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Decorating a Victorian Home The Philosophy and Practice of Interior Decoration in Victorian Times

Victorian decoration was greatly influenced by the social philosophy of the age. Most of the brilliant early designers of the era were also moral philosophers and social and political reformers who saw their life's work as improving the lot of fellow citizens by making their surroundings more refined and beautiful, thereby encouraging a more refined and genteel human nature.

The Moral Philosophy of Decoration

These ideas were not new to the Victorians. By some accounts, they pre-dated the Renaissance of the 15th century. But, in an era in which resources were scarce and social needs many, there needed to be some moral justification for using scarce resources for mere decoration. Andrew Jackson Downing, for example, believed that while beauty enhanced the human condition and improved morality, too much decoration was unnecessary and wasteful, detracting from the natural beauty provided in abundance by nature. This philosophy, shared by many social philosophers of the time, restrained art for more than a century. Some decoration was good but too much was merely excess. It was not until the very end of the 19th century that art and decoration threw off its moral shackles, and excess became the norm.

English art critic and social reformer John Ruskin (1810-1900), like his American contemporary, Andrew Jackson Downing, firmly believed that the true purpose of art, design and decoration is to improve the social and moral condition of mankind. Ruskin, whose social criticism is generally thought to be the intellectual foundation of the Arts & Crafts Movement, was the leading art critic of the Victorian period in England. He was hugely influential in art circles in Great Britain and the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. But, what he identified as "the central work" of his lifetime, Unto the Last, published in 1860, was barely about art, and very much about the economic and social condition of industrial society.

After 1860 he increasingly concentrated his energies on fiercely attacking industrial capitalism, and the utilitarian theories of political economy espoused by the likes of economist Adam Smith and philosopher John Stuart Mill that gave it moral justification. His early concerns about the condition of labor in an industrial society broadened in later life to include wider issues of the meaning of citizenship and the conditions for an ideal society.

Ruskin believed that the economic theories underlying the industrial revolution failed to consider the social affections that bind communities together. He rejected the idea of the division of labor in which workers performed just one part of complex manufacturing tasks as dehumanizing, divorcing the workman from the product of his work. All economies, he felt, are social economies, founded on social justice that uplifts rather than dehumanizes the worker.

Like his French contemporary, Emile Durkheim, who catalogued the breakdown of the relation between the individual and his community in the industrial society, creating an abnormal state that he called "anomie", Ruskin was hugely influential and had great impact on later social reformers. Philosophers and practitioners of a broad range of disciplines were adherents of his philosophy: architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius; designers such as Gustav Stickley; writer and social critic Oscar Wilde, historian Arnold Toynbee; and moral philosophers as diverse as Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas (Mahatma) Ghandi.

Perhaps the most influential Ruskin disciple was William Morris (1834-1896). Morris shared Ruskin's philosophy of art and decoration. It is necessary to better the state of mankind but decoration beyond what is necessary for that purpose is simply excess that has no moral justification.

Morris is widely recognized as one of the true geniuses of decorative design. His almost mathematically perfect wallpaper and fabric patterns carefully balanced stylized, complex floral and foliage designs in muted, earth-tone colors. Primary colors, when used, were used sparingly and often reduced to pastels. His company, Wm. Morris & Co., flourished right through the turn of the 20th century and, under Morris' successors, continued to influence both English and American interior design to the start of the Second World War.

Upon the liquidation of the company in 1940, its stock of printing blocks and fabric samples was purchased by Sanderson & Sons, which continued to produce the wallpapers and fabrics. In 1965 Sanderson & Sons re-launched Wm. Morris & Co. to market the company's original designs and its new designs in the Morris tradition.

In the U.K. Morris is considered a Victorian designer. In the U.S, by contrast, he is more often associated with the Arts & Crafts Movement, of which he is considered one of the principal architects. He was clearly both.

Morris and Walter Crane, another brilliant Victorian designer of the neo-classical school, founded the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society in London in 1888, which is generally credited as the birthplace of the Arts & Crafts Movement that swept the world in fewer than ten years; but Morris did most of his important work during the height of the Victorian Era. His designs fit comfortably in either period. His body of work forms one of the major, long-term, aesthetic trends of the eighty-year period between 1860 and 1940 — continuing even today to affect the visual themes of Anglo-American interior decoration. Many of his fabric and wallpaper designs are as topical in 2018 as they were in 1918.

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)

By the 1890's when Victorian ostentation was at its height, so was criticism of the excesses of Belle Époque decoration.

One of the writers who had the most to do with the demise of decorative excess was neither an artist nor a designer nor a decorator. In fact, he had very little use for any of those disciplines.

