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SharePrint The Cultural Landscape


People who settle new areas create cultural landscapes, and usually do so without realizing the lasting impact they will have. Cultural landscapes include all the changes humans make to natural landscapes. People modify the shape of the land’s surface, remove or alter its vegetation, and place structures on the land. Through the simple act of living in a place, people leave an imprint of their way of life, or culture, on the landscape that surrounds them.

Structures on the land include not only actual buildings, but also such things as fences, gates, and bridges, and even changes in the kinds of plants or trees found in an area. Some structures, like land division systems used to separate neighboring landholdings, may seem less obvious but still leave lasting imprints on the landscape, especially when viewed from a mountaintop or airplane where patterns in the shape of agricultural fields or woodlots become apparent. The ‘‘metes and bounds’’ survey system brought from England is used in West Virginia, and it creates irregularly shaped land parcels because it relies on natural landmarks such as rivers or ridge tops.

Cultural landscapes mirror the prevailing culture. What we see in the landscape is an unconscious reflection of all the ideas, values, and beliefs that people have about how to use the land, and what styles, building materials, or even land survey systems, make the most sense to them. When Scotch Irish, English, and German immigrants settled West Virginia’s land, they relied on their native folk cultures when constructing houses and barns. Many had been farmers in Europe, so they built isolated farmsteads in this region because that form of settlement was more familiar to them than living in towns. The abundant forests provided logs for their houses and numerous outbuildings.

Early farmsteads typically included a one-room cabin, perhaps with a loft, or a two-room cabin with the rooms connected by an open breezeway, all covered by a single roof with gabled ends. People who study material culture call these structures single or double pens, respectively, and log barns were often built in the same styles. Some scholars identify the specific cultural origins of log buildings by the way the logs are joined, especially at the corners. Two-story log cabins with chimneys at both ends are known as I houses. They typically signified a wealthier family. Farmsteads included outbuildings such as springhouses, smokehouses, barns, corncribs, and other structures.

Today, people’s tastes are more influenced by popular culture, reflecting commercial trends and fashions. Few people built log cabins from local timber during the past 50 years, but plenty of ranch-style or split-level houses were constructed. Many remnants of the earlier material folk culture still can be found in the landscape.

All buildings, not just houses and farm structures, are part of the cultural landscape. The appearances of factories, offices, and stores change over time, contributing to the evolving look of our landscapes. People used to come into town to do their shopping, but today many head for a shopping center or a mall developed along one of the major roads on the outskirts of cities. Strip development along highways now offers shoppers clusters of nearly everything they might desire, including car dealers, grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and seemingly ubiquitous Wal-Mart stores.

Cultural landscapes may be ‘‘read’’ by those who care to do so. Landscapes are full of clues about the people who create and inhabit them. Signs on businesses or even town names often tell us about the ethnic background of the people who created them. A name like McCready’s Hardware Store suggests that, at least initially, the store belonged to someone of Scottish descent. West Virginia place names like Glasgow or Glengary also hint at the important role of Scots in settling this region of the country. Likewise, names painted on mailboxes or inscribed on stone markers in cemeteries reveal ethnic information about residents in the area. Religious preferences of early settlers persist today in the denominations of churches found in communities around the state, providing further hints about ethnicity in the cultural landscape.

Factories and other places of employment offer clues about how people earn a living, and which natural resources are plentiful. A coal preparation plant in southern West Virginia suggests the presence of coal mining nearby. The state’s abundant coal reserves contributed to the establishment of steel mills in the Northern Panhandle and the neighboring Pittsburgh area. Such things have great consequences for the landscape. Think about how different Weirton looks compared to Lewisburg. Weirton’s steel mills would look out of place in the broad agricultural valley of Greenbrier County, and the opposite is true, as well.

Cultural landscapes are found not only in rural places or small towns. Cities also have their own distinctive cultural landscapes. Very large cities can display astonishingly different styles of land use, each providing information about what socioeconomic groups live in a particular area and which economic activities are important there. The capitol complex in Charleston, for example, clearly demonstrates the important role of state government functions in our capital city. The downtowns of large cities also display a much greater concentration of professional architecture. Small town and rural landscapes tend to be dominated by ‘‘vernacular’’ architecture, structures built in locally popular styles and not designed by professional architects. The cultural landscapes of residential areas can be very interesting because many homeowners try to express their personalities in the way they paint or decorate their houses and by what they display in their yards.

People make decisions individually about their own property every day, and collectively these decisions have a profound effect on how the landscape looks. The style of house they build, the kind of flowers or crops they plant, or the types of churches or businesses that are constructed at first may not seem linked together. But, over time, all these decisions add up to create the cultural landscapes that we see in the world around us. When armed with some basic information and a lot of curiosity, anyone with a keen eye can make better sense of a walk down main street or a drive in the country simply by reading the cultural landscape.

This Article was written by Lizbeth Pyle

Related Articles


Glassie, Henry. Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.

Hart, John Fraser. The Rural Landscape. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Jackson, John Brinkerhoff. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

Noble, Allen G. To Build in a New Land: Ethnic Landscapes in North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Cite This Article

Pyle, Lizbeth "The Cultural Landscape." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 09 February 2011. Web. 14 July 2024.


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