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Tiny Houses of The Past: A Tiny (Scattered) Timeline

Some of you may already know me from my life with the COMET (cometcamper.com), and my appearances at many tiny house workshops and events.

But for those of you who don’t, it’s nice to meet you, and please feel free to get in touch any time. If you’re in New England and have a tiny house you’d like to share, let me know! Now, on to the past!

Let’s start off with some vintage tiny house eye candy:

old tiny house

vintage tiny house

Before humans settled down, tiny, mobile homes were the norm among our nomadic predecessors.

Homes were designed to be packed up, moved and erected in a new place. These were really the tiny homes of the distant past, and you can still see examples of them today.

Traditional Mongolian Yurt

Traditional Mongolian Yurt

The Nearing's yurt in Maine - built with help form the yurt-famous Bill Copperthwaite.

The Nearing’s yurt in Maine – built with help from the yurt-famous Bill Copperthwaite.

The yurt was made from a lattice of thin, flexible wood. Canvas and furs covered the skeleton of the structure for insulation and shelter from the elements. The traditional yurt could be dismantled and moved at a moments notice. A more modern yurt, built by Scott Nearing of Helen and Scott Nearing and “The Good Life” fame, built a yurt on his now famous homestead.

In North America, the Tipi was the Native American’s answer to the Eastern yurt. This structure, though different in shape, could also be packed up and moved when necessary. This is built-in flexibility that many tiny house dwellers would like more of in their lives! I like to think that these mobile, flexible homes were the earliest versions of travel trailers and tiny houses on wheels.


Moving ahead a few years, we see Gypsy wagons rolling around Europe on primitive wheels. Even in that era, mobile, nomadic people were hard to categorize. They were often unwelcome and considered “unsavory”, as settled people did not know what to do with them or where to put them when they visited a town. (In the future, in England, towns would consider building in areas of land for visiting nomadic people). Sounds kind of like the plight of the tiny house dweller today, where our homes on wheels are actually kind of illegal (or at least a-legal in most places). These Gypsy wagon dwellings remain popular all over the world.

Moving along a few centuries, we see more city-centric tiny houses emerge.

Tiny house in Virginia, then.

Tiny house in Virginia, then.

The same Virginia tiny house, now.

The same Virginia tiny house, now.

This is our oldest modern tiny house on this list, dating back to 1830. This tiny “shotgun” house, located in VA, is 7 feet wide and 36 feet long.

Shotgun row houses, New Orleans.

Shotgun row houses, New Orleans.

Another very colorful New Orleans shotgun house.

Another very colorful New Orleans shotgun house.

Speaking of shotgun style homes, New Orleans has many colorful iterations of this row-house lining it’s streets. These homes are tiny from the front but will stretch back many feet.

Thoreau's famous getaway in the Massachusetts woods.

Thoreau’s famous getaway in the Massachusetts woods.

Dating back to the 1840s, this home was built by Henry David Thoreau as an experiment in simple living. Though he only inhabited the house for 2 years and it was never meant to be his long-term home, Thoreau remains a tiny house hero. He lived off the land for 2 years in this 10 x 15 cabin. You can visit a replica of the home on the original site in Concord, MA, next to Walden Pond. I know it doesn’t seem like much to look at, but I visited last fall, and it was beautiful.

Another century and a half later, we find ourselves in the wild, experimental architecture of the 1970s.

Exterior of Venturo House.

The exterior of Venturo House.

Interior of Venturo House.

Interior of Venturo House.

Matti Suuronen’s adventuresome 1971 design exhibits an unusual form and pre-fabricated technology. The broad windows make this home perfect for woodsy environments, where the home would allow the dweller to feel like they are outside. The floor plan had very few walls and was very open. Though this was surely designed as a vacation cabin, it would make a great tiny house.

The 70's were different in England...

