George W. Snow, inventor balloon frame construction

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George Washington Snow

Birthplace: Keene, NH, United States
Death: July 29, 1870 (72)
Altoona, Blair County, Pennsylvania, United States (liver hypertrophy)
Place of Burial: Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States
Immediate Family:

Husband of Elizabeth Ann Snow
Father of Katherine Ellen Isham; H. E. Snow and Helen E. Snow

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About George W. Snow, inventor balloon frame construction

George Washington Snow invented the building construction method known as balloon framing. Among the early settlers of Chicago, George W. Snow left his native New Hampshire to live for some periods in New York and Detroit, before heading for Chicago. Snow reached the mouth of the Chicago River on July 12, 1832. It had only 250 inhabitants at that point. Educated as a civil engineer, he was a lumber dealer, building contractor, financier, and real estate operator.

(The following was largely downloaded 2009 from Wikipedia.)

Balloon framing is a method of wood construction used primarily in Scandinavia, Canada and the United States (up until the mid-1950s). It utilizes long continuous framing members (studs) that run from sill plate to eave line with intermediate floor structures nailed to them, with the heights of window sills, headers and next floor height marked out on the studs with a storey pole. Once popular when long lumber was plentiful, balloon framing has been largely replaced by platform framing.

While no one is sure who was first to devise balloon framing, the first building in the U.S. using balloon framing was probably a warehouse constructed in 1832 in Chicago by George Washington Snow. [See Miller, Donald. City of the Century, page 85.] The following year, a carpenter named Augustine Taylor (1796-1891) constructed St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chicago using the balloon framing method. Some have credited Taylor with this method's invention.

The name comes from a French Missouri type of construction, "maison en boulin." The curious name of this framing technique is conventionally thought to be a derisive one. Historians have fabricated the following story: As Taylor was constructing his first such building, St. Mary's Church, in 1833, skilled carpenters looked on at the comparatively thin framing members, all held together with nails, and declared this method of construction to be no more substantial than a balloon. It would surely blow over in the next wind! Though the criticism proved baseless, the name stuck.

Although lumber was plentiful in 19th century America, skilled labor was not. The advent of cheap machine-made nails, along with water-powered sawmills in the early 19th century made balloon framing highly attractive, because it did not require highly-skilled carpenters, as did the dovetail joints, mortises and tenons required by post-and-beam construction. For the first time, any farmer could build his own buildings without a time-consuming learning curve.

It has been said that balloon framing populated the western United States and the western provinces of Canada. Without it, western boomtowns certainly could not have blossomed overnight. It is also a fair certainty that, by radically reducing construction costs, balloon framing improved the shelter options of poorer North Americans. For example, many 19th century New England working neighborhoods consist of balloon-constructed three-story apartment buildings referred to as triple deckers.

The main difference between platform and balloon framing is at the floor lines. The balloon wall studs extend from the sill of the first story all the way to the top plate or end rafter of the second story. The platform-framed wall, on the other hand, is independent for each floor.

Since steel is generally more fire-resistant than wood, and steel framing members can be made to arbitrary lengths, balloon framing is growing in popularity again in light gauge steel stud construction. Balloon framing provides a more direct load path down to the foundation. Additionally, balloon framing allows more flexibility for trade workers in that it is significantly easier to pull wire, piping and ducting without having to bore through or work around framing members.

Sigfried Giedion claims in his book, Space, time and architecture (, that he published a reproduction of a portrait of Snow owned by Mrs. George A. Carpenter of Chicago, a granddaughter of Snow "in an article [by Giedion] in the annual, New Directions, 1939." I have yet to connect to this publication. New Directions is the name of a company that published avant-garde writers in the US from the 1930s to the 1990s. - M R Delahunt

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George W. Snow, inventor balloon frame construction's Timeline

September 16, 1797
Keene, NH, United States
November 22, 1832
Chicago, Cook, IL, United States
Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States
June 1838
July 29, 1870
Age 72
Altoona, Blair County, Pennsylvania, United States
Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States