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Yankee Humor | Welcome to Your Really Old House

Yankee Humor | Welcome to Your Really Old House
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Congratulations! As the proud new owner of a vintage New England home, you can look forward to many years of satisfaction, enjoyment, and repairs.

Steep Thrills
Note the daring slope of the roof, which has approximately the same pitch as Tuckerman Ravine and will get you to the bottom just as fast in case of emergency. A built-in snow-removal system uses heat from the house to melt the white stuff and transform it into those charming full-length icicles featured on New England calendars. (See Appendix B: “Ice Dams.”)

Boxed In
The attic of your old house comes pre-filled with ancient furniture, clothes, and trunks. Don’t worry, none of it’s valuable–your junk will fit right in! The attic is climate-controlled to be an oven in summer and a freezer in winter, just as nature intended.

Rooms with a Flue
Your brick chimney was designed to let small animals come and go at their leisure, providing you with many happy evenings playing “What’s That Noise?”

Breezy Does It
You’ll enjoy fresh air year-round, thanks to patented Flo-Thru technology, consisting of hundreds of tiny air leaks strategically placed around windows, doors, and other openings. Many of these gaps are large enough to let insects pass through, bringing the wonder of nature right into your home.

Hidden Turn-Ons
Light switches in new houses are generally placed just inside entry doors–boring! You’ll find your light switches outside the door, down the hall, and possibly in your neighbor’s broom closet.

Privy Counsel
You’ll enjoy the luxury of 1-1/4 baths (the downstairs toilet was originally an ironing-board closet). The main bath features a clawfoot tub that your friends will ooh and aah over but will not take off your hands, as it weighs only slightly less than the Hoover Dam. There’s no shower, but you can easily add one using a variety of contraptions, most of which will also add a refreshing moistness to the walls and floors.

Wall or Nothing
The walls of your home have been filled with old newspapers that provide an insulating R-value of 0.0002, largely owing to the use of words like “coruscate” and “perspicuous” in the text. The surface is genuine horsehair plaster, noted for its attractiveness, durability, and tendency to crumble to pieces if you try to hammer a picture hanger into it.

Floor Better or Worse
Luxuriate in the warmth and beauty of genuine hardwood floors. They’re guaranteed to be maintenance-free, as long as you don’t care what they look like. They also act as built-in hygrometers, alerting you to excess humidity by popping up high enough to stub a toe on.

Cellar Beware
Your New England cellar is a haven of dampness, coolness, and mold spores the size of rutabagas. Unlike modern basements with their tediously straight angles and smooth walls, your cellar incorporates features of its natural surroundings, such as boulders, ledges, and major root systems. In places, the cellar is actually large enough to let you stand up straight, though generally not where you need to access wires or pipes for repairs. Here, you’ll find handy crawl spaces, home to a variety of interesting creatures, including spiders resembling mohair work gloves. After a long winter, the sound of running water will alert you to the arrival of spring as it passes through your cellar.

The Heat Goes On … and On … and On
Your old house comes equipped with an original furnace the size of a Winnebago. This classic heap o’ technology fires up with a house-rattling roar just a few decibels shy of a space-shuttle launch, giving you the calm assurance that it’s working day and night. Heat is delivered through a single vent to the living room, where it’s free to roam the rest of the house, though it rarely feels called upon to do so. In later models, heat may be provided via iron radiators, which can also be used as anchors by any Class 2 cargo ship.

Ken Sheldon


Ken Sheldon


Ken Sheldon was a pre-med art major at the University of New Hampshire. The medical schools of America were not amused. After college, he worked in a clinic for migrant farmworkers in California, where he learned to speak Spanish poorly, sang old union songs, and once gave César Chavez a cholera shot. He went on to become a writer, editor, cartoonist, actor, novelist, singer/songwriter, playwright, and humorist. His humor column “Only in New England” appears in every issue of Yankee Magazine. He performs as Fred Marple from the town of Frost Heaves, NH, and writes suspense fiction as Michael Manley.

