A History of Houses

By Tim Lambert

Prehistoric Houses

Ice age humans lived in caves some of the time but they also made tents from mammoth skins. Mammoth bones were used as supports. They wore boots, trousers, and anoraks made from animal skins.

When the ice age ended a new way of life began. By 8,000 BC people in the Middle East had begun to farm. Food was cooked in clay ovens. The people of Jericho knew how to make sun-dried bricks and they used them to make houses.

About 7,000 BC a new people lived in Jericho and they had learned to make mortar. They used it to plaster walls and floors. Catal Huyuk was one of the world’s first towns. It was built in what is now Turkey about 6,500 BC not long after farming began. Catal Huyuk probably had a population of about 6,000. In Catal Huyuk the houses were made of mud brick. Houses were built touching against each other. They did not have doors and houses were entered through hatches in roofs. Presumably having entrances in the roofs was safer than having them in the walls. (Catal Huyuk was unusual among early towns as it was not surrounded by walls). Since houses were built touching each other the roofs must have acted as streets! People must have walked across them.

In Catal Huyuk there were no panes of glass in windows and houses did not have chimneys. Instead, there were only holes in the roofs to let out the smoke. Inside houses were plastered and often had painted murals of people and animals on the walls. People slept on platforms. In Catal Huyuk the dead were buried inside houses. (Although they may have been exposed outside to be eaten by vultures first).

By 4,000 BC farming had spread across Europe. When people began farming they stopped living in tents made from animal skins and they began to live in huts made from stone or wattle and daub with thatched roofs. Bronze Age people lived in round wooden huts with thatched roofs.

Ancient Houses

The first civilization arose in Sumer (which is now Iraq). There were several city-states. Each city had a protector god and the king was regarded as his representative on earth. Below the kings were nobles and rich merchants who lived in considerable comfort in large houses with many rooms. Their houses were two-story high and they were arranged around a courtyard. However poor people lived in simple huts.

Another civilization arose in the Indus Valley. Its center was the city of Mohenjo-Daro. The city consisted of two parts. In the center part was a citadel. It contained a public bath and assembly halls. It also held a granary where grain was stored. The lower part of the town had streets laid out in a grid pattern. The houses were 2 or even 3 stories and were made of brick as stone was uncommon in the area. Bricks were of a standard size and the Indus Valley civilization had standard weights and measures. The streets had networks of drains.

Minoan Palaces

The Minoans were an early civilization on the island of Crete. The Minoans are famous for the palace at Knossos (although there were other palaces at Mallia, Zakro, and Phaistos). The palace at Knossos was built around a central courtyard. On the ground floor of the palace were storage areas. In them, grain and olive oil were stored in large clay jars called pithoi.

The upper floors of the palace were living quarters and they were luxurious. Light wells let in both light and cool air. Wooden columns painted red supported ceilings. Frescoes were painted on the walls. Sometimes human beings were painted but often sea animals such as dolphins were shown. Some rooms in the palace of Knossos were lined with alabaster. The palace at Knossos had bathrooms and even a flushing toilet. Of course, only a tiny minority lived in luxury like that. Most people lived in simple stone huts of one or two rooms.

The Palace of Knossos

Egyptian Houses

Rich Egyptians lived in large, comfortable houses with many rooms. The walls were painted and the floors had colored tiles. Most wealthy houses had enclosed gardens with pools. Inside their homes, rich Egyptians had wooden furniture such as beds, chairs, tables, and chests for storage. However, instead of pillows, they used wooden headrests.

Toilets consisted of a clay pot filled with sand. It was emptied regularly. Ordinary people lived in simpler homes made of mud bricks with perhaps four rooms. People may have slept on the flat roof when it was hot and they did most of their work outside because of the heat. The furniture was very basic. Ordinary Egyptians sat on brick benches around the walls. They used reed chests or wooden pegs on walls to store things.

In the 6th century BC the city of Babylon built up an Empire in the Middle East. Ordinary people in Babylon lived in simple huts made from sun-dried mud bricks. However, if the owner was wealthy they might have an upper story. The rich lived in palaces with central courtyards. The walls were decorated with painted murals. There were even bathrooms with pipes for drainage.