The ’70s were different in England…

Not exactly a “tiny house”, but I like to give the vintage campers some credit, call me biased! 1970’s Campers in England looked much different than the 1970’s trailers of the USA. When I think of 1970’s campers, I think of unappealing wood-grain particle board and distasteful laminates. Not in England! The 1970’s travel trailers of the United Kingdom were luxurious and beautiful, the opposite of what was going on here at the time. I just flip for the “keyhole” Formica kitchens and the tiny, elaborate wood stove.

autonomous autonomous

My favorite tiny house on this list (and my favorite tiny house ever) is Micheal Jantzen’s 1979 masterpiece, the Autonomous House. This completely self-sufficient home was decades ahead of its time (and I’d say we still haven’t caught up with this design’s genius). It featured a composting toilet, fold-away shower, greywater filtration, alcohol stove, solar power and more. This was a green machine. Made from 2 halves of a silo top, this home was unique in its form and it’s the ability to provide off-the-grid power to its inhabitants. The home is on a trailer, so it could be moved. It’s not a travel trailer though, and it’s probably the first tiny house on wheels of this caliber. It just proves how much you can do with a tiny space and a little innovation. I hope to see technologies like this in all the tiny houses of the future.

Well, that’s a very scattered timeline of Tiny Houses of the past. If you know of any old Tiny Houses, please share them in the comments!

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Mariah lives in a 1960's vintage trailer that she renovated herself to be eco-awesome and off-the-grid. Her home is also a mobile classroom. Mariah currently spends most of her time in Worcester, MA and Vermont. Mariah holds a certificate in Sustainable Design/Build, has a degree in Tiny Houses (no kidding!). When she isn't traveling the country researching tiny houses, or towing her tiny vintage home around teaching workshops and doing tours, she's at home philosophizing and scheming about the future of tiny houses and planning widespread tiny house domination. You can see what she's up to and get in touch over at www.cometcamper.com.
{ 24 comments… add one }
  • sunshineandrain
    February 12, 2013, 9:39 pm

    Enjoyed the quick history of Tiny Houses. If you get to Oklahoma with your Tiny House, let me know. I’d love to see yours. Mine is a trailer and hand-drawn plans and a shed full of components at this date. I love Formica too! Thanks.

    • Kathleen
      February 12, 2013, 11:34 pm

      Where in Oklahoma are you? I am in NE OK known as “Green Country.” I am quite close to being obsessed with the idea of a tiny house.

    • Mariah
      February 14, 2013, 12:19 pm

      Awesome! I’ll probably make it to Oklahoma sometime this year. Formica is the best!

  • Carolyn B
    February 12, 2013, 11:27 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading of the history of tiny homes. I loved seeing the photos. I am looking forward to your next article.
    “this home was unique in it’s form and it’s ability to provide off-the-grid power to it’s inhabitants.” — 1 critique from this grammar cop. In this line, all 3 “its” should not have an apostrophe. An apostrophe is necessary when contracting “it is” in a sentence. This is offered in the hope that your boss will overlook this grammatical error and that we shall see many more articles of tiny houses from you.

    • Mariah
      February 14, 2013, 12:21 pm

      Oh no! Thank you for pointing that out! haha, you should be my editor! Glad you liked the article, and I’ll proofread twice next time 😉

  • deborah
    February 13, 2013, 9:17 am

    I can see you are going to be a great asset to this site! That was an awesome article and was very enjoyable. Now I must check out your website!

    • Mariah
      February 14, 2013, 12:22 pm

      Thanks Deborah! Lots more articles on the way! 🙂

  • LaMar
    February 16, 2013, 5:42 pm

    Hi Mariah and glad to see some more off-grid people writing for TH.

    Love the arrticle and I was inspired by many home designs in the Lloyd Kahn books. It was a real honor when he included my 14×14 cabin in his last book.

    I based my cabin on the Thoreau cabin but included a loft for more space. Kepping it simple, off-grid and inexpensive is the way to go.

    kepp up the good work!

    • Mariah
      February 17, 2013, 11:16 am

      Thanks Lamar! I have been looking at your own website a lot lately. Lots of great ideas. Off-grid all the way!

  • Julie Hagan Bloch
    February 16, 2013, 5:45 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed seeing these tiny homes. What diverse and interesting histories! However, I thought that since you plan to be submitting more articles, I should let you know (and I know that most people really don’t care about this, but I find it disturbing) that “it’s” is NEVER possessive. It always and only is a contraction for “it is”. The proper possessive form is “its”, just as “his” and “hers” are possessive. It’s a simple thing to fix its grammar, yes? 🙂
    Anyhow, otherwise, I really enjoyed your article, and hope to see more from you!

    • Mariah
      February 17, 2013, 11:17 am

      Thanks for reading Julie. The grammar thing has been pointed out and will be fixed asap 🙂 Glad you like the article, keep reading!

