I love cottages. I love them for their modesty, charming imperfections, and whimsy. I love them for their raucous gardens, painted furniture, embroidered linens, and porch swings. To me, cottages represent living simply and beautifully.
Cottages have always been difficult to define, and this is my starting point. Especially now, with some developers calling almost-mansions cottages, there is even more confusion about what is actually meant by the term “cottage.”
To me, cottages are a tradition, and the one I am most familiar with begins in England. By the 1600s, rural families built small functional homes, generally with one or two rooms below and a loft above. This time frame precedes manufacturing as well as roads and canals for commerce, and rural people built them from local materials and according to local building traditions. These “vernacular” homes, as homegrown building is called, varied substantially by region. Some were stone, others wattle and daub, some wood, some home-fired bricks, and there were numerous combinations. They were practical and efficient shelters for rural working families. In fact, the term “cottage industries” came about from the workers’ side businesses in the home, like weaving, spinning, and turning chairs.
By the 1800s much had changed in England, including a rise in prosperity and proliferation of estate properties. It was popular for the wealthy to romanticize the past before industrialization. Owners regarded their estates as scenes from paintings, and they carefully sited cottages and decoratively designed them to complement the estate landscape as a picturesque ideal. This ideal, which remains today, reflected nostalgia, harmony, and a sense of natural order. A professional class of designers and builders evolved who wrote pattern blogs and treatises on the picturesque cottage ideal of contented cheerfulness and a balance between nature and man.
According to the pattern blogs, the ideal cottage includes intricacy, variety, play of outline, asymmetry, porches, overhanging eaves, recessed windows, large intricate chimneys, and gardens with creepers, shrubs, and trees. Soon, more concern grew for health, and the cottage ideal expanded to include health, warmth, comfort, and light, and pattern blogs expressed this by including spacious ventilated main rooms with a fireplace.
European ideals crossed the Atlantic relatively intact as the cottage concept. In the United States, proponents popularized cottages for workers as practical, healthy shelters, and many of the factory and railroad cottages that were built a hundred years ago still remain. Others, including early landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, promoted cottage designs and pattern blogs for American farmhouses. (Our own cottage home is an 1880 Gothic Revival farmhouse.) The other cottage tradition, and the one that is much more familiar to all of us, is vacation homes. Cottages at the seacoast are celebrated in this blog.
Of course, the influence of cottages in America continued through the twentieth century. One notable period was that featuring Arts and Crafts bungalows, and eventually cottages influenced suburban home design.
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