Greek Houses

Greek homes were usually plain and simple. They were made of mud bricks covered in plaster. Roofs were made of pottery tiles. Windows did not have glass and were just holes in the wall. Poor people lived in just one, two, or three rooms. Rich Greeks lived in large houses with several rooms. Usually, they were arranged around a courtyard and they often had an upper story. Downstairs was the kitchen and the dining room (called the andron). So was the living room. Upstairs were bedrooms and a room for women called a gynoecium (the women wove clothes there and also ate their meals there away from the men).

Persian Houses

The rivals of the Greeks were the Persians. Rich Persians lived in palaces of timber, stone, and brick. They had comfortable upholstered furniture such as beds, couches, and chairs. Tables were overlaid with gold, silver, and ivory. The rich also owned gold and silver vessels, as well as glass vessels. They also owned tapestries and carpets.

Rich people in the Persian empire also had beautiful gardens. (Our word ‘paradise’ comes from the Persian word for garden).

For ordinary people, things were quite different. They lived in simple huts made from mud brick. If they were quite well off they might live in a house of several rooms arranged around a courtyard. However poor people lived in huts of just one room. Any furniture was very basic.

Celtic Houses

By 650 BC a people called the Celts lived in France and the British Isles. The Celts lived in roundhouses. They were built around a central pole with horizontal poles radiating outwards from it. They rested on vertical poles. Walls were of wattle and daub and roofs were thatched. Around the walls inside the huts were benches, which also doubled up as beds. The Celts also used low tables.

Roman Houses

In Rome, poor people lived in blocks of flats called insulae. Most were at least five stories high. However they were often badly built, and their walls sometimes cracked and roofs caved in. Most people lived in just one or two rooms. The furniture was very basic. Rooms were heated by charcoal burned in braziers. The inhabitants used public lavatories. Most obtained water from public fountains and troughs. It was too dangerous for the inhabitants of insulae to cook indoors and they had to buy hot food from shops.

A Roman villa

In Roman Britain, rich people built villas modeled on Roman buildings and they enjoyed luxuries such as mosaics and even a form of central heating called a hypocaust. Wealthy Romans also had wall paintings called murals in their houses. In their windows, they had panes of glass. Of course, poorer Romans had none of these things. Their houses were simple and plain and the main form of heating was braziers.

Saxon Houses

The Saxons lived in wooden huts with thatched roofs. Usually, there was only one room shared by everybody. (Poor people shared their huts with animals divided from them by a screen. During the winter the animal’s body heat helped keep the hut warm). Thanes and their followers slept on beds but the poorest people slept on the floor. There were no panes of glass in windows, even in a Thane’s hall and there were no chimneys. Floors were of earth or sometimes they were dug out and had wooden floorboards placed over them. There were no carpets.

Peasant’s Houses In The Middle Ages

Peasants’ houses were simple wooden huts. They had wooden frames filled in with wattle and daub (strips of wood woven together and covered in a ‘plaster’ of animal hair and clay). However, in some parts of the country huts were made of stone. Peasant huts were either whitewashed or painted in bright colors. The poorest people lived in one-room huts. Slightly better-off peasants lived in huts with one or two rooms. There were no panes of glass in the windows only wooden shutters, which were closed at night. The floors were of hard earth sometimes covered in straw for warmth.

In the middle of a Medieval peasant’s hut was a fire used for cooking and heating. There was no chimney. Any furniture was very basic. Chairs were very expensive and no peasant could afford one. Instead, they sat on benches or stools. They would have a simple wooden table and chests for storing clothes and other valuables. Tools and pottery vessels were hung on hooks. The peasants slept on straw and they did not have pillows. Instead, they rested their heads on wooden logs. At night in summer and all day in winter the peasants shared their huts with their animals. Parts of it were screened off for the livestock. Their body heat helped to keep the hut warm.

Rich People’s Houses In The Middle Ages

The Normans, at first, built castles of wood. In the early 12th century stone replaced them. In the towns, wealthy merchants began living in stone houses. (The first ordinary people to live in stone houses were Jews. They had to live in stone houses for safety).

