Your house itself is one of the most important sources of information for you. Almost every house holds clues to its history if you know where to look. Each generation leaves evidence of its stay, whether it is through building an addition, remodeling, landscaping, or simply changing the color scheme. As you look at your house, try to determine its original appearance and the chronology of change. Clues are often hidden in the basement and attic, inside closets, or under modem finishes. Make a thorough inspection of your house. Once you begin documentary research, you may uncover information that confirms your observations. Take notes and photographs to record your discoveries and the changes you make.
Knowing the architectural style of your house can assist you in dating it in a general way. Look at the style guides listed in Section 8 of this booklet to learn about the style of your house. These guides define time periods when different architectural styles were popular. Be aware that some regions of the country favored certain styles long after they had passed out of fashion elsewhere. Public buildings and large mansions frequently exhibit the latest styles of their time, like the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, built in 1871 in the Second Empire style. But, the average person probably was not on the cutting edge of fashion. In the past, as now, people built what they liked, what was familiar, and what was affordable. See the book Everyday Architecture of the Mid- Atlantic, listed in Section 8, for approximate dates for popular architectural styles in Delaware.
Few houses are frozen in time. Additions provide important evidence about how your house was used through time. An addition may be obvious if one section of your house is made of different materials or exhibits a different style. A joint in a masonry foundation or a vertical seam in a wall probably indicates the location of an addition. A porch with a more modem style and materials than the main building is probably an addition. For example, a Greek Revival style house with a Victorian "gingerbread" porch displays styles from two distinct time periods.
If you familiarize yourself with the overall style of your house, you will be able to recognize some remodeling efforts by finding features that do not match. Is the trim in one room different from all the others? Are the style and material of the window sash and doors consistent with the style and time period of the house? Are the floor boards consistent throughout? Are there unusual bumps in the walls that could indicate where a wall was removed or a window filled in?
Perhaps some decorative features have been removed. Look for evidence of shutter hardware on the outside window frames to determine if shutters were an original feature. If there is a horizontal scar on the front of the house above the first story windows, maybe a porch was torn off and not replaced. Sometimes when aluminum or vinyl siding is added to a house, the decorative window trim is removed.
If your house is very old, look for signs of modem technologies being added during different time periods. Many houses originally heated by fireplaces were later fitted with stoves, which were eventually replaced by central heating. Frequently, elements of all three heating systems survive. You may discover that one bedroom was remodeled to provide a bathroom, if there was originally no indoor plumbing.
If you want to reproduce the original paint colors exactly, you would have to employ a professional paint analyst. (You might call a local museum to find such a person.) However, there is a lot to be learned on your own. As you study the finishes of your walls and trim, be aware that most paints fade or yellow over time. A professional analyst compensates for that effect through a chemical analysis of paint samples. A general idea of the original color scheme can be learned by taking the following steps.
If the build-up of paint on your house has never been scraped off, you can scratch through it with a sharp knife to reveal the layers. Remember, the bottom layer is probably a primer coat, not a finish color. Areas not exposed to the weather, such as underneath a porch or