The above photo is of a house near my office. It’s a bit blurry because I shot quickly as I was driving past. What caught my attention was the prominent initial “F” worked into the chimney masonry. In a post-mortgage fallout, post-“Flip this House” era, the idea of marking one’s house so indelibly seems quaint, almost laughable.
This is a very permanent mark. In many cases tan colored bricks are built into the chimney structure. Just about the only way to remove the initial is to tear down and rebuilt the chimney. Painting over it only partially obscures the letter, as the bricks that make up the initial are often of a different shape or orientation, so you can still see the outline.
So why would someone do this to their house? In this day and age we would think it’s a case of extreme vanity. However, one has to think back to the mindset sixty years or so ago, when most of these were built. First, these tend to be found on brick ranch-style houses. Most of these are fairly humble homes by today’s standards, but when they were built, they were considered quite grand.
A 2000 study by Stephen Moore and Julian Lincoln Simon sponsored by the Cato Institute tracks housing trends, and specifically, indicates how the size of housing has grown.
In 1900 about 1 in 5 Americal familes lived in housing with more than 3 persons per bedroom….The average house today has two to three times as many rooms per dweller as it had at the turn of the century…
…The average new house built in the 1960s had about 1,400 square feet, whereas today the typical house as close to 2,100 square feet.
So what would appear to us to be a modest brick home today was really an accomplishment back then, and those that were able to build their own were quite proud of them.
There was also the issue of the length of home ownership. In today’s markets, average home ownership is about 6 – 8 years. Job markets and transportation make for a more mobile population, so today there is not the same feel of “putting down roots.” In the case of houses with chimney initials, most often this was to be the last home that they would ever own. It was often assumed (many times correctly so) that children would inherit the house, so no thought was really given to who might own the house after them.
In addition to the first photo, the two above are from two more houses just down the street. One house obviously displays its religious heritage over family ownership.
Yet, even though I’ve found three such houses close together, chimney initials do tend to be rather rare. I don’t know if this is a “Southern thing” or if this can be found in other parts of the country. I’ve found very little about it on the Internet. I was able to find some photos of chimneys with a metal initial attached, but this isn’t quite the same thing. It’s not permanent like a masonry initial. Nor are initials that are painted onto a chimney or other part of the house.
In our area, one tends to find these in older areas where one would not only own, but have built their home. Mill villages aren’t good candidates because the houses were owned by the company, and the populations tended to be a bit more transient. They are more often found on brick homes, because these were considered more permanent than wood-frame construction.
It is a fascinating nexus of personality quirk and architectural design. I’ll try to keep my eyes open for more of these as I’m out an about in my explorations.