J. Milnor Peck’s Portable Houses of 1880

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A page from J.M. Peck’s Patent #US239669.

James Milnor Peck was born into an entrepreneurial family. All Flushing Pecks during the 1800s were involved in a myriad of business ventures. They all had a mind for the capitalist spirit. From running hotels to supplying coal and lumber to local steamships, the Pecks had a hand in nearly everything in northern parts of Queens. J.M. Peck’s pre-fabricated housing scheme may have been the most bizarre and truly innovative business ventures I’ve discovered.

James M. Peck’s grandparents, Jonathan Richard Peck and his wife Theodosia Lockwood moved to Flushing from the Pecks ancestral home in Connecticut about 1790 and a large family soon followed. Nine children in all, eight boys and one girl, firmly established the surname’s presence in Flushing. In Darius Peck’s A Genealogical Account of the Descendants in the Male Line of William Peck, Jonathan Richard Peck was described as “a man of great business sagacity and enterprise.” It is of no surprise that his children, and later grandchildren, would follow suit. On 25 May 1863, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle eulogized the last of Jonathan Richard’s children speaking of all his sons saying, “The deceased was the last of the family of six brothers… who in their day and generation were strongly identified with the moral and business growth of the village [Flushing], and much of its present prosperity was owing to their exertions.

Jonathan Richard’s eldest child, Jonathan, began an enterprising steamboat service and built the first docks at Flushing Bay. The second son, Curtis, ran Peck’s Pavilion Hotel in the town (and was the first postmaster for Flushing). The third and fifth sons, Charles and Elijah, were engaged in the steamboat business throughout the New York area. The fourth, Isaac, built an exceptionally large (said with a bit of personal pride) hardware and lumber business with land and waterfront property expansing most of Flushing Bay. The seventh son, William, was also a postmaster and co-owned Peck & Fairweather, engaged in the coal and brick business. (The two brothers excluded from the obituary were the sixth oldest, Alexander, would marry but only live to age 22 and the eighth and youngest son, Richard, was an Episcopal minister in Vermont. The one daughter was named Jennett Peck Horton.)

Isaac Peck would eventually bring his son, George Warner Peck into his business forming Isaac Peck & Son. They specialized in all kinds of wares, including hardware, lumber, crockery, oils and paints; a 19th century Home Depot if you’d like. His youngest son, the aforementioned James Milnor Peck, going mostly as J. Milnor, to honor the minister for whom he was named, joined the lumber business and began a nascent enterprise of constructing portable homes and buildings. The assembly of these portable cottages, stated by the patent and other information, is reminiscent of a particular brand of assembled home furniture that most American are all too familiar, Ikea. I can assure you though, Mr. Peck was not Swedish.

By 1880, my great-great-great grandfather James’ portable housing project was in full swing, highlighted by the Sag Harbor Corrector:

LONG ISLAND EXPORTS. — Our Island is building up quite a reputation in the export business. In addition to tbe enormous shipments of Glen Cove starch to all parts of the world, the large moulding and planing mill at that place is shipping to Europe thousands of feet of mouldings of all designs. They have orders constantly ahead. But one of the most novel industries is that established by J. Milnor Peck, of Flushing, who is building houses in sections for shipping abroad. Recently Mr. Peck shipped one of these houses to Central America, and within a day or two he received an order for another house from Southern Africa, which if found satisfactory on arrival at its destination, is likely to be the forerunner of many to follow it. This latest house will be built in a style very similar to our modern country cottages, with broad piazzas, ornamental tower and gables, balconies, circular head windows, etc., and will be neatly finished internally end externally, of clear pine and spruce lumber, without plaster. It will have an area of 22 x 37, and be two stories high.

The next year, J.M. Peck brought one of his portable cottages to the American Institute Fair (in some respects, the precursor to the World’s Fair). The Long Island Daily Star profiled Peck’s display on November 5, 1881, explaining its construction and manufacture:

In the corner of the machine department of the American Institute Fair, now open at the Rink, will be found a small, neat cottage, composed wholly of wood. It is so constructed that while there so few nails in it, it is yet so firmly put together and so substantial that it cannot be made more durable. This lilliputian dwelling is the centre of attraction, and while builders, architects and carpenters examine it thoroughly and declare it perfect of its kind, those who are neither, ask. “Of what use is it?” – The cottage is the result of experiments and inventions made by Mr. J. Milnor Peck, of Flushing, and the structure as a whole is patented, important improvements having recently been added to tho use of this class of dwellings. It is portable. It is made on the panel system, its several parts grooved or rabbeted. When put up the whole building is strong and sound. This can be accomplished by any man of ordinary intelligence, he consulting, as he progresses with the work, the detail drawings and explanations accompanying each house, and it can be taken down and packed in portable form in half the time of building. Externally the cottage, which can be had of one or two stories as may be desired, are of indefinite length, has a handsome appearance , and internally is roomy, comfortable and, as the sides or walls are in panels, may bo tastefully painted. Now, as to the adaptability to climate of this house, we have the assurance of the patentee that even in our rigid winter months so closely united are the grooves and joints that a family could live comfortable in one of them…. However, in the countries and States where they would be welcome and where they would be of real use, there is, when they become more generally known, a possibility o f demand that it will give the Flushing Lumber and Building Company, who have the constructing of these neat and cheap cottages, work enough to keep them busily employed for a century to come.

Tragically, J. Milnor Peck never saw his portable housing business thrive and it certainly did not last a century, nor a year for that matter. On September 6, 1882, Mr. Peck was visiting offices at Rose St in Manhattan when he was injured in an elevator accident. Though at first his wounds did not appear fatal, James Milnor Peck died the next morning with his family at his bedside. His estate and various family members carried on his portable housing business for a time but it never achieved the potential it would have under his leadership and enterprising spirit.

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