Did You Know? (White Chimneys)

That the white chimneys with black rings or bands on many of the oldest houses are indicative of homes that supported the British?  This was called a Tory chimney, and it was a secret sign that Loyalists occupied the house.

Loyalists were North American colonists who remained loyal subjects of the British crown during the American Revolutionary War. They were often referred to as Tories, Royalists or King’s Men. After the war those Loyalists that did not want to remain in the new USA settled in what would become Canada and were given the hereditary title of United Empire Loyalists. Their colonial opponents, who supported the Revolution, were called Rebels, Patriots or Whigs, but generally just thought of themselves as free Americans. From the Patriot’s perspective, the Loyalists were traitors who would not support the rebel’s cause and collaborated with what they thought was an oppressive British government. Whereas from the Loyalist perspective, they were the honorable ones who stood by the Empire and the Crown and considered the American rebels as the traitors to the mother country.

Today you still see white chimneys with black rings, but it is probably more for the aesthetics than any secret sign.

The tip for this post came from Allen Estes who I ran into working on this old home in Annisquam.  In addition to his music knowledge, he is a wealth of those great little known facts I (and you) enjoy so much. 

E.J. Lefavour


17 thoughts on “Did You Know? (White Chimneys)

    1. During the Underground Railroad many houses adopted landmarks or special signals to alert slaves of a hiding spot, which included chimneys. This makes sense because everyone had one and they would be visible from a distance. For instance, in Vermont, some houses painted the fourth or fifth row of bricks from the top of the chimney white. A quilt on the clothesline depicting a house with smoke coming out of the chimney was a sign of a safe station. A white ring of bricks around the top of a house’s chimney was another sign of a good hiding spot.


  1. Thats a common myth according to Pru Fish who wrote a great book about historic houses in Gloucester . To quote her , “why advertise you are a Tory”


    1. As I understand it, it was a secret sign. Just as the safehouses along the Underground Railroad used secret signs to let escaped slaves know where they could safely hide, and early Christians used secret signs to recognize each other and not become dinner for lions. I don’t imagine any of them put out secret signs and then broadcast to the world what the secret signs were or meant. To advertise it would have been crazy.


      1. Another myth referred to in Pru Fishes Book “Antique Houses of Gloucester” is that the so called “widows walk” was simply ornamental architectural detail , popular in the period for houses near and far from the sea and not really for scanning the horizon for returning ships . The “Mortgage Button ” a piece of ivory on top of the stairs newel post was said to be a cap on hollow space where the paid off mortgage or deed was hidden , but in reality its just ornament . The author maintains some these myths can have a basis in fact but are “exaggerated” or romantic tales that have lasted . The book is full of much history of houses you can still see today here in Gloucester and how some were moved to different locations , and lots of scholarly research about their architectural period . A wonderful book for anyone who wants to know about our historic homes tho some will argue these myths are fact , I am sure thats why they have lasted so long .


  2. Hello E.J., I’m “P.J”., Nice to meet a history fan. I am a local (Greater Boston) tour guide. I have heard about the black stripe chimney before, and also the quilt reference on one of the responses. That practice has been well documented. Citizens were not “advertising” their loyalty. Most had no idea that things were going to come to a head so quickly. Nice work.


  3. If they made history when I was in school as interesting as you make it, I would have paid attention…… but now I’ve discovered I can still get history lessons on the GMG blog!


    1. Thanks Meg. I didn’t much care for history in school either. It was too long and drawn out and about things I didn’t connect with. It is really only over the past 10 years that I’ve found myself curious about the story behind people, places and things, and much moreso since moving to Cape Ann. Maybe it has something to do with the aging process.


  4. E.J., I’ve been watching out for white chimneys with black rings after reading your post. I’ve spotted a few old houses with them in Rowley and Newbury. Fascinating that the secret symbols on these old homes still exists. And now some of us have cracked the code thanks to your post. Thanks!


  5. Thank you for this information. I have a 1700’s era home in Ma. and my neighbor questioned the meaning of our chimney’s being painted white and black. Iwish to repaint it, but do not know what the style of printing numers looked like at that time. The other chimney had a date of 1709. which had to be taken down. Can you help me.


  6. I’ve known about the white and black chimneys for some time , what i don’t understand is why some of the historic houses that were occupied by patriot minuteman have these markings.


  7. As a Kiwi visiting the area (Nov 2019) we were fascinated by the history and stories around Concord, Lexington and The Bridge. We heard about the chimney markings and the interpretative boards at various significant sites helped our understanding of USA history and the realization that the Revolution and the Civil war were different conflicts. So thanks for the extra history and background contributions from you EJ and others


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