As technology advances, along comes our ability to track resources in a paperless, easily searchable method, thanks to the Association of Preservation Technology (APT) who has put a tremendous amount of effort digitizing archival building materials catalogs, direct mail materials, ads, and other ephemera, so building preservationists can have an endless world of research at their fingertips. These paper brochures, that once would have been tossed away, have been given new life—revived and organized for home and historic building devotees alike.
In 2010, the APT in conjunction with Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based non-profit digital library with a mission of “universal access to all knowledge,” established the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), generating an online archive of these historic technical documents so that it’s serviceable to a wider audience. The BTHL is a free online digital library with more than 9,500 documents printed before 1964—materials come from various museum, library, and private collections.
Creating the library to make it easily available to the public, however, was anything but simple. Technical, descriptive papers such as the historic trade catalogs are filled with text and overflowing with graphics, photos, and marketing information.
"Trade catalogs, because of their relatively short lifespan and commercial nature are not found in most architectural libraries. While the focus for APT was the technical value of these materials for preservation professionals, they will ultimately serve a much broader community,” says Mike Jackson, FAIA, who serves as co-chair of the BTHL along with Dean Koga.
Providing historical evidence of the great prosperity of the 1920s and a fondness for period homes (Colonial Revival to Spanish Revival), the 20s catalogs are plentiful, more than any other decade with over 1,700 to sift through. A majority relate to residential design and planning, a prelude to the product catalogs for residential construction and renovation. Jackson says, “The direct mail marketing of trade literature to homeowners really expanded greatly in the 20th century and these materials make up a large number of resources. The collection of house plan catalogs—there are about 1,000—is a noteworthy example.”
What This Means for Arts & Crafts Homeowners
This library is an incredible wellspring of historic building materials, style, and decorating guidance coming straight from the original sources. You’ll find a treasure-trove of sorted, digitized content all searchable by year, topic, sub-collection, creator, or keywords. Since the materials are public domain and available to the general public free of charge, everyday old-house owners can use the documents to serve as sources for their personal renovation and restoration projects.
Ways to Search
Primary access to the library is via the website, but there are also well-categorized Pinterest boards that serve as a secondary resource. The library continues to grow as APT receives additional funding. The library itself has over 50,000 monthly users. Searching is made simple by entering in basic keywords related to what you’d like to research, such as paint colors. Another option is to use the filters along the lefthand column to sift through.
“I know of one homeowner in the Chicago area who is restoring his 1939 house and has used the BTHL extensively for research,” says Jackson.
Fair warning: Once you get started, it’s incredibly hard to stop!
Other Notable Catalogs
The Bungalow Book: 1910 is one of the earliest house plan catalogs of bungalow designs.
Better Built Homes, 1919 has great bungalow examples.
The Home Beautiful, c. 1925 for its interior views of Craftsman-style woodwork.
The Kitchen Plan Book, c. 1920 because of its popular B & W line drawings of kitchens.
View the library.
Watch a video on APT International.