The Ducker House, American prefab of the 1880s

While hunting for Doecker portable hospital buildings I came across its American counterpart, including an illustrated catalogue advertising their wares published in or after 1888. Ducker 23 Founded by William M. Ducker of Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. who had patented his invention, the Ducker Portable House company had offices in New York and London. The catalogue showed a variety of uses for their buildings, ranging from the utilitarian hospital hut to more elaborate garden buildings. Ease of transportation was also emphasised. Ducker 22 Here one of their portable buildings is neatly packed onto a horse-drawn wagon. While below the image shows the mode of transporting a Ducker building in mountainous countries. Ducker 2 The buildings were ‘light, durable, well ventilated, warm in winter, cool in summer, healthful and cheap’. From reading the description of the buildings they seem to be almost indistinguishable from the Danish Doecker system, the components being wooden frames, hinged together, and covered with a special waterproof fibre. The same claims are made for both that they could be assembled without skilled labour. Ducker 4This example was said to be at Wellington Barracks in London. Another was erected in Blackpool; Henry Welsh, the local Medical Officer of Health, noted in August 1888 that the recently erected building ‘gives great satisfaction, and answers its purposes admirably’. The cost of this model was given as $600. The German War Department bought one, and they had been adopted by the United States Naval and Marine Hospital Service, and several Departments of Charities and Correction. In 1885 the Red Cross Society had organised an exhibition in Antwerp of portable hospitals at which the Ducker buildings (and Doecker prefabs) had been shown. Ducker’s was awarded a special medal by the Empress of Germany and, so it was claimed, garnered the ‘warmest encomiums from civil and military surgeons, engineers, architects and philanthropists from all parts of the civilised world’. Ducker 3 Wards are suitably Spartan, the interior here measured 18 x 34 ft. The Department of Public Charities and Correction, Randall’s Island Hospital erected a Ducker house. Of the many pest houses, generally for smallpox cases, erected in America, it seems likely that if they were not actually Ducker houses, they were of a similar design, as is suggested by an early photograph of a pest house put up at Storm Lake, Iowa, photographed in 1899 (see University of Iowa libraries)
Ducker 5 Temporary buildings were widely used at large construction sites to house migrant workers. Above is an administrative building, suitable for ‘Contractors and Construction Companies’ or for a private residence. It comprised a main building 16 x 30 ft and a separate kitchen and store-room connected by a covered passage. ducker 9 The workforce would be accommodated in huts such as this one. ducker 10 This is its interior, with simple iron bunk beads, it put me in mind of the description of the bunk house in Of Mice and Men. These huts were bigger than the hospital buildings, at 30 x 30 ft, and cost just over twice as much at $1,250. ducker 7 Versatility was key to healthy sales figures, so the catalogue demonstrates a variety of different uses for the Ducker portable building. Sports pavilions were an obvious use; above an athletic and bicycle hall, others illustrated were a racing stable, a boat house and a bowling alley. A photographer’s studio could be constructed for just $375, or a billiard room for $400 (billiard table not included). ‘The attention of hotel men is called to the fact that for annexes to hotels, to be used for sleeping apartments during the rush of midsummer, these building just exactly answer the purpose’. Ducker 14 For the domestic market there was a range of summer cottages (above), lawn pavilions (below) Ducker 13and camping houses. Ducker 12 The Norton Camp House could have been yours for $150 (and upward), measuring a cosy 9 x 12 feet and weighing 450 pounds. It could accommodate four people, and opened out on all sides. Camping was not necessarily a leisure pursuit, and this camp hut was also touted for cattle ranchmen, miners, prospectors, surveyors and contractors. If you were on vacation, however,  you might have considered a bathing house. Ducker 11‘The portability of these buildings make them simply invaluable… At the end of the season they can be taken down and stored until the opening of another season. They can be constructed in any form or style desired and can be made to comfortably accommodate more people than any other building known’. Ducker 15 The Lawn pavilions were the most decorative, being intended for ornament as well as usefulness, aimed at owners of large summer residences. ‘They are constructed in decidedly artistic style.’ Ducker 16 ‘and will be found useful and delightful for ladies’ sewing, reading and painting rooms, children’s play rooms, tea and lunch rooms, tennis purposes, and sleeping rooms as well if required’ Ducker 17 If you didn’t run to summer residence with large grounds in need of a lawn pavilion, then don’t worry, you could have an entire summer cottage or camping cottage. The latter pretty much the same as the hospital huts, but the former comprised the most ornate in the Ducker range. Ducker 18 This example seems to be giving a stylistic nod towards a Chinese pagoda or an Indian bungalow. As I am heading to Fife in Scotland later in the summer, I was particularly tickled to read the testimonial on the back cover of the catalogue which was furnished by one George C. Cheape, of Wellfield house, Strathmiglo in Fife, master of the Linlithgow and Stirlingshire hounds.  ‘No country house should be without one’  he wrote: ‘It was put up in one day by the village joiner and my gamekeeper.’ He continued to effuse about the merits of the building:  ‘In wet weather the children quite live in it, and play all day. I have gymnastic apparatus put up in it, swings, etc; the consequence is a quiet house, whilst the children are enjoying healthy exercise and games to their heart’s content, where they disturb no one, and their tea-parties in the Ducker House are enjoyed by all.’ Cheape was a Captain in the 11th Hussars, Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant of Fife. He was also widely travelled, had served in India, and had visited America on three occasions, having business interests in Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California. While in America he also travelled to Canada and Mexico, and worked to promote the interests of the International Company of Mexico, of which he was a shareholder. Sources: The catalogue for Ducker Portable House Co. can be found online from, information on George Cheape was from the census, marriage records, passenger lists etc and there is a brief biography in David Pinera Ramirez, American and English Influence on the Early Development of Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, 1995 pp.99-100

