I’m Lea Wait, and, yes, my house has an ell. If you’re from, or know, Maine or northern New England, that will come as no surprise to you. But several times I’ve mentioned ells in my books set in Maine (I even set a fire in one in Shadows on the Coast of Maine,) and I’ve gotten letters asking, often with a bit of embarrassment, “Just what is an ‘ell?’”
Since I grew up with them, I was surprised when a little research showed me that ells are only common in Maine, a few other parts of northern New England, Connecticut, and a few places in northern New York State, where folks from Maine moved during the 19th century. Although some characteristics of the New England ell are found in other parts of the country (some attached southern “summer kitchens” are similar) there is something special about this type of Maine architecture that never caught on anywhere else.
In 1984 Thomas C. Hubka wrote a book about it. He called the book, Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England. Since then, many people have referred to a home of this kind as a “Big House/Little House/BackHouse/Barn” type. But old timers still call it simply, “A house with an ell.”
So — what is an ell? It’s the series of connecting rooms (Hubka called them buildings) between the main house and the barn. Originally, as in my house, the first room, the one closest to the main house, included a back stairway to the second floor of the ell, which probably included a bedroom for a hired man, an attic for storing dried food for winter, and other storerooms that could be easily reached in winter. The first floor would be a “modern” kitchen — usually one with a wood stove, not a fireplace (fireplaces were in the main house,) and perhaps a sink with a pump, and a place near the wood stove chimney to heat water for washing.
The main house contained the parlor(s) and the formal dining room, and the formal front door, and looked out at the road. Whenever geography permitted, it faced either east or west. The back of the house, which would be hit by winter winds, faced north. The door to the kitchen in the ell faced the dooryard, a working area where there might be an herb or small vegetable garden, a well, an area for drying clothes, a place for chopping wood and a large woodpile for winter: Generally it was cluttered with projects too big or messy to be performed indoors, from butchering to repairing tools or vehicles. The dooryard of a farm would, of course, contain very different activities from the dooryard of a sea captain’s home. Children played in dooryards, close to the house, and where the barn at one end of the ell and the main house at the other end protected them from winds and kept the dooryard and the ell warmer than the rest of the house.
What about the other rooms, or buildings, in the ell? That would depend on the household. If the family kept cows or goats, there might be a room for making and storing butter or cheese. There might be an icehouse. There could be a room for quilting or spinning or dying. Farthest from the house, or even in a corner of the barn (which was reached through a door in the farthest room) was the privy. Somewhere there was space for storage of dry wood, moved from the outside to dry before being moved to fireplaces or stoves. Storage of fine tools. No two ells were the same; no two familys’ needs were the same.
But when bitter winter winds blew, and snows piled high, Mainers who had ells between their barns and their houses could reach their animals and their privies without going outside. It was a system that was efficient and economical. It worked.
Homes were built this way beginning at about 1800, although the style was most popular from about 1840 until 1890.
The home I live in, for example, was originally built in 1774 on an island. I know from records left that it had a barn at that time, but probably did not have a connecting ell. When it was moved to the mainland in 1833, however, it was updated: an ell and attached barn were added, and a new kitchen in the ell replaced the old-fashioned fireplace kitchen in the original house. The house was set in the classic way: the back was to the north, the dooryard to the warm south, the front door to the west, and barn to the east.
And the ell? Yes, it’s a little like the letter “L” . But it is also so much more.