In Saxon times a rich man and his entire household lived together in one great hall. In the Middle Ages, the great hall was still the center of a castle but the lord had his own room above it. This room was called the solar. In it, the lord slept in a bed, which was surrounded by curtains, both for privacy and to keep out drafts.

The other members of the lord’s household, such as his servants, slept on the floor of the great hall. At one or both ends of the great hall, there was a fireplace and chimney. In the Middle Ages, chimneys were a luxury. As time passed they became more common but only a small minority could afford them. Certainly, no peasant could afford one.

About 1180 for the first time since the Romans rich people had panes of glass in the windows. At first, glass was very expensive, and only rich people could afford it but by the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the middle classes began to have glass in some of their windows. Those people who could not afford glass could use thin strips of horn or pieces of linen soaked in tallow or resin which were translucent. In a castle, the toilet or garderobe was a chute built into the thickness of the wall. The seat was made of stone. Sometimes the garderobe emptied straight into the moat!

16th Century Houses

In the Middle Ages, rich people’s houses were designed for defense rather than comfort. In the 16th century, life was safer so houses no longer had to be easy to defend. Rich Tudors built grand houses e.g. Cardinal Wolsey built Hampton Court Palace. Later the Countess of Shrewsbury built Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.

People below the rich but above the poor built sturdy ‘half-timbered’ houses. They were made with a timber frame filled in with wattle and daub (wickerwork and plaster). In the late 16th century some people built or rebuilt their houses with a wooden frame filled in with bricks. Roofs were usually thatched though some well-off people had tiles.

In the 15th century, only a small minority of people could afford glass windows. During the 16th century, they became much more common. However, they were still expensive. If you moved house you took your glass windows with you! Tudor windows were made of small pieces of glass held together by strips of lead. They were called lattice windows. However the poor still had to make do with strips of linen soaked in linseed oil.

Chimneys were also a luxury in Tudor times, although they became more common. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages, a well-to-do person’s house was dominated by the great hall. It was not possible to build upstairs rooms over the great hall or the smoke would not be able to escape. In the 16th century, wealthy people installed another story in their houses over the great hall. So well-off people’s houses became divided into more rooms.

Tudor Houses

None of the improvements of the 16th century applied to the poor. They continued to live in simple huts with one or two rooms (occasionally three). Floors were of hard earth.

Aztec Houses

In the 16th century, the Spanish destroyed civilizations in North and South America including the Aztecs. Ordinary Aztecs lived in simple huts, often of just one room. The huts were made of adobe and any furniture was very simple such as reed mats to sleep on or sit on and low tables. Wooden chests were used to store clothes.

Aztec nobles lived in much grander houses with many rooms. They were usually shaped like hollow squares with a central courtyard. It often contained gardens and fountains. By law, only upper-class Aztecs could build a house with a second story. If ordinary Aztecs did they could be executed.

Inca Houses

Inca houses were very simple. They often consisted of just one room (although some houses did have an upper story with a wooden floor).

Inca homes did not have furniture. People sat and slept on reed mats or animal skins. Doors and windows were trapezium-shaped. (A trapezium is a four-sided shape with only two parallel sides). Roofs were thatched and there were no chimneys. Rich Incas, of course, lived in much grander homes. Inca palaces sometimes had sunken stone baths.

Mayan Houses

Ordinary Maya lived in simple huts of wood or stone with thatched roofs. They had no chimneys or windows. They did not have wooden doors either. Instead, doorways were hung with cloth screens. There was very little furniture. Mayans slept on beds, which were low platforms made of a wooden frame filled with woven bark. Dead Mayans were buried under the floors of their houses. Rich Mayans, of course, lived in far more elaborate homes with many rooms.

17th Century Houses

In 17th century England ordinary people’s houses improved. In the Middle Ages, ordinary people’s homes were usually made of wood. However in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, many were built or rebuilt in stone or brick. By the late 17th century even poor people usually lived in houses made of brick or stone. They were a big improvement over wooden houses. They were warmer and drier.