17 Responses to Yankee Humor | Welcome to Your Really Old House

  1. Peggy Hobbs April 27, 2014 at 10:49 am #

    Our house was built by my grandfather during the Great Depression, @ 1934. My mom grew up here and recalled a dirt road and bobcat roaming through the yard. I also grew up here, and the dirt road became a major roadway. By the time my mother passed away in 1991, the house was badly neglected, so my husband and I bought it and started an extensive renovation project. The house was completely gutted and gave the appearance of a dollhouse, as exterior and interior walls were removed. Many surprises were found, like newspaper for insulation, antiquated wiring and plumbing, etc., but the biggest surprise was when we removed the walls behind the bathtub. There, we found a huge honeybee hive! It took up the entire corner and parts of two walls, and we were amazed that we never heard the buzzing, which now was very audible. Our beekeeper neighbor came to the rescue with the proper gear to remove them, and we enjoyed eating the honey from the honeycomb. Although the house is nothing fancy, it was built with love, and we have raised two children here – the fourth generation to live here – and have created many memories in this New England family home.

  2. Bonny Hartigan April 27, 2014 at 11:30 am #

    I’m still laughing, kind of, since I thought you read my mind! I have several stories i suppose – but the first that came to mind is this:
    My second husband (first had already had enough of the house – or me – not sure which) and I had just settled down for bed in our “bedroom”, really just a front first floor room since I still hadn’t made enough progress on the house to have an upstairs room. By the way – house built in 1774. We had the light on, which attracted the attention of some chimney swifts, who I guess thought it was time to “go to the light”. We shut off the lights and heard a commotion in the chimney – which at first we assumed were mice, big shocker. At that moment the swifts worked their way down into the room and proceeded to fly around the room. Brave souls that we are – we pulled the covers over our heads -sure they were bats. My hero, now my second ex, was no braver than I, and it was my 9 year old daughter who came to the rescue and got the birds out of the house.
    My then husband and I had been so excited to uncover the original fireplace complete with wooden lintel, but of course, this opened our house to the sky. Another bad move.
    I am now sleeping upstairs in a nicely restored bedroom, screen over the top of the chimney, plastic over the fireplace in that room, daughter a zookeeper, and as stated before – the house claiming another husband – I get the hint….

  3. Suzanne April 27, 2014 at 6:14 pm #

    We purchased our New England colonial 30 years ago. A real colonial, as in it was built when this area was still a colony, in 1748. We’ve had many fun surprises…removing a wall to expose a 10ft cooking fireplace complete with beehive oven. Oh yes, it also let everything that was outside come in. Nothing like using bug spray when you come IN to your house! Our walls were stuffed with corncobs, our pumpkin pine floors a source of great amusement when you dropped something. You could never guess which direction it would roll away in. The kids would go down the basement stairs in the spring & sail little boats in the stream that appeared & traveled through. We also had a lovely yellow spotted salamander that lived down there. I could go on, but in the long run we have fixed up some things & replaced others, & we love our little piece of American history.

  4. Jacquie April 28, 2014 at 9:03 am #

    I grew up in a 1759 Connecticut colonial my parents fell in love with despite the overwhelming repairs it needed. Aside from the treasures found in the walls, under the floor boards, and in the gardens- the perils of a restoration project proved to be prime playing grounds for me and my brother. The back half of the second floor was so badly sloped we were able to roll down the wooden floorboards like a well manicured hill. Defunct electrical wiring at the ceiling line served well to hang blankets for makeshift tents. When the second story floors were being replaced, we would tip-toe across the exposed support beams. This fun ended when my brother fell through the dining room ceiling. No worries though- the ceilings in this house were only 6 feet high. Then there was the excitement of our Dad’s showdown with the historical society (lovingly referred to as the hysterical society between the years 1976-1982) which told him the dilapidated and rotting shop attached to our house could not be torn down. Under the light of one summer’s full moon, my Dad assembled a small band of chainsaw wielding neighbors and the shop was “remodeled” before the sun rose. My brother and I were involved (aka free labor) in every detail of the restoration that spanned two decades. My parents still live in the house and when I return home to visit stories and laughter fill those beautifully restored rooms!

  5. Will R. August 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    The military call it “mission creep”, but we owners of old houses have a name for similar undertakings: “mushroom projects.”

