Thanks for asking an interesting question. It made me think about how
freely we all use the word 'cottage'. Is there any definition of a
cottage over and above what you'd find in a good dictionary?
The Oxford English Dictionary's primary definition is very
straightforward: "a simple, humble abode". Nothing about where
cottage front doors lead, though my sympathies are with your father if
he's trying to rule out some of the luxurious country houses carrying
that name nowadays. It never seems quite right to see the word
'cottage' on the gatepost of a five-bedroom house with Range Rover and
BMW in the drive.
Nowhere seems to have any more elaborate definition of a cottage than
the OED's. Cottages have varied so much with time and place. Books
can be written on the local architecture in just one or two counties.
Of course many cottages suiting the OED definition of a 'simple,
humble abode' do have a door opening straight into the living
quarters. Like this one:
"Step across the threshold - grey flagstone sill adorned with ragged
doormat.... Pupils dilate in a desperate attempt to adjust to the
For centuries cottages were homes for agricultural workers who had no
spare resources to waste on an entrance hall. So most of them would
be very small with the door opening into a living space of some kind
not necessarily a 'lounge' or 'parlour', possibly a kitchen with a
table and benches.
But there is some evidence that the front door doesn't always open
direct into a kitchen or living room. This is a cold country and in
some areas a porch could be included in the design as a buffer against
winds, as described here, (even though the picture shows one without a
Or like Anne Hathaway's cottage near Stratford, the design might allow
for a small passage inside the door so draughts wouldn't sweep
straight into the rooms. There's a good floor plan here:
Most cottages do conform to the 'door leads straight into room'
pattern. Indeed, in your father's native Scotland, the basic
traditional cottage is a 'but and ben' just two rooms and a door.
Although I've visited one or two where the door leads straight into
the living quarters, all I could find online is this description of a
weaver's cottage with two steps and an entrance straight into the main
The only real but and bens in good order have been renovated. See the
picture here showing a porch being added as part of the modernisation
Coming further south to the Lake District, the floor plan of Dove
Cottage, where Wordsworth lived, shows an entrance direct into the
Wordsworth was only one of many nineteenth century people with
romantic ideas about rural life, pretty cottages and cottage gardens.
Some Victorians painted pictures of them with roses round the door.
Others became concerned about providing adequate housing for workers.
The Bourneville Village, started in the late nineteenth century,
includes cottages much more generously designed than the traditional
In the twentieth century the name 'cottage' appeared in suburban
streets. Then, as you know, it spread everywhere. Every holiday
cottage website shows the huge range of buildings that go by that
There can't really be a fixed and detailed definition of a cottage
beyond the dictionary definition because of:
Even sticking to the south of the country, the classic English image
of a thatched cottage can vary between whitewashed stone in Devon and
brick-and flintstone in Suffolk. Architects and historians discuss
'vernacular architecture' when they want to talk about local building
traditions and what's authentic in a particular part of the country.
They don't think in terms of there being a basic 'cottage' definition
for the whole of Britain. This article describes how traditions can
vary even between areas in walking distance of one another:
CHANGES OVER TIME
Attitudes started to change in the eighteenth century around the time
Queen Charlotte had a summer house built and called it a cottage:
It's at roughly the same time, 1765, that the OED says 'cottage' could
start to mean "a small country or suburban residence". And that
definition leaves the door pretty wide open for the full range of
houses that you'll find on holiday websites advertising 'cottages'.
I like your father's rule of thumb for distinguishing a cottage from
other houses and think it's based on an appreciation of traditional
cottages throughout Britain, but there's no evidence that this counts
as an official 'definition'. It's not the way the word is actually
used today - that's all too clear. But, more importantly, it's not
supported by the Oxford English Dictionary, and there are a few
cottages out there that don't follow the pattern.
Hope this is helpful - let me know if anything I've written needs
Regards - Leli
search terms: cottage tradition vernacular architecture history "but
and names of specific historical cottages
also, unsuccessfully, "definition of" "what is a" etc. + cottage