PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

The Delaware Valley in the Early Republic: Architecture, Landscape, and Regional Identity

by Gabrielle M. Lanier

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005

xviii + 250 pages. Maps, measured drawings, photographs, appendix, notes, bibliographic references, and index

$46.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8018-7966-3

Gabrielle Lanier is deeply immersed in the architecture of the Mid-Atlantic region as a result of her graduate studies at the University of Delaware and because of the extensive field research she conducted there beginning in the 1990s. One product of that immersion is an ingrained familiarity with her environs. Another is the descriptive field guide she co-authored with Bernard Herman that is a coalescence of their observations, drawings, and debates about date sequence and layers of occupation revealed in the artifact--the everyday buildings--they studied (Lanier and Herman 1997). Lanier draws on her understanding of the region’s architecture in the book under review here, The Delaware Valley in the Early Republic.

The buildings Lanier recorded are notable in that they survived. Their physical presence on the landscape rendered the buildings points of reference--directional and cultural--then and now. To interpret these structures, Lanier turns to her field observations for material clues gleamed from exterior appearance and internal floor plan. She mines documentary sources like travel journals including Johann Schoepf’s and real estate assessments from 1798 and 1815 for descriptions of the places as they were, and how they were valued. Photographic collections become a comparative resource revealing what the buildings looked like a century earlier. Lanier then extrapolates from these pictures the sites that generation thought important, thought worth memorializing. Geography, the cartographic as well as the cultural of folklorists, informs her study. Similarly, social history fleshes out the context for the architectural landscape of the Delaware Valley as Lanier and her predecessors encountered it.

Extant architectural features, such as the bank-barns, patterned brickwork, and even the floor plans Lanier documented in the Delaware Valley, speak to shared characteristics or at least to communication between social groups and communities throughout the region. Proximity to markets in Philadelphia and to transportation routes facilitated this exchange. Lanier’s work is significant in that she looks beneath these surface patterns. She finds no neat synopsis of the Delaware Valley. Instead her work taps into varying, at times conflicting, perceptions of the region and its inhabitants. Through a series of case studies, Lanier distills drawings, photographs, and field notes of and about the Delaware Valley into poignant reminders that regional identity can be an artificial construct and sometimes that the identity of an area comes out in terms of “difference” as much as of “commonality.”

The core of her book concentrates on three areas: the mainly Pennsylvania German Warwick Township in Lancaster County, the Chesapeake-influenced border area of North West Fork Hundred in Sussex County, and the English-Quaker stronghold of Mannington Township in Salem County, New Jersey. With these case studies Lanier highlights the ethnic, social, religious, and economic crossroads that was the Mid-Atlantic. Throughout the book, she explores the notion of a regional culture, delving into perceptions of its boundaries, interpretations of ethnic and religious identity, and attitudes to place. Defining regional identity as cultural construct applicable to the Delaware Valley proves elusive, however. In the “Motley Middle” Lanier calls upon those who came before her in the fields of folklore, cultural geography, and vernacular architecture to help make sense of it, and of the cultural landscape she studies.

For the first case study, Lanier extracts descriptions of the landscape from historical accounts written by travelers and the 1798 direct tax lists. The reminiscences balance the somewhat artificial uniformity of the real estate assessments by adding intangibles--the sights, smells, and experience of the various places and reactions to the customs of the inhabitants--and the region is revealed as a “patchwork of localized landscapes” with different settlement patterns and building types. It is the discrepancies and convergences of these two sources that Lanier examines to decipher the boundaries of ethnic landscapes as they were perceived and experienced. She selects rural Warwick Township because the appearance and conditions of the Germans’ farms elicited commentary from their peers and passers-by in the historical record. The personal accounts, however, did not correspond to those reported in the tax records and so effectively illustrate the pitfalls of equating ethnicity with socio-economic status.

Surviving physical evidence added another dimension to that told through the documents, revealing an Anglo-German creolization that occurred during the process of acculturation in Pennsylvania-German households. Lanier discovered that the houses they built began to resemble Anglo-influenced or Georgian designs on the exterior, whereas the interiors continued to follow a more traditional German plan. It is through this discussion of Warwick that Lanier advocates for an inter-disciplinary approach to the study of the past, cross-checking documents and artifacts to mitigate against taking the perception of difference, of ethnicity, of status as conveyed by the writer as the region’s actual identity.