Today Thorstein Veblen is considered one of the founding fathers of sociology but in his time he thought of himself as more a social reformer and economist. His most important work, and the one for which he is justly remembered, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), was a castigating critique of what he termed "conspicuous consumption" in the upper reaches of Victorian society. His view was that where the chief activity of the rich is merely consumption, then their societal and economic contribution is nothing more than "waste", an activity that adds nothing to social betterment.

His criticisms were widely echoed by other writers and popular media of the day, and resulted in a full-scale retreat from ostentatious displays of wealth in decoration by the end of the First World War; helped along by the radical simplification demanded by Arts & Crafts moralists. By the 1920s conspicuous consumption, if not dead, had at least been driven underground.

Victorian Decoration in Public Areas

Decoration in the public rooms of a Victorian house was extensive. There is no such thing as overdone in a Victorian formal parlor. Decorative plaster, elaborate moldings and woodwork, and multi-hued bright colors were common. The Victorian era saw the first widespread availability of wallpaper, and it was used lavishly. Major public rooms were filled with all manner of furniture and display items until they could hold no more.

Harriet Spofford, a successful writer of popular Gothic Romances of the time, observed:

"Provided there is space to move about, without knocking over the furniture, there is hardly likely to be too much in a room."

A bare table or mantle was considered the height of poor taste. An editorial in Harper's Bazaar, a popular magazine of the time, dismissed the relatively sparsely furnished parlor of pre-Civil War America as "barren" and a "desert", compared to the 1880's parlor "crowded only with beauty".

To the Victorian middle class, an attractive, tastefully appointed house was a sign not just of economic success and social prestige but of respectability and morality. Taste was not merely a personal trait, it was something that was sanctioned by society. Taste had moral value, and adherence to what was considered to be good taste was believed by Victorians to be a basic virtue while ignoring good taste was a sign of something amiss in the household. Good taste during Victorian times required abundance.

Objects were displayed on every available surface, and arranged and re-arranged until they were thought to be perfectly balanced. If you were one of those arrangement-deficient people and lived in an urban area, you could hire a consultant to do the balancing for you. In the 1880s the new department stores that were springing up everywhere hired decorators to set up model rooms and advise customers on the elements of proper home decoration.

Window Treatments

Victorian architects used large windows with abandon. The technology needed to make large sheets of glass was new, and for the first time in history, clear window glass was relatively inexpensive. It was no longer necessary to assemble windows from small panes of glass divided by muntins. Tall single lite, sash windows, almost from floor to ceiling, let in abundant light.

Victorians then covered them up with heavy draperies, which may seem odd to us today but don't forget that adequate weatherstripping was a technology in its infancy, and large windows leaked vast amounts of cold air.

Heavy drapes of sumptuous materials such as velvet and brocaded silk acted as insulation in winter, then were replaced with white muslin for Spring and Summer when cooling breezes were desired. Treatments were changed during the semi-annual Spring and Fall cleanings.

When the lady of the house wanted light and a breeze, the curtains were pulled aside and held with ropes or scroll-shaped fitments and embellished with tassels, ribbons, and festoons. (For you muscular, hairy types who don't know what a festoon is, it is a "chain of ribbons, hung in a curve as decoration". Now your woeful ignorance has been rectified.) Scrolled, scalloped, or gilded valences adorned the tops and were usually made of velvet or lace.

Windows in Victorian houses are likely to be over a century old by now, and the temptation may be great to replace them with modern thermal windows. But, that's almost never a good idea. Heritage Victorian windows are almost always worth restoring. And today they can be properly weather-stripped for protection against winter drafts. See Your Old Windows for more information on the pros and cons of restoring heritage wood windows.

Paint and Wallpaper

In the first half of the Victorian Age, light color pigments and pastels were preferred for interior walls. Although this often depended on location. In urban areas where industrial pollution tended to soil light colors very quickly, a darker palette was often used. In the later years of the Age, Victorians, inspired by the writings of Owen Jones (The Grammar of Ornament, 1856) became more uninhibited in their use of bold colors, elaborate ornamentation and deep, rich fabrics.

Jones identified the need for a new style that would meet the requirements of the modern industrial world, rather than the continual recycling of historic styles such as in Greek and Roman revivals but he also saw no reason to reject the lessons of the past and felt they should be included in the new language of design. Influenced by youthful journeys to the middle east and India, Jones advocated elaborate Moorish, Byzantine, and Eastern ornamental themes.

A main color surrounded by many supporting colors was a common decorating approach. Deep, rich colors were thought to enhance the importance of a room, and the status of the householder. Texture was often added to a room using wallpaper, stencils, and paint to mimic everything from elaborate woodwork to masonry.

