by Laura C. Keim
Stephen Hague, 48, a Chestnut Hill resident for 10 years (although he was in the United Kingdom for three of those years doing doctoral research), recently launched a new book at the Institute for Historical Research in London, England. Dr. Hague, a history professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, has written about 18th-century houses in “The Gentleman’s House in the British Atlantic World, 1680-1780,” published this year by British publishing house Palgrave Macmillan.
The book examines the issue of social mobility in the 18th century by comparing small classical houses in England and its North American colonies. “I wanted to think about how people used buildings and objects to enhance their social standing,” Hague said. “What I found is that rather than a rags-to-riches story, these houses and their 18th-century owners tell us that the people who built them were by and large careful with their money and moved up the social ladder step by step rather than in big leaps.”
The journey toward his book started in Philadelphia’s historic northwest, when Hague served as Director of Stenton, one of the historic sites in Germantown. He had seen many similar houses in England and thought it would be worth exploring those as a comparison. Although historic houses of this sort are often museums and well-documented in America — local examples include Cliveden in Germantown and Hope Lodge in Fort Washington — little information existed about such houses in Britain.
After leaving Stenton, Hague traveled to the city of dreaming spires, as Oxford is known, to study at Oxford University for his D.Phil, the Oxford equivalent of a PhD. His doctoral thesis became a case study of small classical houses in Gloucestershire, a county in the west of England. “My time in Oxford was blissful — great libraries, thought-provoking talks and lectures and wonderful architecture. It really was what a university should be.” Hague maintains his contacts with Oxford and is a Supernumerary Fellow of Linacre College, Oxford.
Hague spent a lot of time on the road, as his research took him to various parts of England, including the Cotswold hills. Many of the houses he visited are still privately owned, and gaining access to see the houses and collections was sometimes a challenge. Often located in remote rural areas, their location meant he spent many hours driving the narrow, winding roads of England on the left hand side, pausing occasionally to examine a map to make sure he was headed in the right direction. Hague also spent time researching in Bristol, which was England’s second leading port city in the 18th century, and had numerous connections with Philadelphia.
Most owners were welcoming and interested in his research, although on occasion they only reluctantly allowed him to visit. “One fellow, the owner of a lovely house, was highly suspicious,” Hague said. “But during my visit, he became quite friendly and ended up showing me all over the house and grounds. When I left, his dry British comment was, ‘That was much better than a trip to the dentist.’”
“The Gentleman’s House” is Hague’s first book, although he has written widely on topics related to architecture, community and historic sites. The book launched at a major international conference at the Institute for Historical Research in London and has been well-received. Closer to home, Hague has done a series of book talks and signings in the Philadelphia region, with several more slated for the spring. One talk focused on the 10 best houses that he encountered during his research, which examined nearly 200 houses, not all of which are still standing. His favorite house remains the house where his research started, Stenton in Germantown.
“Stenton is remarkable,” Hague said, “for its impressive state of preservation, its collections and the quite extraordinary amount of research that has been done there. After looking at some really marvelous houses on both sides of the Atlantic, I kept coming back to the idea that this house in northwest Philadelphia was not simply locally or regionally important but internationally as well. It is a tribute to the historic richness of our community.”
Ed. note: Dr. Hague teaches a broad range of European history courses in the History Department at Rowan University, with a particular emphasis on Modern British and imperial history. Previously, he lectured at Temple University and West Chester University. More information at rowan.academia.edu/StephenHague.