Book Review: The Historic Barns Of Southeastern Pennsylvania

The Historic Barns Of Southeastern Pennsylvania:  Architecture & Preservation, Built 1750-1900, by Gregory D. Huber

[Note:  This book was given free of charge by Edelweiss/Schiffer Publishing.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

Coming as I do from a Pennsylvania farming family [1], the history of barns within Pennsylvania is an area of personal interest.  It is likely that few people have such a specific interest in the subject matter as I do, given my interests in farming, in structural engineering and architecture, as well as in the cultural history of the area, but this book is a well-written and obviously well-researched work that also seems to be a labor of love in preserving the historic barns of the hearth region of Southeastern Pennsylvania in both structure and historical memory, and those who have any sort of fondness for the subject matters discussed by the author will find a great deal of enjoyment in this book.  The barn may be a humble structure that is often taken for granted, but it is worthy of exploration and tells a lot about the history and culture of a given area.  The barns of Pennsylvania in particular show evidence of cultural mixture as well as the spread of techniques and the endurance of old ways that is worthy of investigation.

In about 240 pages, the author gives a whirlwind tour of the historic barns of southeastern Pennsylvania with a great deal of text as well as gorgeous photographs and even some data from the 1798 Direct Tax that included some early attempts at classifying barn types in the state.  The chapters of the book are organized in topical fashion, beginning with a look at Europe and North America at the period of initial colonization and looking at the way timbers were harvested for use in barns.  From the beginning the author discusses the European folkways of barn design coming from England (particlarly the Lake District), Finland-Karelia, and the German-Swiss homelands that would provide many of Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers, including many of my own ancestors.  After this the next several chapters give a diagnostic look at many barn types found in the core area of Pennsylvania’s early colonization, from ground barns to Sweitzer barns to standard barns to various types of forebay barns, including the English Lake District barn.  After this, the author examines various construction elements and regional influences on barns and also provides some useful information in how to date a barn through its nails and dendrochronology.  The author finishes the book with a discussion of the documents that preserve information on 18th century barns as well as decorative elements like barn stars and fertility symbols and even whirling swastikas, the desirability of preserving old barns, and information that includes an epilogue, appendix, glossary, and an extensive bibliography and literature review of sources that shows the author’s knowledge of the relevant historiography of the subject of barns.

In writing about this subject, the author brings to mind a few of the tensions concerning the lives of ordinary people that relate to the humble subject of barns.  Although most people do not find barns to be a subject of particular personal interest, they are structures which show a remarkable amount of aesthetic design as well as economic importance.  The size of barns relates to the fertility of the soil and thus the profitability and standard of living of farming in various areas.  The structural and architectural design of barns reflect longstanding cultural and religious traditions going back in some cases for thousands of years, and even the material used for barns reflects the preference of people for the familiar.  Likewise, the proliferation of regional designs for barns reflects certain changes in culture and hybridization of German, English, and Finnish designs in the face of prolonged interaction within Southeastern Pennsylvania.  The history of barn design in many ways reflects the pressures as well as the opportunities of life for many early colonists and their descendants, and the author is sensitive about discussing how certain successful elements were copied while other regional types were limited to narrow geographical areas.  For those who have some interest in farming or in the history of farms, this book gives a lot of data and insight that can be the food for much thought and reflection about the continuing importance of agriculture to our own well-being, and certainly to the historical background of our lives.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/10/17/from-tallinn-to-kuressaare/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/08/29/thank-god-im-a-country-boy/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s