    The first time I heard this expression was in conjunction with admiring a beautiful finished basement on a friend’s house. He explained that the project started when he went downstairs to get something and found the light bulb was burned out. So he got a flashlight and an new light bulb and began to unscrew the old bulb from the ceiling. The bulb broke off and he had to find a pair of pliers to remove the base — which caused the old ceramic socket to crumble. He went to the local hardware store for a replacement and then discovered that the knob-and-tube wiring did not have a metal junction box to mount the replacement. So he acquired a metal box and started to enlarge the hole in the plaster ceiling to accommodate it. It was then that he noticed that the old plaster was detaching from the wooden lath and, just in time, was able to jump out of the way as a large chunk of ceiling crashed to the basement floor. At that point, it became clear that he would have to pull down the entire ceiling and install new wood strapping to accommodate sheet rock. Well, he figured, as long as he had to hire a sheet rock and plaster company, he might as well install insulation and re-do the interior basement walls. It was a non-brainer to figure that the old flooring should be pulled up to install a vapor barrier and something a little nicer to go with the new walls and ceiling.

    I won’t belabor the rationale behind the beautiful new oak wet bar and the built-in cabinet work for his new big-screen TV. But, all together, it turned out to be a very, very expensive light bulb.

  6. Alyssa August 18, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    I’m laughing at this picture because a lot of it applies to my grandparent’s Georgian colonial, built in 1909. Especially the bathroom beneath the stairs. Their house has one, and for reasons unknown, it’s pink. Our house also came equipped with a narrow set of servant’s stairs and low-hanging doorjambs; my poor grandfather (who stands well over six feet tall) is constantly hitting his head on door frames when he forgets to duck. And I am constantly teased by my family; our game of “What’s That Noise?” invariably turns out to be bats (several times a month during the summer) and I loathe bats with a passion. I don’t care if they won’t hurt me, I don’t like them!

    And you’d think I would have learned my lesson, but here I sit, typing in my apartment–which is in a converted Victorian, built in 1890.

  7. Kathy September 25, 2014 at 8:06 am #

    How funny to see this! We bought a very old house- they say 1900ish and Wow the things we discovered!! We have virtually no insulation! and it gets wicked cold! It looks like an outhouse off the back but looks like a closet inside… hmmm? We have 3 generations of working electricity.. and have discovered bays in the
    “attic” of the room with the door that goes nowhere… So many things but I love this house and we will make it wonderful, in time! haha

  8. Barb September 25, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

    I don’ really fit with a New England home but we own an 1870 schoolhouse in the Midwest. We have no insulation, just double brick, and yes, the curtains blow in the wind, can you say Polar Vortex? It really tried it’s best to keep us warm this past winter, we were both recovering from surgeries. The warmest place was our bedroom, upstairs with a faux wood burner heater, feather bed, heated mattress pad and down comforter, it was pleasant to say the least. They say we will have a Polar Vortex replay this winter, I’m hoping to add a hot plate up here so I don’t have to go to the north side of the house we lovingly call the kitchen, in good weather, to make our dinners. Kidding aside, we wouldn’t live anywhere else, we love our historic home, wind chill and all!!

  9. josh September 25, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    ah, memories. our New Englander had everything in the article except the open flue. I is in Maine and is so old the deed has no actual date it was built on it, just 1800’s. the property boundaries describe a “great oak” and some stones, I couldn’t find them on our 1/4 acre lot.
    I noticed some knob and tube wiring in the garage, since it didn’t go to anything, I decided to remove it. as I snipped the wire, the garage light went out…
    The building inspector mentioned we had brass water pipes and they needed to be replaced. Brass corrodes from the inside out, “one day you will get a pin hole leak that will keep getting worse”. A few years later we sawed the clawfoot tub in half and carried it out. The great bathroom remodel was on! I had to change the way the pipes ran in the bathroom floor, so it would be a good time to get that (high priced scrap metal) brass pipe out. The pipes were so brittle just grabbing them and pulling caused the joints to break.
    Attaching new walls to the studs, and even insulating the walls was fun, they don’t sell 19″ wide insulation at Home Centers. Then there were the studs rough cut from local logs, true 2x lumber, full of splinters, and sections where they got the edge of the tree so there is still bark and a rounded edge. Try driving a nail or screw through drywall into that…
    The front door could only be opened during the winter, the rest of the year a team of men with sledge hammers would be needed, as the wooden door swelled up and stuck fast.
    We lived there for 11 years, with most of them being recalled as the year we… put on the new roof, put in the new bathroom, replaced the metal cabinets in the kitchen (the newest room in the house), rewired the whole house, finally hooked the kitchen sink to the septic tank (until then it had a failing drywell), and the best for our wallets, the year we put in the pellet stove.

