The best books about architecture and the visceral experience of social identity in industrial America

Who am I?

When I was a kid I would cut out graph paper to design my ideal house. When I was in college, I walked into a class called American Material Life and had my eureka moment: “This is how I want to learn about people in the past!” I realized. I’ve been doing that ever since, first as a museum curator and now as a history professor. Houses, furnishings, and the way people interact with the built environment can reveal the complexity, diversity, and beauty of human lives.


I wrote...

Company Suburbs: Architecture, Power, and the Transformation of Michigan's Mining Frontier

By Sarah Fayen Scarlett,

Book cover of Company Suburbs: Architecture, Power, and the Transformation of Michigan's Mining Frontier

What is my book about?

In this book I contrast two types of neighborhoods that transformed Michigan’s mining frontier between 1875 and 1920: paternalistic company towns built for workers and elite suburbs for the region’s network of business leaders. I argue that mining company officers and their partners adapted techniques from both types of neighborhoods—often at the same time in the same places!—to manipulate social hierarchy.

My favorite chapters in the book compare the experiences of homeowners and their families—neighborhood “insiders”—with those of immigrant domestic workers who lived and worked among them as “outsiders.” While Victorian houses used the back doors, butler’s pantries, and maid’s chambers to keep domestic workers “in their places,” they actually provided them with unexpected opportunities to try on new identities.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Patina of Place: The Cultural Weathering of a New England Industrial Landscape

Sarah Fayen Scarlett Why did I love this book?

Kingston Heath’s captivating book Patina of Place investigates human relationships with working-class living spaces so powerfully. Sometimes I think parts of my book would have been better as a film for capturing what it feels like to move through a neighborhood and into a house. But Heath has managed to do it on static printed paper by combining historic photographs, first-hand accounts, childhood memories, and—most importantly, his gorgeous drawings!—to convey everyday experiences in New England’s three-decker housing units. What sets this book apart are Heath’s textured stories of women rearranging their furniture to make room for another family member; a child’s-eye view of his grandmother’s upholstered sofa; and one couple’s reflections on demographic change around their apartment of 50 years. 

By Kingston Wm Heath,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Patina of Place as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the booming textile industry turned many New England towns into industrialized urban centers. This rapid urbanization transformed the built environment of communities such as New Bedford, Massachusetts, as new housing styles emerged to accommodate the largely immigrant workforce. In particular, the wood-frame "three-decker" became the region's multifamily housing design of choice and is widely acknowledged as a unique architectural form that is characteristic of New England. In The Patina of Place, Heath offers the first book-length analysis of the three-decker and its cultural significance, revealing New Bedford's evolving regional identity within New…


Book cover of On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World

Sarah Fayen Scarlett Why did I love this book?

Geographer Tim Cresswell’s work has helped me convince architectural historians that examining how we move through spaces is vital to understanding the full range of the built environment’s cultural meanings. He states the obvious: we all live in physical bodies. And yet historians emphasize the written word and architects emphasize visualization. What about the other senses? Cresswell argues that mobility is a socially-constructed movement much like place is a socially-constructed space. We can learn so much by paying attention to the ways society controls movement: Who is allowed to occupy which spaces? When? With whom? And how has that changed over time? Cresswell’s ideas helped me analyze the lived experiences of multiple people in the same domestic spaces, and ultimately connect the manipulation of architecture and landscape to modernity’s regulation of bodies and ideas. 

By Timothy Cresswell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On the Move as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the Move presents a rich history of one of the key concepts of modern life: mobility. Increasing mobility has been a constant throughout the modern era, evident in mass car ownership, plane travel, and the rise of the Internet. Typically, people have equated increasing mobility with increasing freedom. However, as Cresswell shows, while mobility has certainly increased in modern times, attempts to control and restrict mobility are just as characteristic of modernity. Through a series of fascinating historical episodes Cresswell shows how mobility and its regulation have been central to the experience of modernity.


