House calling

Aramoana station homestead, Hawke’s Bay

Aramoana station homestead, Hawke’s Bay

I’ve recently begun researching a Te Ara entry on housing, and was pondering on the different names we have for houses and how they each evoke a different sense of place. A cottage could be located in town or country; flats and apartments bring to mind the bustle of inner-city living; villas and bungalows suggest leafy suburban streets, cribs and baches smack of sun and surf, and farmhouses and homesteads conjure up images of sheep, paddocks and the smell of mud.

I’ve been fascinated how strongly these dwelling types are associated with country living and how this reinforces New Zealanders’ affinity with the land. Most of our housing types have rural origins. Aside from flats and apartments, urban housing types – lofts, terraces, tenements, townhouses and studios – have not been (until recently) part of our vocabulary. As I’ll argue in the housing entry, this is because New Zealand towns and cities were ‘born suburban’. The plentiful supply of land meant there was no need to construct medium-density housing, which was part of the attraction for people coming to live here – and still is.

Equally fascinating is how the meaning of terms for different dwelling types have changed over time. For example, I’d been struck by the word ‘homestead’ ever since I stayed at the one at Totaranui decades ago. The word interested me because, from watching multiple westerns, the word seemed more American than British. I’d never thought to investigate its meaning until starting this entry. Consulting Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English, I found the word was used in New Zealand from the 1840s, which was contemporaneous with United States usage. In the US it referred to a small rural land-holding and farmhouse for working people. In New Zealand, it also had that meaning, but had a further meaning as well: the house of a station owner as opposed to the men’s quarters and other buildings. Yet there was a fine distinction to this definition. A homestead had to be some distance from the men’s quarters (presumably to reinforce social distinctions) otherwise it was called the ‘Big House’. The first meaning evoked the principle of egalitarianism and common access to land; the second meaning spoke of the strictures of the English class system and privilege.

This second meaning has endured while the first has fallen away. In recent times resorts have adopted the word homestead to describe up-market accommodation. For example, the new Wanaka Homestead offers ‘informal luxury in a friendly five bedroom boutique bed and breakfast’. The resort also offered ‘charming cottages’ with ‘apartment style’ serviced facilities for families and the less well off. Is this the beginning of a new dwelling type: the ‘cottage apartment’?

Homestead is not the only housing type whose meaning has changed. In the 1920s a flat referred to a flash apartment; it now more often describes low-end multi-unit dwellings.

Are there others whose meaning has changed? How do you refer to your dwelling: a house, castle, villa, flat, pad, dive? Are particular housing types still a signal of social status, or is where you live more important?

3 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by malcolm || February 15th, 2012

    There’s lots of interest. . . what about the recent borrowing of ‘mews’ to describe town houses (and town house itself for that matter). ‘Cottage’, like ‘village’ (and perhaps for similar reasons) doesn’t seem to have had much ‘airtime’ in NZ but maybe a papers past search wd tell different. In frontier NZ ‘whare’ was in commonly use for a simple dwelling and understood term, I wonder whether at some point it gave way to bach. Hut was also used, and survives not just for tramping but in the ‘hut’ townships of Canterbury. ‘Shed’ is another interesting one - we joked when I was at school about farm kids for whom ‘everything’ was a shed e.g. the garage (and that’s another genteelism I guess) was a car-shed. Then there’s ‘home’ vs ‘house’ - real estate agents sell houses but the visiting hours are always labelled ‘open homes’

  2. Comment made by Kerryn || February 16th, 2012

    I grew up in a rural area and the smaller houses on farms which accommodated farm workers were sometimes called cottages. This distinguished them from the farmer’s house. I think in some cases the cottage started off as the farmer’s house - the farm-owing family built another larger one when they were sufficiently prosperous. In my case, the home I grew up in was moved from the flat up to the top of the nearest hill and enlarged, which I guess is another more thifty way of demonstrating prosperity. The concrete foundations remain in the original location and I always found them intriguing as a kid, even though I knew their history.

  3. Comment made by Helen Rickerby || February 23rd, 2012

    I would love to be able to call my 1907 house a ‘cottage’, but it seems like the wrong shape - too tall and narrow and towerlike. And it certainly isn’t grand enough to be a villa. So a house it is, I guess.

    I grew up thinking that bach was another word for shed, because my parents called the old shed out the back a bach. Turned out that it had actually been a bach, which the previous owner would come out from Wellington City to spend the weekends in.

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