The Evolution of Homes and Architecture

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J. William Lloyd, "The Evolution of Homes and Architecture," The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health, 73, 3 (September, 1881), 133-5.


Evolution is the favorite watchword of modern philosophers. We are told how man descended or ascended from the monkey, how learning, civilization, religion, everything has developed by this selfsame process. The light of the theory is thrown on every subject of human affairs; it is the key that fits every lock, and the answer to every puzzle. By one class, evolution is condemned as the head and front of infidelity and every sort of radicalism, while others laud it as the first great truth the world has ever known. The common opinion appears to be—and the writer shares it—that evolution is a theory yet to be proved, with much to be said for, and some things against it, and great possibilities of being right in general, but wrong in some particulars. But, be this as it may, evolution offers a broad field for pleasant and profitable speculation. I have often amused myself this way, by tracing the process by which man evolved his present comfortable habitations and surroundings, from the possibilities of the natural world that environed him in his pre-historic infancy.

Fancy the primitive man, naked, houseless, homeless, fireless. He has within him “the power and potency” to acquire every form of comfort and luxury, but as yet he knows it not. After food—which the wild creatures and vegetation of the forest supply him—his first desire is for a home, or rather a shelter from the pitiless storm and the scorching sun. At first he imitates the wild beasts he hunts, and takes refuge in a cave, or under the thick boughs of some umbrageous tree, or perchance even in its hollow trunk. These are the first habitations, and by degrees—as the rude hunters who own them, leave their wives and their children there, while absent on the chase or foray, and adorn them with their few implements and possessions—they become in some measure even homelike.

No doubt, as this pre-historic being roamed the woods, he often gazed and pondered in wondering horror, as the instant flash of the lightning lit up the dark aisles of the forest, or the dead oak tree blazed beneath the electric stroke. To his benighted intellect, fire was a god or a demon; something to be worshiped and feared, but not used. But one day while fashioning some rude stone implements, the sparks that fly from the clashing flints ignite the dead leaves around, and he discovers with mingled joy and fear that the demon can be called up at will, to be his friend and his slave. But as yet he knows not its uses, and with breathless interest he experiments. He feeds the fire with grass, leaves, and sticks, clapping his hands with childish delight, as they crackle and burn and crumble to ashes; while the blue smoke curls upward through the green leaves of the forest as though seeking its blue friend, the sky. It is a cool morning, and he enjoys the genial heat with chuckling delight, until a too near approach makes him withdraw his hand with a howl, and teaches him that the demon, though a slave, must be treated respectfully. Still he feeds the flames, and still he experiments. He throws in stones, and wonders to see them change color and crack, but not turn to ashes like the wood. He trys a bone—it is calcined to powder, but does not act the same as either the stick or the stone. Thoroughly excited now, he snatches up the half-eaten leg of venison he breakfasted on that morning and thrusts it into the blaze. But the savory odor that soon salutes his nostrils is too much for his Alimentiveness, and plucking it from the fire, with true childlike instinct lie applies it to his lips—the taste is delicious, and he eats his first meal of cooked food. The demon once enslaved is never again to be free—except in moments of rash rebellion—but shall always remain the chief joy and comfort of the human home.

But caves and hollow trees are scarce; and the boughs of trees are but poor shelter even in summer, still worse in winter. So as human beings increase on the earth, the necessity for artificial habitations becomes apparent. But where shall the man look for patterns and instruction he knows nothing of geometry or architecture? Where, indeed, but to the homes of the instinct-inspired creatures around him, and to the rude natural shelters he formerly used. One of the first things that he perceives, is that most creatures are provided with a sort of home which they carry everywhere. Thus the oyster and the snail have their shells, the armadillo his coat of mail, and the ram his wooly fleece, which, to a greater or less degree, protects each one from enemies and inclement weather. The savage looks and thinks; it is his first idea of clothing, or a house in its most convenient and portable form. With the selfish instincts of his nature fully aroused, he strips the beast of its akin and the bird of its feathers. Feeling, too, the active germs of the love of beauty and praise, he begins to dress for ornament as well as use, and strings of teeth, and shells, and gaudy plumes, are added to his wardrobe. In his wanderings, he often finds it convenient to make a shelter by stretching his skin robe or mantle over trees or bushes and crawling underneath. This idea developing, and bearing fruit, becomes the tent or wigwam, which is nothing more than a kind of outer garment, to be worn on extra occasions like an overcoat or shawl.

