Of all historical housing forms found in Tennessee, the shotgun house is perhaps the least understood and most burdened with confusion and misconceptions. The shotgun sometimes represented the worst evidence of the treatment of the impoverished and, therefore, was viewed as simply a small house that afforded its occupants the first step in upward economic and social mobility.
Simply defined, the shotgun is a narrow house, one room wide and at least three rooms deep, oriented with its gable end facing the street. The prototypical shotgun has only one window and a door on its front facade, and it is typically twelve feet wide. The floor plan of the shotgun house is always laid out with no hallway separating the rooms, hence its legendary name: a shotgun could be fired through the front door, and its pellets would emerge from the rear of the house without hitting an interior wall.
In spite of nearly two generations of treatment by scholars of vernacular architecture, the origin of the shotgun house is not clearly understood. In 1968 Henry Glassie suggested that the shotgun was originally an African house plan reestablished in Haiti by colonial era slaves. Later work by John M. Vlach followed this hypothesis. Vlach argued that migrating Haitian freedmen brought the shotgun with them to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution of 1791. The house type spread from New Orleans with the out-migration of the Haitians in the 1820s and 1830s.
The earliest known shotgun houses in New Orleans and the surrounding area, however, date from the 1840s. A survey of other state historic preservation offices in southern coastal states reveals no evidence of earlier extant examples, nor is there archaeological evidence of the shotgun house in the South before the 1840s.
Architectural historians and cultural geographers generally agree, however, on several points related to the shotgun houses. The shotgun is primarily an urban house type, despite the common misconception that associates it with rural settings. The earliest shotguns are found in cities, and the form migrated from the city to small towns and rural communities late in the nineteenth century. Further, there appears to be no specific connection between the shotgun house and the architecture of slavery. Finally, there are three accepted and identifiable periods of shotgun house construction.
The earliest extant shotguns in the South date from the 1840s and 1850s and can be found in New Orleans and parts of Alabama, although shotguns dating from the late 1830s are known to exist in the upper Ohio River Valley in the area between Louisville and Cincinnati. Shotguns built during this period were used by owner-occupants and by tenants, depending upon location and individual situations.
The second wave occurred in the late 1860s and 1870s, in what may be considered the “flowering” of the shotgun house. This was when the shotgun was introduced to Tennessee. In New Orleans, Memphis, and Louisville, many shotguns built by owner-occupants featured fanciful Italianate architectural detailing. The Greenlaw and Vance-Ponotoc areas of Memphis still contain some of these early frame shotguns, although they are disappearing rapidly. Documentary evidence from New Orleans shows that millwork companies there were prefabricating highly decorated shotguns; local companies probably produced the decorated shotguns of Memphis.
The third wave of construction of the shotgun houses began in the 1880s and continued until World War II, with the majority of southern shotguns built in this period. Like the rest of the South, most Tennessee cities and towns included at least a small cluster of shotgun houses, built by developers as rental units to accommodate the growing demand for working-class housing. This wave of construction coincided with the industrial growth of the urban South and the concurrent surge of rural-to-urban migration that resulted from farm mechanization. These rental shotguns for the working class featured little ornamentation. Although the neighborhoods of shotguns in Memphis and other Tennessee towns are commonly thought to have served African American tenants, research into areas such as the Delmar-Lema neighborhood of Memphis shows that they were not segregated enclaves but originally places where African Americans and whites of the working class lived side by side. Racial separation occurred in the decade following World War I, perhaps as the production of affordable housing caught up to white demands. With more limited opportunities for economic and political mobility, African Americans remained behind in the only housing available to them.
A single, definitive source for the origin of the shotgun may never be identified. Instead, it may be that the constraints of lot sizes and density in city and town environments influenced the development of the shotgun more than any cultural factor. The earliest shotguns appeared in high density residential areas and stood on narrow lots little more than twenty feet wide. The shotgun simply may have been the largest freestanding house that could be built under the constraints of space and budget.
If that is the case, it is ironic, then, that present real estate forces are exerting a significant influence on the preservation of the shotgun house in Tennessee. While a cluster of shotguns near downtown Jackson may be seen as slum housing, across town in the industrial suburb of Bemis owners and the community highly prize their shotgun houses. The same is true in other Tennessee towns, including Memphis, where shotgun neighborhoods are being demolished at the same time that shotguns in other areas sell readily for middle-class housing. Perhaps, as with all real estate, the perception of value is shaped more by location than by historical and architectural association.