The balloon-frame building invented in Chicago in 1833

The building technique that helped give rise to mass-produced suburbia was invented in Chicago in 1833:

But traditional building methods required hand-hewn beams, hand-wrought mortise and tenon joints, lapped half dovetails, and something more crucial — labor-intensive construction at a time when labor was spread too thin.

Then in Chicago, Augustine Taylor got credit for creating balloon-frame construction, a hammer-and-nails forerunner to the light-frame construction that still dominates U.S. housing…

Experienced builders supposedly derided Taylor’s St. Mary’s Church in Fort Dearborn as “balloon-framed” because it looked like a stiff breeze would blow it away. But many accounts suggest the name came from a similar French Missouri type of construction called maison en boulin

Chicago architect John M. Van Osdel attributed the invention to Chicago carpenter George W. Snow in 1832. The Chicago History Museum and other scholars point out that Virginia carpenters in the 17th century — facing similar pressures to build fast — employed similar techniques. But it wasn’t mass-produced like Chicago was prepared to do. Between 1866 and 1875, the Lyman Bridges Company of Chicago sold pre-fab balloon-frame structures to western settlers, one of several purveyors of so-called “sectionalized housing.”

This technique was perfectly suited for mass produced suburban housing in the post-World War II era as it could involve standardized parts, be constructed quickly, and be done cheaply. Builders like the Levitts could quickly construct the frame of a home (after a foundation was laid) and then have a series of other workers come through to complete the home. The majority of American homes rely on wood studs nailed together – not complicated but relatively sturdy.

It is interesting to see that this is the #5 innovation from Chicago’s history. Considering the work that went into some of the others (like #8 Reversing the Chicago River), the balloon-frame structure had an outsized impact on American life.

0 thoughts on “The balloon-frame building invented in Chicago in 1833

  1. Pingback: McMansions show disconnect between “worker[s] and automated tool[s]“ | Legally Sociable

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