Furthermore in the 16th century chimneys were a luxury. However, during the 17th century, chimneys became more common, and by the late 17th century even the poor had them. Furthermore in 1600 glass windows were a luxury. Poor people made do with linen soaked in linseed oil.

However, during the 17th century glass became cheaper and by the late 17th century even the poor had glass windows. In the early 17th century there were only casement windows (ones that open on hinges). In the later 17th century sash windows were introduced. They were in two sections and they slid up and down vertically to open and shut. Although poor people’s homes improved in some ways they remained very small and crowded. Most of the poor lived in huts of 2 or 3 rooms. Some families lived in just one room.

18th Century Houses

In the 18th century, a small minority of the population lived in luxury. The rich built great country houses. The leading architect of the 18th century was Robert Adam (1728-1792). He created a style called neo-classical and he designed many 18th-century country houses. However the poor had none of these things. Craftsmen and laborers lived in 2 or 3 rooms. The poorest people lived in just one room. Their furniture was very simple and plain.

19th Century Houses

In the early 19th century houses for the poor in Britain were dreadful. Often they lived in ‘back-to-backs’. These were houses of three (or sometimes only two) rooms, one top of the other. The houses were back-to-back. The back of one house joined onto the back of another and they only had windows on one side. The bottom room was used as a living room and kitchen. The two rooms upstairs were used as bedrooms.

The worst homes were cellar dwellings. These were one-room cellars. They were damp and poorly ventilated. The poorest people slept on piles of straw because they could not afford beds. Fortunately in the 1840s local councils passed by-laws banning cellar dwellings. They also banned any new back-to-backs. The old ones were gradually demolished and replaced with better houses over the following decades.

In the early 19th century skilled workers usually lived in ‘through houses’ i.e. ones that were not joined to the backs of other houses. Usually, they had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The downstairs front room was kept for the best. The family kept their best furniture and ornaments in this room. They spent most of their time in the downstairs back room, which served as a kitchen and living room. As the 19th century passed more and more working-class people could afford this lifestyle.

In the late 19th century workers’ houses greatly improved. After 1875 most towns passed building regulations which stated that e.g. new houses must be a certain distance apart, rooms must be of a certain size, and have windows of a certain size.

By the 1880s most working-class people lived in houses with two rooms downstairs and two or even three bedrooms. Most had a small garden. However, even at the end of the 19th century, there were still many families living in one room. Old houses were sometimes divided up into separate dwellings. Sometimes if windows were broken slum landlords could not or would not replace them. So they were ‘repaired’ with paper. Or rags were stuffed into holes in the glass.

20th Century Houses

At the start of the 20th century, working-class homes had two rooms downstairs. The front room and the back room. The front room was kept for the best and children were not allowed to play there. In the front room, the family kept their best furniture and ornaments. The back room was the kitchen and it was where the family spent most of their time. Most families cooked on a coal-fired stove called a range, which also heated the room.

This lifestyle changed in the early 20th century as gas cookers became common. They did not heat the room so people began to spend most of their time in the front room or living room, by the fire.

In 1900 about 90% of the population rented their home. However, homeownership became more common during the 20th century. By 1939 about 27% of the population owned their own house. Central heating became common in the 1960s and 1970s. Double glazing became common in the 1980s.

The first council houses were built before the First World War. More were built in the 1920s and 1930s and some slum clearance took place. However, council houses remained rare until after World War II. After 1945 many more were built and they became common.

In the early 1950s, many homes in Britain still did not have bathrooms and only had outside lavatories. The situation greatly improved in the late 1950s and 1960s. Large-scale slum clearance took place when whole swathes of old terraced houses were demolished. High-rise flats replaced some of them.

However, flats proved to be unpopular with many people. Some people who lived in the new flats felt isolated. The old terraced houses may have been grim but at least they often had a strong sense of community, which was usually not true of the flats that replaced them. In 1968 a gas explosion wrecked a block of flats at Ronan Point in London and public opinion turned against them. In the 1970s the emphasis turned to renovate old houses rather than replacing them. Then, in 1979 the British government adopted a policy of selling council houses.

Last revised 2024