Book cover of Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic

Sarah Fayen Scarlett Why did I love this book?

No one writes more compellingly about the multi-sensory experiences of living in America’s past environments than Dell Upton. His book Another City deals with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century city—a century before the time period in my book—but he weaves together narratives of urban experience from America’s first decades as a republic to offer surprisingly contemporary commentary on city politics today. His chapter called “Smell of Danger,” to offer just one example, demonstrates that America’s urban elite mobilized their belief that disease was caused by “miasmas” rising up from foul-smelling waste to justify segregation along with class and racial lines. In the era of yellow fever and cholera, Upton argues that “the physical geography of disease became a human geography of fear.” 

By Dell Upton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Another City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An exploration of the beliefs, perceptions, and theories that shaped the architecture and organization of America's earliest cities

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, burgeoning American cities like New Orleans and Philadelphia seemed increasingly chaotic. Noise, odors, and a feverish level of activity on the streets threatened to overwhelm the senses. Growing populations placed new demands on every aspect of the urban landscape-streets, parks, schools, asylums, cemeteries, markets, waterfronts, and more. In this unique exploration of the early history of urban architecture and design, leading architectural historian Dell Upton reveals the fascinating confluence of sociological, cultural, and psychological…


Book cover of At Home with Apartheid: The Hidden Landscapes of Domestic Service in Johannesburg

Sarah Fayen Scarlett Why did I love this book?

OK this book is not about the United States but Rebecca Ginsburg’s incredibly nuanced investigation of the domestic landscape in apartheid South Africa should be required reading for anyone thinking about embodied experience and architecture. Houses built in the twentieth century for White families in suburban Johannesburg featured small rectangular rooms in the back yard for Black domestic workers. Using interviews, site visits, and compassionate storytelling, Ginsburg pieces together the daily rhythms for women who woke up outside, “came in the dark,” and learned the “tempo of kitchen life,” to borrow two of her provocative chapter titles. When people possessing such drastically different levels of social power share spaces built to remind them of their status at almost every turn, the visceral capacity of architecture becomes painfully clear.

By Rebecca Ginsburg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked At Home with Apartheid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite their peaceful, bucolic appearance, the tree-lined streets of South African suburbia were no refuge from the racial tensions and indignities of apartheid's most repressive years. In At Home with Apartheid, Rebecca Ginsburg provides an intimate examination of the cultural landscapes of Johannesburg's middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods during the height of apartheid (c. 1960-1975) and incorporates recent scholarship on gender, the home, and family.

More subtly but no less significantly than factory floors, squatter camps, prisons, and courtrooms, the homes of white South Africans were sites of important contests between white privilege and black aspiration. Subtle negotiations within the domestic…


Book cover of Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1915

Sarah Fayen Scarlett Why did I love this book?

Jessica Sewell’s book Women and the Everyday City makes us feel like we’re walking the streets of turn-of-the-century San Francisco. She combines traditional architectural history sources like floor plans, maps, and historic photographs with diaries written by women from varied class and ethnic backgrounds to piece together their experiences of the city. My favorite section uses advertisements and published memoirs to demonstrate that women without the economic means and cultural capital to be welcomed in downtown department stores or even some of the local grocery stores had much more complicated choices to make as they navigated everyday needs like finding transportation, buying food, and creating community. She compares the urban public imagination with how the city was actually built and experienced—just like theorist Henri Lefebvre suggests!

By Jessica Ellen Sewell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women and the Everyday City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Women and the Everyday City, Jessica Ellen Sewell explores the lives of women in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. A period of transformation of both gender roles and American cities, she shows how changes in the city affected women's ability to negotiate shifting gender norms as well as how women's increasing use of the city played a critical role in the campaign for women's suffrage.
Focusing on women's everyday use of streetcars, shops, restaurants, and theaters, Sewell reveals the impact of women on these public places-what women did there, which women went there, and how these places were changed in response…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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