (1999) gathers from the records of Captain Basil Hall (a 19th century Royal Navy Officer), the houses were already built, their owners only waiting to ‘move’ in on new lands.
A historical tradition asserts that the balloon system suddenly came to be. The tradition says the style was first used in Chicago in 1833, attributing it to a carpenter by the name of Augustine Deodat Taylor (from Connecticut) or a local lumber merchant called George Washington Snow. A number of records confirm the style existed as early as 1935.
However, there are still no records or archaeological traces of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church, supposedly one of the first buildings to have beeen constructed using the style. Moreover, there are no records showing that either Taylor or Snow claimed to have invented the style. In an era when people made such a fuss over inventions and patents, Cavanagh (1999) does not accept this story. He also does not believe the style sprouted out of nowhere.
Cavanagh (1999) believes the style came about as a hybrid that resulted from the different building styles of various nationality settlers of the 19th century Midwest, especially between French and American styles.
Cavanagh (1999) writes: “Assuming that French and Americans learned from each other, this was one stage in the gradual rise of a hybrid form of construction from the vernacular building techniques of different cultures”. He traces the closest to a description of the Balloon style in a deed written by a Missouri French (in the town of St. Genevieve) “in a reasonably clear hand” in 1804.
Cavanagh, T. (1999), “Who Invented Your House?” Invention & technology, 15(2). Web.