Moving south, Lanier concentrates on the border settlement of North West Fork Hundred at the confluence of the Chesapeake and the lower Delaware Valley. She recounts the crimes committed by Patty Cannon. Lanier employs this infamous tale as an avenue to discern what people in the past thought about where they lived. Moreover, the events chronicled in the Patty Cannon affair happened in a specific place, and it is the place that concerns Lanier. Located on the edge of civilization, North West Fork Hundred was shaped by the patterns of slavery, land speculation, and impermanent building traditions of the Chesapeake. Yet, unlike the Chesapeake, North West Fork Hundred was oriented to the urban markets of Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore. The boundaries, therefore, assumed greater importance as distinctions between white and black, slave and free, affluence and poverty hardened in the early nineteenth century.

The landscape of this outpost was one of contrasts with uncleared forests abutting farmland. Outbuildings, including barns, were largely missing from the landscape. Tenant farms abounded. The material surroundings were in various states of decline ranging from run-down to dilapidated, as noted in the property descriptions of the Orphans Court records. Social ills, such as economic disparities in wealth and the hierarchies of land ownership, accompanied the deteriorating, cultivated landscape. Moreover, the inequities faced by African-Americans were far greater because of the danger of slipping from freedom into bondage, a tenuous legal position exploited by Patty Cannon.

The Cannon legend was repeated by George Alfred Townsend in 1884 and by R. W. Messenger in 1926. For them, the bleak setting occupied a conceptual space on the margins of civilization, circumstances echoed in Frederick Douglass’s writings on his experience in slavery nearby. Ultimately the sense of place conveyed by the Cannon crimes, historical writers, and court scribes is, as Lanier demonstrates, both “actor and stage.”

The last case study looked to Mannington Township to see if Quakers did indeed define the community as they were reputed to do. For this exploratory effort, Lanier categorizes the buildings captured on film by Thomas Yorke in the 1880s and by Joseph Sickler in the 1940s. Their subjects were made primarily of brick; many had patterned gable ends or other decorative masonry. The buildings were tied to leading Quaker families.

To expand the historic landscape beyond these buildings, Lanier sought documentary evidence to contextualize these houses, symbols of affluence then and now. Owners of these dwellings had more assets at their disposal than did their neighbors. They controlled land, livestock, and waterways. But the patterned brick buildings were not the only structures still standing. Frame buildings were present, but these were unwelcome in latter-day pictorial presentations of the township.

Landscape, Lanier says, is artifact and place. For Mannington Township, the artifacts of the eighteenth-century past selected by the photographers defined, in their present, the place. Already old by the time of the revolution, these structures exuded age and bequeathed authority to the community. Younger generations saw them not only as reminders of their builders’ social, political, and economic clout, but of theirs as well. By the late nineteenth century, antiquarian interests were encouraged by the Colonial Revival and the buildings acquired an additional layer of meaning. The resulting perception of regional identity, the association with a few English Quakers, and a few two-story brick dwellings, took hold.

Lanier cautions against applying a regional-culture label, like that of Quakerism, to the Delaware Valley. The localized character of Warwick, North West Fork, and Mannington, for example, belies any sweeping generalization. Lanier’s Delaware Valley lacks cultural cohesiveness or a discernable identity. Its cultural borders are fluid. Tellingly, the Delaware Valley and the vitality of the folk traditions flourishing within it gave rise to Fred Kniffen’s strongest cultural hearth in his map tracking the diffusion of building types westward from the Atlantic.

While it may have far-reaching influence as a cultural touchstone or base, the Delaware Valley, as Lanier discovered, is a cross-roads of building traditions, ethnicity, land-use patterns, and material culture. Local characteristics lend the Delaware Valley a patchwork quality, each community co-existing with and distinct from the others, and each part stitched into a greater whole. Regions, as Lanier successfully illustrates, are both actual and conceptual.

Students who embrace a material-culture methodology, as well as those from the disciplines of folklore, cultural geography, vernacular architecture, and even social history, will appreciate the depth of this book. Measured drawings and photographs helpfully illustrate the text, while statistical figures that support Lanier’s analysis are included as an appendix. Its overarching value lies not just in the detailed research but in the lesson that sometimes the evidence disproves an initial thesis or goal--here constructing a regional identity for the Delaware Valley--only to make for a stronger argument about the interactions of people and buildings and the intersections of cultural forces in an era when the nation itself was seeking a national identity.

References Cited

Lanier, G., and B. Herman. 1997. Everyday Architecture in the Mid-Atlantic: Looking at Buildings and Landscapes. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.


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