  • Otessa Regina Compton
    February 16, 2013, 6:47 pm

    Why do these tiny houses of the past be in the past? They should stick around, as they add more spice and character to the new. A contrast like this is healthy, it gives folks freedom and choice. I do not believe we should be confined to a specific architecture just because time moves on, if we are individuals, then our homes should be individuals along with us.

    • Mariah
      February 17, 2013, 11:20 am

      Well said Otessa! I agree, and that is why I wrote this article. I am hoping that by showing some wonderful examples of historical tiny homes, people will be encouraged to build unique tiny homes like these, or with their own twist. There are so many interesting building techniques and styles out there, we can all build tiny houses that are unique. The styles of the past are beautiful, I hope to see more people inspired by these methods!

  • Keyra
    February 19, 2013, 6:06 pm

    Love the New Orleans shot gun houses and the before and after of the Virginia tiny house! Love this post!

  • JackieRuth
    March 3, 2013, 9:26 am

    Hi Mariah, it is nice to meet you! I have been living and watching the Tiny House movement for close to five years now. I have a very early “J” copy that was one of the first, if not close to the first copies made that I moved from the Florida Keys to five acres of forest that I bought that was paid off in less than three years! At first, my Tiny J copy, “The Hobbit House” on my Hobbit land was all that I needed because it was simply a retreat that I used alone or sometimes with my son. I have often referred to myself as a Henry David Thoreau in female form. I ended up moving my whole family to this plot of land in Mount Prairie Hollow bordering the Mark Twain Nat’l forest in Southern Missouri and found that since I sell antiques and collectibles online via satellite internet and have store booths in antique shops that I needed more room. I have a lot of “stuff” to store to sell otherwise, I live very simply with no mortgage or rent and purposely bought land with no restrictions so I can do anything that I want. I put in a tiny portable barn to store stuff and made a cabin out of a portable building that was a repo. I only paid $3,000 for this repo where I now sit. I bought tongue and groove pine from a mill that were the pieces that were to be disposed of because they were not “cut right” so I obtained them for a buck each. (I hate seeing our trees destroyed) I stained them and have the walls in my cabin not only freshly insulated and wired, but people walk in amazed that it truly looks like a log cabin inside! It is still a work in progress, but I am covering the ceiling with animal hides that I obtain from a Nationally recognized trapper who has to kill these animals for one reason or another, but he will tan the hides when he can or even eat the meat so it is not wasted. The hides provide extra insulation on the ceiling of my cabin and many people think they make it look like an old hunters cabin. Between the hides where I have extra space, I hang vinyl records from the seventies that have color. Red, Blue, Green whatever I find that would be considered junk is being used as ceiling cover and it is a cool way to recycle them and bring color in to the cabin. I am always looking for the old colored ones and hides that have no use or good sale value. They a perfect recyclables. I attached another portable building to the back of my cabin and I insulated and covered the walls with bamboo tweed and it turned in to a dark and cozy hut for sleeping in Hobbit Village, but I went all out on my Victorian antique bedroom set and other furnishings! I also made a concrete/bunker that is to serve as a tornado shelter and man cave for my husband. All of us share the “main” cabin and I turned a 1967 Airstream in to the out house and have a little teardrop camper here for my sister or for someone who spends the night. It is all original and when I seen your comet, it reminded me so much of my little tear drop that so far, I have left as original as possible. There are a few people out there who know that I am as I have been not only living this movement, but watching it grow and expand. People don’t hear from me often, but your cute comet brought words out of me knowing that I have a vintage trailer that looks so similar!!! I would like for you to tell me about this toilet that you use and what work is involved. I am curious and want more education on how to take care of manure since my next adventure is to buy an old boat with a large walk in cuddy where I can stay on it months at a time at my home of 28 years which was Big Pine Key! I want to travel back and forth like I used to and be responsible for my own doo-doo and not have it stinking in high humidity temps and not dump it overboard because it is killing our reefs. I won’t be able to take my boat in and out to go dump so I need a plan and advise on how to make something work in a tropical climate. Some people know me as Ruth and some as Jackie so I decided to become JackieRuth. I loved your first article on Alex’s magazine that I have been a part of and watch grow sine he first started it. I might not say much to often, but I am here and smile and have an interest in all that I see and when you do hear from me, it is long winded just like this because I had a lot to get out at once! LOL I love my Tiny People!!! From Hobbit Village on Hobbit Land in our exploding Hobbit World. You can see what I have done on Facebook as I took many pictures while embarking on my pioneering project. My name on FB is Jackie Ruth Brown Koson and I am open to the public to show others that you don’t need a mansion with lots of things and one has more freedom and less stress when living simply and Tiny even when it turns in to a community of Tiny as it went from one person to five and each needs a tiny space and that is all that is needed for anyone. Keep it simple is the road to freedom, peace and inner happiness. Oh, did I just accidentally write another article? LOL