But as individuals came to possess a property-right in portions of the earth’s surface, a demand for more permanent homes arose. These were built of more durable materials, so that they might last longer, and be more capable of resisting hostile attacks; for, when a man lives always in one place, his enemies can easily find him out. Probably the first permanent home, artificially made, was a rough hollow barrow or cairn of turf and stones, after the model of the ancestral cave. Apparently the nests of birds suggested the erection of huts within the branches of trees, and finally the building of structures elevated on piles instead of trees. The building of these stilted structures over the shallow waters of some lake or pool afforded still greater protection from beasts and men, and was a favorite practice. Some savages still live in trees, and others dwell in pile-mounted huts. Thus we see that man brought the three kingdoms—animal, vegetable, and mineral — into subjection, and taxed them all, to furnish building materials and provide him with habitations. But wood, stone, and earth were then, and have ever since remained the favorite materials for constructing homes.

As men improved in the art of building, they combined these three classes of materials; thus stones wore used for walls, various earths for cements to bind these stones together, and wood was used for rafters, beams, and floors. Then for the first time house-building proper began. Its final outcome was to be the grand series of palaces, temples, and public buildings that now adorn the world.

Man, as a builder, appears to have always had two natural models before his mental vision—the rocky cave and the branching tree—thus copying after the first shelters of the race. It is curious to trace the imitation of nature in all the grand structures of the present. Look at that great gothic cathedral. What is it but a vast craggy hill of rock? Go into the mountains and you wilt see that the Divine Architect there erected the models long before the human architects were heard of. Arch and angle, buttress and battlement, wing, tower, and spire, all are there; and the ivy grows as greenly on the walls of this temple of nature as on the walls of the cathedral of man. But let us within. Are the pillars that we see really such, or are they the stalagmitic columns of a cavern? Is the sunshine tinted by stained glass, or by the gorgeous foliage of autumn-dyed trees, seen through the natural windows of a cave? Aisle and altar, chancel and chapel, niche and nave, sculptured walls and vaulted ceilings are common to both. Men name rocks and caves after castles and cathedrals; they had better name castles and cathedrals after rocks and caves,

How the lofty tower symbolizes the hollow tree-stump that sheltered the savage. Its foundations are sunk deep in the earth, like the roots of the tree; the gaping fissure becomes the arched gateway; knot-holes change to loop-holes and windows; the jagged and broken top becomes the notched and embrasured battlement, add men climb the winding staircase of the tower instead of woodpeckers and squirrels running up the ragged interior of the tree.

In ships—those floating houses of the sea—the same imitation of nature may be observed. Water has always had a strange and sweet fascination for the human being, and we can picture the aboriginal savage, wandering by the side of some woodland stream, watching the straws and acorns and driftwood floating down the peaceful current. Childlike he amuses himself by tossing in chips, and seeing them whirl down the eddying pathway. But humanity is ever adventurous, ever seeking the beyond, and he wishes to explore the unknown land across the stream. The frog and the otter have taught him to swim, but the laziness of the savage is too strong within him, and he does not wish to struggle against the tide, so he sets his wits to work to devise some other and easier method of crossing. Thus if Necessity is the mother, Indolence is the father of Invention, and Opportunity its birthplace. Opportunity is not wanting here, for a floating log has stranded at his very feet, although, as yet, the thought of using it has not occurred to him. But suggestion comes also, for as he looks he sees a squirrel floating down stream on a chip. His bushy tail, sail-like, expanded, catches the freshening breeze, and he soon makes the opposite shore and scuds merrily away in the woods. The spell is broken! With a shout the log is pushed off, and with mantle extended to catch the wind, and with paddling hand and feet for oars, he sails merrily across. That first trip contained the germ of all future navigation. The fish, the frog, the water-spider on his curled-up leaf, the nautilus, and the ship- like swan, have all been man’s teachers in the theory and practice of subduing the watery world.

In furniture, too, we have copied from nature. Instead of the mossy bank we recline on the cushioned divan; chairs, as seats, take the place of the stump or stone; we dine from tables, not from flat rocks; and we have reproduced the green of the grasses, the brown of the dead leaves, and the form and coloring of the flowers in our carpets.

And so it seems, that even as God in framing this universe— having no other pattern—made all things to resemble Himself, everything in nature suggesting or symbolizing something in Him; so human beings, in the absence of other models, have made everything to imitate the divine structures.

We imitate our Father’s acts;
Our minds repeat His thought;
We copy—else we mar—His works,
And teach what He has taught.