  10. Susan Cammpbell September 28, 2014 at 7:56 am #

    My house was built in the late 1800’s. It was built on graveyards and farmland. There’s a rectangular box in a built off room w/shelves a a big cabinet. A cross is on the door. one winter evening, I was shovelling the driveway (my husband was up the street getting my car out of a snowpile), I looked up at our floor and saw a lovely lady w/her hair up and mutton chop sleeves, looking down at me. There was no one in the house. My daughters have heard a woman and a little girl talking up and down the stairs. When you take pictures on the third floor there are white lights in them. The cellar also has white noise. It’s all friendly, though.

  11. Stacey January 5, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    My house is one of the oldest in my town. Built in 1697 it has character and charm… AND ALL OF THE LOVELY problems that come with a 400+ yr old house that “you can never keep up with”. With 7 fireplaces and floor boards that measure 26″, i fell in love with it years before we bought it. There are many days I want to move and live in a new home with straight walls and new floors etc etc, but I could never sell. I held my wedding here and we said our vows on the back porch. Both of my children have never known anywhere else as home. Crooked, peeling paint, and non stop maintenance… But it’s home. And I absolutely love the history it holds and we continue to make here.

  12. Al Smith January 5, 2015 at 11:15 pm #

    yes to every point except our house is in a river town in NJ

    Steep Thrills
    Being a mansard its got the steepage, which for whatever reason ends in a flat ten inch shelf created by the first floor ceiling joists,
    Boxed in
    Not only did our attic have old stuff in it. My wife donated it to the local historical society, (the stuff, not the attic)
    Rooms with a flue
    Thought our chimney flashing was leaking for the longest time. I’m a contractor, i checked and checked and checked the roof again. Turns out it was animals/mice/vermin snuggling up to our warm chimney in the attic and peeing thru the ceiling tiles.
    Breezy does it
    Not only did our home not have insulation. It doesn’t even have wall sheathing behind the brick veneer, Just studs with more brick between them. And on the inside? No lath, That plaster is right on the brick infill.
    Hidden turn ons.
    When you turn the medicine cabinet fluorescent light off, so does the tough and glow lamp on my nightstand, Perhaps a feature of the knob and tube wiring. And the mystery double wall switch in the bedroom? One works, the other? Probably annoying the person in a parallel universe.
    Privy Counsel
    Until about 10 years ago our bath sink had a separate hot and cold faucet. Google “Hot Rats” , Yup, that was our sink. Our clawfoot tub had no shower until 7 years ago. We used to have a sort of bath in our basement. The “shower:” as it were was a steel wall affair with a drill pump for a drain hooked up to an electric motor and a wall switch with green garden hose into a plumbing stack, The “Throne’ was truly a throne, Elevated off the floor two feet on a platform to get it above the sewer outlet, when perched on the throne you couldn’t wear your crown because your head was between two floor joists for the first floor. We dismantled the whole thing except for the toilet paper holder attached to the ceiling joist. a conversation starter for tours of our basement.
    Wall or nothing:
    When I stripped the cedar siding off the front and rear second floor gables and dormers, we found, Absolutely nothing. The cedar shingles were nailed to furring strips, a gap of air, and plaster over wood lath, The studs? didn’t quite make the full 3 1/2 inch normal depth so they furred out the face of the 2 x 3 studs with scrap yellow pine T&G flooring. Today with much work we have the equivalent of an R-24
    Floor better or worse:
    Have to be careful where we move the kitchen table or one of the legs will drop thru the 4″ x 4″ hole that suddenly appeared when the pine patch they put in dropped into the basement. Some pieces of 2 1/4 inch pine flooring span a single floor joist. It becomes evident in a seesaw manner when your foot steps on an unsupported end and the other end pops up. We are waiting for the clawfoot tub to crash thru into the kitchen just like in the tom hanks movie, The Money Pit
    Cellar Beware:
    After we dismantled the basement bath, I bought a sewage ejector pit and pump. And started to excavate. Broke thru the 1 1/2 inches of :”basement slab” near the foundation wall. being careful to allow ejector pit room for the expected four inch extra of footing beyond the foundation wall. My precautions were unnecessary, as there ARE no foundation footings under our home. This changed my plans. My plan was to excavate six linear feet at a time under the foundation and pour new 8 x 24 inch footings, I got all of six linear feet. No where to dispose of the excavated soil surreptitiously. Unless i sewed up some pants and wandered into the neighborhood gardens like in the movie “the great escape” tunnel excavation. Water appears without rhyme or reason at random areas of the basement having no correlation to the amount of rainfall. About five months ago I put in a sump pit. My wife called up to me while she was doing laundry about a month ago to tell me about more water coming into the basement. Funny thing was. it wasn’t even making it over to the sump pump.
    The Heat Goes On … and On … and On
    First thing we had to change, Not necessarily because i was averse to oil. It was leaking deadly CO thru the combustion chamber. Thank you mister home inspector! (the previous estate executor paid for the new HE gas furnace, I didn’t bother to ask what the previous owner died from as she passed while in this home)