    • Alex
      July 8, 2014, 9:05 am

      Always love your ‘articles’ Jackie! In fact, would love to officially have you do a guest post sometime to share more (and photos of your tiny house, property, etc.) if you’d want to 🙂

      • JackieRuth
        July 8, 2014, 10:23 am

        Hello to everyone in the tiny community! Alex, we go “Waaaaay” back now, don’t we? I had just read this “article” that I wrote a couple of years ago and smiled as I was reading it. I have always been somewhat quiet, but then when I have something to say, then I say a lot! When I stepped in to this adventure, I had no idea that this would evolve in to a movement. I was doing something at the beginning of a movement before it was even a movement and then as I lived it and watched it grow and expand all over our world, I have followed it. “It” being the tiny revolution! I have watched with astounding amazement on how this took off. I remember when I became Jay Schaffer’s 77th friend on Facebook not realizing the magnitude of what was about to happen. I remember during that time frame when Alex was starting his Tiny magazine. I watched how it grow from micro tiny to MASTER ~mega tiny as others have jumped on board to share their stories, adventures and the many video’s that have flowed in from all over the world as the tiny revolution has taken off!!! I have absolutely loved watching as others have jumped on board finding freedom that comes with having a tiny house or, buying land with no zoning or restrictions to place their tiny house on creating their own simple world of freedom that does not exist out in the mainstream rat race! My personal adventure did go from just a tiny house that I placed on my land to use as a retreat off grid to making changes to adapt to family living creating a little compound known as Hobbit Village. First, I enjoyed my very early “J” copy tiny house where I came and spent a whole summer alone in the forest living off of the land. I fished daily in the river for fish to eat and all of my vegetables came from a local garden. It was clean, healthy living and I had never felt so good in my life! My son just spent the last four years living in the “Hobbit House” while he was in High School. He recently moved out and is headed to college. When I came to my land, there was nothing here. I was the first person to ever create an address here. It slowly evolved from off grid, to on grid. I used to collect water to use from local Springs that flowed fresh out of a mountain that was the beginning of what would turn in to a river. The water was tested and turned out to be cleaner than the water that came out of a drinking fountain at Wal~Mart! I have learned so many things on my journey and would love to share some of my experiences and way of life with others. Right now as I write, I watch how a carport ended up being a remarkable way to collect water! Literally pioneering a rugged piece of Earth and needing to do so many things that was a “first” in this location, I have many stories and lessons to share with those that would love to hear them!

        • Russell
          April 4, 2018, 8:22 pm


          Let it go. Everyone communicates in short bites, not long essays. I lost interest when I saw the length of your post.

          And to all the Grammar Queens. Spellcheck isn’t attached to everything you write online.

          Mariah, I enjoyed your Tiny House post.
          Keep it up!

  • Anna
    July 9, 2014, 2:40 pm

    Born thirty years too soon….story of my life. Have always loved the idea of mini-living but since I can’t interest my sons in building a “tiny” for me I must be satisfied with simplifying life as I find it. Your history of small living is missing an important piece of the story—sod houses on the plains. When early settlers reached Nebraska they found great stretches of prairy grass but very little building material so necessity turned them to the deep root system of the sod. Realizing that this was a fading lifestyle, an enterprising photographer named Soloman Butcher began recording images of the people and their innovative homes which were ultimately published in a book by the Nebraska Uniersity Press. The settlement of our prairy states is a neglected story of courageous people facing daunting hardships in pursuit of a better life that should be better known. I think the book is still available.

  • Karen
    September 16, 2014, 3:12 pm

    I love these!!! I believe the first home is near Eureka Springs, Arkansas? I have driven past the historic tiny house in Alexandria, Virginia and love the New Orleans shotgun homes. Big homes are boring . . .

  • Louie Cancio
    March 18, 2015, 4:47 pm

    Proof that people will continue to love tiny houses
    like they did back then.

  • Rhonald Angelo
    January 1, 2016, 4:23 pm

    Great article, I enjoyed reading it.

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