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Commentary: Knock, Knock – and Knock, Knock

Jade Kastel

Moving to a new city is a mix of exploration, discovery, and unpacking. You get to find new favorite restaurants, choose a veterinarian, decide on a daily commute, or you may have the unfortunate encounter of stumbling upon a new allergy.

I recently moved to Macomb and there’s been many things I’ve learned, researched, and explored. We searched for geodes by the Mississippi, pontooned at Spring Lake Park, hiked at Argyle Lake, and learned that Macomb is the ancestral lands of the Illinois, the Inoca indigenous people.

One curiosity that piqued my interest is related to the 100-year-old house where we live. It has two front doors. And I learned that’s not uncommon for a house of that age.

As you walk up the porch steps, one door is directly in front of you. But then to your left is a second door. You could almost miss if you didn’t know it was there. The door to the left opens into the living room and it has a metal door knocker on it, as if to invite guests to enter through that door.

My curiosity about the purpose and function of this second door brought me to the Western Illinois University Libraries and Archive. My colleagues discussed my two-door query and shed light on what it may have been like to live in this house 100 years ago.

For example, in Macomb, you’ll still see hitching posts for horses around the city. Maybe my commute would have included horses or a bicycle. It’s interesting to consider that there may not have been running water or electricity in our house when it was built.

In 1925, only half of all homes in the U.S. had electric power. In 1940, hot water, a bathtub or shower, or a flushing toilet were still only in half of all homes.

Jade Kastel
Jade Kastel

To help get a picture of Macomb back then, one of the resources we used were the Digital Sanborn Maps of Illinois, dating from around 1867-1970. They were initially created for fire insurance companies to help determine the risks associated with insuring properties.

Because the maps were created over a century ago, we can use them to chart the development of cities and towns. One could look at the original layout of the house and compare its initial size to what is there today.

My colleagues and I discussed many speculations about the two-door theory. Was one used as the entry door and the other an exit door? That could be handy with the prevalence of walking as transportation on muddy streets shared with horses.

Was the home built in two separate sections? It wasn’t uncommon for a kitchen and bathroom to be added on later, when plumbing became available.

Did the family rent a room to railroad workers or host migrant farm workers? Farms and the railroad are staples of Macomb.

Was there a religious, racial, gender justification for two doors? This also raises questions of which genders, sexualities, or races could own property 100 years ago, and in what areas?

My initial question about a house with two-doors ballooned into 2,000 questions about the lives of previous generations in Macomb. In fact, when I’m walking our dog, I’ve found myself examining older homes, looking for others with two-doors, wondering which trees were also in the neighborhood 100 years ago, and observing the hitching post locations that still remain.

Back to my curiosity about our two-doored house. The conclusion I’ve reached, with the information I have gathered so far, is that the door to the left was likely the door to welcome guests, family, or friends into the living room, or what may have been used as a parlor.

A parlor was a room a family could keep ready for guests, while using the main front door as the entrance for the hustle and bustle of a family. The main front door in our house opens to medium sized room that would be ideal for taking off shoes, coats, hanging work clothes, or storing umbrellas and bags for running errands.

If this commentary may piqued your curiosity about your own dwelling, libraries and archives are a great starting place for discovery. And thank you to my colleagues at the WIU Libraries and Archive. We had a lot of fun in my quest to find out what’s actually behind door number two. 

Jade Kastel (she/her) is the music librarian and an assistant professor at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.