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  • Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies: Outbuildings and the Architecture of Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic
  • John Michael Vlach
Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies: Outbuildings and the Architecture of Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic. By Michael Olmert. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2009.

In this trim, compact volume Michael Olmert—known as much for his Emmy-award winning television programs as his popular books on museums—focuses his inquisitive mind on the lesser buildings constructed during the rise of English settlement in the greater Chesapeake region. While the book's title calls out three distinctive building types emblematic of the eighteenth century, Olmert also targets laundries, dairies, offices, dovecotes, and icehouses. His focus on the minor structures that normally surrounded a property owner's residence reinforces an observation made by a Yankee school marm who, during a later era, observed that a plantation seemed to have "as many roofs as rooms." Various travelers noted with some regularity that a planter's estate resembled a village or a little town. The collective visual impact of such an arrangement was the intended to mark a planter as a superior figure since any county would not have more than two or three truly impressive estates comprising more than a thousand acres. The most noteworthy plantations always included dozens of buildings; all of them usually subordinate to the planter's house in position, scale, decoration, and finish. A substantial array of outbuildings adjoining a residence was a tangible sign of economic and social success readily accessible for all to see.

Olmert examines eight outbuilding types presenting them in a sequence that begins with buildings that stood close to the planter's residence and moves progressively toward the margins of yard that surrounded his house. The kitchen is treated first and is followed [End Page 147] by discussions of laundries, smokehouses, dairies, privies, offices, dovecotes, and icehouses. Except for the office, all of these buildings enclose spaces designed for women's work—though most often performed by enslaved African and African-American women. Playing the role of an investigative reporter, Olmert focuses mainly on the preservation strategies pursued at Colonial Williamsburg by such notable scholars Carl Lounsbury, Edward Chappell, Marley Brown, Willie Graham, Vanessa Patrick, and Joanne Bowen. His narrative pattern is generally to begin each chapter with an intriguing observation by an eighteenth-century commentator. Next he moves to descriptions of existing examples of a particular building type—say a smokehouse—and summarizes the findings of the current scholarship for that particular structure. Olmert then "yields the floor" to an expert in architectural history or archaeology and concludes his summary of their findings by adding his own fresh insights. On the matter of smokehouses, for example, he cites Chappell's observation that house yards were divided into discrete zones for specific tasks demarcated as clean (dairy) and dirty (smokehouse). (87) Olmert responds with his own observation that wisdom during eighteenth century required a clear understanding of value hierarchies. In such a context, certain features like fence lines were crucial for establishing and maintaining civility and order. Olmert observes of colonial-era Virginians: "Theirs was world built on boundaries." (89) By viewing eighteenth-century Virginia from the margins of its early dwelling sites, Olmert is able to engage the full landscape created by the colony's founders. Playing upon the famous line of L.P. Hartley that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," Olmert suggests that there is much out there to be learned mainly by looking very carefully at what there is to see.

John Michael Vlach
The George Washington University


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pp. 147-148
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