Pine Trees

The subject of pine trees formed a digression in the second issue of the Hospitals Investigator, and it put me in mind of earlier research that I had done in Scotland where Sanatoria were set amongst pines so that the patients might benefit from terabinthine vapours. Nordrach-on-Dee was one such, later Glen-0-Dee Hospital, near Banchory.


Forests, Woods and Trees in relation to Hygiene was published in 1919, by Augustine Henry. Here he discussed the latest research into the effects of pine trees in a chapter on ‘Forests as sites for Sanatoria’. Even Pliny, it seems, considered that ‘forests, particularly those which abound in pitch and balsam, are most beneficial to consumptives or to those who do not gather strength after a long illness; and are of more value than a voyage to Egypt’.

In New York patients with tuberculosis were sent to the Adirondack Forest, where they might benefit from the pure and invigorating air. In England the earliest experiments with fresh-air treatment for consumption were made in 1840 by Dr George Boddington, at Sutton Coldfield in Warwickshire and in Ireland by Dr Henry MacCormac of Belfast in 1856. Dr Walther systematised and popularised open-air treatment in the Black Forest with his Nordrach Colonie Sanatorium, which was hugely influential in Britain. Treatment in an alpine sanatorium in Switzerland was beyond the financial reach of most invalids, but pine woods could easily be planted, and already existed in abundance, allowing this form of treatment to be widely replicated.

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I particularly like this dramatic architectural perspective of the West Wales Sanatorium, at Llanybydder, Carmarthenshire, with its fringe of pine trees on the hillside behind. It was designed by E. V. Collier and treated women and children. As built in about 1906, without the side wings, it didn’t look quite so romantic, and the regime within the hospital was equally grim. In 1923 complaints were made that sick girls were made to go out into the surrounding pine forest to saw trees  while kneeling in the snow. [ref: Linda Bryder, Below the Magic Mountain quoted in the New Scientist 14 July 1988 p.63] The Pevsner Guide for Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion published in 2006 describes the building as ‘originally a cheerful Neo-Georgian with red-tiled roofs and green shutters, now very decayed’.

By the early twentieth century the value of the ‘exhalations of turpentine etc’ from Scots Fir trees was being questioned, and instead it was as shelter belts that pine trees continued to play an important role at hospitals. In the second issue of Robert Taylor’s Hospitals Investigator he drew attention to these surviving shelter belts of pines around many of the sites that the Cambridge team visited. It also brought back memories of his own experience of being interned in an isolation hospital as a small child. I remember him telling us that parents were not allowed on the wards, so they would remain outside and could only see their children through the window. At one former isolation hospital he found a shelf under a window, provided so that a parent could kneel on it and see inside.

Here are Robert’s remarks on pine trees:

“In the very first day of fieldwork in Suffolk it was noticed that there was an association between hospitals and pine trees. Tuberculosis sanatoria, cottage hospitals and isolation hospitals all appear with shelter belts; indeed the site of one isolation hospital was completely inaccessible because of the fallen conifers and evergreens. The Beccles War Memorial Hospital appears from amps to have had new planting, and the surviving trees confirm this. Even the isolation hospital where one of us spent a month in 1944 has a belt of pines. It was obviously considered that a shelter belt of conifers afforded a perceptible improvement in the quality of the air. The reasoning behind this seems to smack of black magic and the symbiotic theory of disease, physicians had relatively few methods of cure, and little reliable theory with which to evaluate those methods. A belief in the specific effect of climate was harmless and must have appeared plausible. The first practical application of the theory was at the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary at Margate in 1791, where consumptives were treated. Nothing more seems to have been done until 1854 when Brehmer believed that he could cure tuberculosis by living in high mountains, and opened an institution in Silesia. The general theory was given a more specific interpretation in 1862 when Dr. L. C. Lane of San Francisco considered that the fragrant smell from the resin of the Sierra Nevada pines was salutary: ‘in chronic pulmonary affections the breathing of such an atmosphere must be productive of a highly salutary influence’. At the same time many people thought that some leaves, particular pine and balsam, are disinfectants, and this idea still lingers with the toilet cleaner industry. In America patients were encouraged to take holidays in areas of differing air; in England that air was brought to the patient by means of sanitary plantations around the hospital, the resinous smell of the trees contribution to the recovery of those within the building. In some cases the hospitals are on such poor soil that birch and conifers are the only sensible trees to plant, as at Ipswich Sanatorium.”