James Meek
Introduction to Material Culture
University of Delaware
Professor Lu Ann Decunzo

Study of 30 The Strand, New Castle, DE From A Material Culture Standpoint

An overly simple definition of material culture (1) is "the tangible yield of human conduct" -- everything people make and all things they do to shape their environment, even their bodies.  It "use objects to approach human thought and action", since thought necessarily occurred if something is purposely made.  It does derive from history (and folklore and anthropology and architecture and art...), but it goes further.  Rather than being only the text document-based history of the elite, for example, it can study "in small things forgotten" about people who leave few if any documents such as slaves, artisans and other non-elite people

Why study any house?  According to B. Herman (2), "No other artifact visually marks the passage of historic time, or stability and change, of cultural continuity and flux than does architecture.  The dwellings in which people house themselves reveal as much about their images of self and purpose as does a written record".

In this class, we have developed our own material culture "method" -- questions to ask when considering a material culture object, whether a pen, clothing, landscape, factory.  Mine is listed below, with additional questions added (and italicised) when considering this house.  We'll examine most of these questions.

House size-type  Brunskill (4) in a field guide to vernacular architecture in England divides houses first by size, then by polite or vernacular.  He classifies houses first as the Great Houses (castles, country seats, swollen villas), Large Houses (people of some local importance, successful farmers, mill owner, squire etc) and Small Houses (miller, smith, shopkeeper, tenant farmer), Cottage (laborers, artisans at subsistence level, widows or elderly dependent on charity).   A second classification is by polite vs vernacular.  A polite house (also called 'academic') will have been designed by an architect or someone taking that role, will follow a set of conventions that are national or even international, and will use local or imported materials to achieve a certain style.  In contrast, a vernacular house may be built by the owner using the cheapest locally available material, and with no pretensions to style.  As in the cases of slave quarters, it may be in forms that derive from African building methods, possibly modified to meet the approval of the slave owners.

On The Strand, the George Read II house is clearly a Great House and all the other currently standing 18th and 19th century brick houses on The Strand are probably Large Houses and would be described as 'polite' or 'academic'.  A number of properties on The Strand may have had cottages in the back yards.  The Latrobe survey of 1803 shows a number of small wooden (in yellow) buildings that may have been servant or slave quarters.  It would be interesting to compare the building dimensions of these small wooden structures with those of typical slave vernacular buildings.  The surviving brick structures in New Castle strong resemble those in Philadelphia in both materials and structure

History  There is extensive documentation about the owners of the property from the late 1600's to the time of the great fire of 1824 that gutted most of the Strand until widower James McCullough built the current house by 1826.  Since then, the documentation is largely limited to a complete chain of titles.  There are no probate or orphan court records for the owners, the 1790 Federal Direct Land Tax records which are so useful in Massachussetts (x) is not available for Delaware, and the only will containing a list of chattels is that of Ann Dungan in 1965.  McCullough was a merchant who operated a store across the street on the site of the current "ivory soap" or Boulden's store.  Information on his household is available for the 1830 New Castle census: (page 3, blank census form).

Name Free white males Free White females Male Slaves Female Colored Persons Total
Age 20 to 30 50 to 60 10 to 15 15 to 20 20 to 30 30 to 40 10 to 24 < 10
James McCullough Jr. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 8


Alternatives  Why did the previous owners build or move into 30 The Strand? How long did they live there?  Why did the current owners move there? How long do they expect to live there?

The five families that have owned 30 The Strand since 1818 have lived there an average of 35 years.  All lived in or near the town.  Although the house was built to hold more people (8 initially), the family sizes have been rather small.

Family Persons Sold Bought Years Moved From
Quillen 4 2004 1970 34 New Castle
White 2 1970 1965 5 New Castle Co.
Jefferson 1 - 3 1965 1903 62 New Castle
Guthrie 3-5 1903 1858 45 New Castle
McCullough 8 1846 1818 28 New Castle
    Avg 35  

The current owners chose 30 The Strand after years of living in a 'meadow mansion' in Hockessin, DE.  Reasons include downsizing slightly, near the water (Delaware River), cordial community, interesting houses, environment, neighbors, parks a few steps away, close to jobs in Wilmington, a house with charm and numerous original historic details and on and on.  It felt like a house we could love and one that would nurture us.  How long will we stay?  We joke that our "next move will be in a box", i.e. we will never leave.

Foodways Housing and food may be a people's most important needs.  Foodways has been defined as "the whole interrelated system of food conceptualization, procurement, distribution, preservation, preparation and consumption shared by all members of a particular group (Jay Anderson quoted in Deetz, p73).  The builder of the house, James McCullough was a merchant who provided food to others, including George Reed II, so access to a variety of foodstuffs was likely. McCullough, a widower probably employed a cook/housekeeper and may have used the free African American girl in the kitchen.  Cooking would have been done in the large hearth on the ground floor of the service wing.  A small baking oven to the right with a separate flue could be heated with coals for baking breads.  The hearth is set on a sand layer above the flooring.  Cooking would have been dangerous; death due to catching skirts on fire is reputed in local lore to be almost as deadly as childbirth.  There is no evidence of food storage areas in the first or second stories of the house.  The basement is probably too damp for anything not hermetically sealed.  Until the 1960's, the basement floor was dirt.  The foundation walls were rubble laid with mortar and was not waterproof.  Food consumption was presumably mostly in the room now used as the living room that connects to the hearth room via the 'piazza' or stairwell.  Just how this room was used -- whether the table and chairs were removed for daily activities is not known.  Certainly the coal fireplace could provide some heat.  Refuse disposal is also unknown. Was trash dumped in the river? Were trash pits dug and used?  Certainly probing the back yard for trash pits, then excavating would be of great interest.

Family/ household size
     The size of the household can be determined at 10 year intervals using the census.  For example, in 1870 and 1910

1870 Guthrie Samuel 50 M W Lawyer       
1870 Mason Thomas 36 M W Hedger        
1870 Mason Sarah 30 F W Keeping House 
1910 Dungan James 67 M W Clark
1910 Dungan Julia 69 F W None
1910 Dungan Annie 28 F W None



1 Glassie, H. H., [missing reference]

2  Herman, B. L., Continuity and Change in Traditional Architecture: Folk Housing on Virginia's Eastern Shore  Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania, 1978, University Microfilms, Ann Arbor  p 3

3 Deetz, J., In Small Things Forgotten: an Archaeology of Early American Life, Anchor Books, NY, 2nd Ed. 1996

4 Brunskill, R. W.,  Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture, Faber and Faber, London, 1971.

5 Larkin, J.  From "Country Mediocrity" to "Rural Improvement": Transforming the Slovenly Countryside in Central Massachussetts 1775-1840 in Everyday Life in the Early Republic

6 Glassie, H. H., Vernacular Architecture, Indiana Univ. Press, Bloomington, 2000