  13. John January 6, 2015 at 12:31 am #

    hahaha wow, all these stories are so familiar. I fell in love w my 1874 18 room victorian 15 years ago. I’m in Massachusetts, a town of approx 25,000 people. Many many homes here are of the same era so even tho I wasn’t looking for an old home, this is what I ended up with.
    I now know what it’s like to have a mish-mash system of wiring & plumbing along with no insulation besides newspaper & trash thrown in the wall spaces, crumbling plaster, curtains blowing in the breeze in the winter, a furnace the size a small factory would use (that runs 90 minutes out of every 2 hours) as well as debris & bats coming down the fireplace.
    I was dumbfounded when pipes that run from the middle of the basement (not an outside wall) to the 3rd floor froze (my plumber still can’t believe it either) and when it rained water started dripping into my bedroom from the top of the window sash which was also happened in one of the bathrooms.
    It’s become a love/hate thing. I swear I hate it sometimes but I know that I love it.
    Bottom line; I’m still getting used to it, still. I didn’t grow up in an old home so all of this has been quite new to me.
    I love the history, character & workmanship the house has. People are always telling me how they love my house, so I’m reminded quite often about it’s historical beauty. There really is something about the “feel” of this house that I know I wouldn’t get in a new home.
    One more thing, I didn’t see anyone mention the lack of sleep that tends to come with old drafty creaking homes. I have hardly slept a full night here in the 15yrs I’ve been here. I don’t know about other old homes but the noises & weird things that occur make it impossible to sleep right through the night. I just keep telling myself “some day.. some day.. I won’t have to deal with this” but honestly i’m not sure if that day will come while i’m still alive! lol and really that is ok with me (i’m a sadist) :)

  14. Bruce Caisse January 6, 2015 at 4:24 am #

    So true! We live in an 1869 cape in Coventry village in Connecticut. I tell people that our house has lots of antique charm….nothing is straight, level or square…but I love the place. When it rains a lot, we even have a little waterfall coming through the stone foundation. Thinking of putting up some grow lights and planting some ferns…

  15. Karen Ann Kurlander January 8, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    This article describes our 1886 New Jersey Victorian to a T, right down to the stream in the unfinished basement every spring. (Luckily the dirt floor in the crawl space absorbs a lot of the water.)

  16. Aaron Sawyer January 9, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    Our 1870-something Queen Anne Victorian had lost all its gingerbread to the vinyl siding ‘improvement’ by previous owner, but that did not diminish the, ah, “charm” of owning a century home.
    Right angles and true corners are the stuff of legend. Ice dams at the roof edge, sheets of 125-year-old newspaper serve as the wind breaker on the inside surface of the outer wall (insulation is — yup — air : R0), studs are randomly placed, wiring is ceramic knob-and-tube (if you’re lucky), floors bounce as the cat walks over them (you don’t want to see what’s been done to the joists). Nothing fits; things fall apart; the center cannot hold…such is life in the clown house. Mercy.

  17. Cybele January 12, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    We lived in a Georgian house in England built in 1704. Trust me when I tell you that these problems from New England exist in old England too! The wallpaper could never be removed because it was the only thing holding the plaster on the stone walls. All of the electric and plumbing had been retrofitted to the house and with stone walls you really only have two choices: on the interior or exterior of the wall. There was a dressing room attached to the master bedroom that had a sink and shower. When it was cold outside, you couldn’t use it because the pipe ran outside the wall and it would freeze. We had two bathrooms across the hall from each other, one microscopic and one large. I used the small one as a broom/vacuum closet. The house had a huge fireplace in the lounge (living room). It was great… until a gigantic crow flew out of it!

    I loved that house.

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