A group of volunteers in Ipswich recently finished building a single-room house following the instructions of the town selectmen in 1657. This article is from John Fiske, chairman of the Ipswich Historical Commission.
“It is ordered that Mr. Willson…secure a house to be built for Alexander Knight of 16 foote long & twelve foote wyde & 7 or 8 foote stud upon his ground & to pryd [provide] thatching & other things nesasary for it…”
There are no original single-room houses surviving, and so far as we know, this is the only exact replica. Its roof was thatched with local reeds under the direction of thatchers from Plimoth Plantation, who are probably the only thatchers in New England, if not the whole country — which is why, presumably, my spell-checker doesn’t know the word “thatcher.”
The Massachusetts Bay Colony had banned thatched roofs even before Alexander Knight’s house had been built, obviously because of the fire danger. But laws were easier to pass than to enforce. New England houses were made of wood, and their wooden chimneys were lined with “wattle and daub” — woven branches daubed with clay. All highly combustible.
But it wasn’t just sparks from the fire that people had to watch out for. The court files of Essex County of 1668 tell of a servant girl in Ipswich, 16-year old Mehitable Brabrooke:
“About 2 or 3 aclocke in the afternoon she was taking tobacco in a pipe and went out of the house with her pipe and got upon the oven on the outside & backside of the house (to looke if there were any hogs in the corne) and she layed her right hand upon the thatch of the house (to stay herself) and with her left hande knocked out her pipe over her right arme upon the thatch on the eaves of the house (not thinking there had been any fire in the pipe) and immediately went down to the corne field to drive out the hogs she saw in it, and as she was going toward the railes of the fielde … she looked back, and saw a smoke upon her Mistress’ house in the place where she had knocked out her pipe at which she was much frighted.”
“Frighted” was probably an understatement. The house burned to the ground and the Court ordered Mehitable to be severely whipped and to pay a fine of Â£40 — how on earth, we might ask, was a serving girl expected to find Â£40 in 1668?
So today, no thatched roofs, no thatchers and thus no need for my spell-checker to include the word.