Favored wallpaper patterns featured scrolls, vines and birds and were usually small-figured and finely detailed. William Morris was one of the most prolific wallpaper designers. He set up his own company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (later Wm. Morris & Co.), with two fellow artists. His designs, always in some manner representing plant-based forms, usually highly stylized, "demonstrate exuberant scrolling foliage, a degree of three-dimensionality, and a closely interwoven foreground and background." They reflected his strong sense of color and almost mathematical precision. The designs grew richer and more complex as the 19th century progressed. By the end of his career, he had produced over 50 wallpapers, most of which are still available.

Roller-style printing presses were available in the 1800s but early models were not exact enough to print multi-color Morris designs. So, they were block printed, a laborious and tedious process that kept Morris designs rather expensive. Only late in the century did roller presses become accomplished enough to register overprinting with sufficient exactness to permit multiple color layers. To view an example of block printing of Morris designs by the revived Morris & Co. in a video, go here.

William Crane (1845-1915), an artist and illustrator, created exquisite wallpaper designs, many featuring oriental motifs, which were very popular in the 1870s and 1880s. His chief fame during his lifetime, however, was as an illustrator of children's books but he also worked in oils, stained glass, ceramic tile, pottery, and textiles.

Other Wall Treatments

Paint and wallpaper were not the only wall treatments available. Many architects tinted the final coat of plaster walls with calcimine. The rather flat color that resulted was then enlivened with wax or varnish. Lincrusta was another favorite. Invented by Frederick Walton (who also invented linoleum), it was embossed linseed oil on canvas that was applied like wallpaper. Heated, it became soft and pliable and could be easily molded around corners. Once installed it was usually painted.

Anaglypta was a less expensive alternative to Lincrusta. Invented in 1887, it was a heavy-weight paper that got its strength from its thickness and high cotton content. It was embossed in many designs and could be painted just like Lincrusta but unlike Lincrusta, would not hold up to battering without crushing. Consequently, it was most often used where it was out of reach, such as high on walls or on ceilings. Genuine Lincrusta is still being made in England and is available from Lincrusta. And, of course, there are many plastic and vinyl imitations.

A homemade alternative to embossed wall coverings was fabric-backed plaster. Coarse canvas or burlap soaked in a lime plaster slurry was applied to a wall in a manner similar to wallpaper, often over a skim coat of more lime plaster. Once dry, it was painted just like any other plaster wall. The fabric texture shows through the plaster, providing an interesting contrast with the smooth plaster walls elsewhere in the room. This was also a good wall covering for damaged walls, especially those with multiple hairline cracks. The canvas strengthens the plaster. (For more on repairing old plaster, see Easy Repair for Cracked Plaster Walls (and Ceilings).)

Room Moldings

Victorian room moldings were wide, heavy, complex designs, sometimes executed in plaster. Crown moldings in particular were often built up from several profiles. They were painted in lighter tones taken from the color of the walls. In high-ceiling public rooms, picture molding placed between 18" and 24" from the ceiling was used to both soften the height of the room and as a means of hanging pictures without putting holes in often highly decorated walls. Applied decorations were added to the ceiling, usually in the corners and around the chandelier.

The chair rail, installed between 30" and 42" from the floor was a common feature of better Colonial-era homes used to protect plaster walls from damage by chairs. It became much more decorative during Victorian times and was often installed over wood wainscoting that extended to the base trim.

Base trim or baseboard was wide, at least 8", and often made up of several simple profiles combined to produce a complex design. Door and window casing was usually symmetrical and often set off with decorative corner blocks at the top, and plinth blocks at the base.

The Tripartite Wall

The three-part or tripartite wall treatment was very popular. Eastlake introduced this elaborate wall treatment in 1877, and it remained in vogue throughout the remainder of the Victorian Era and well into the Arts & Crafts period.

A wainscot or dado from the base of the wall to about 36", a frieze at the top of the wall, and a field between the two in the center of the wall comprised the tripartite wall. (For a detailed anatomy of a tripartite wall, see Arts & Crafts Interiors.) Each section was decorated in coordinating colors and patterns, commonly using wallpapers, with borders or wood moldings separating the sections.


Electricity for lighting, except in major urban areas like New York, was still decades in the future for most Americans. Lighting was by natural gas, dangerous at the time because it was odorless, so leaking gas could not be detected. Butyl mercaptan (TBM) is added to give natural gas a "rotten egg" smell but odorizing did not become universal until an undetected gas leak exploded killing 300 school children in Texas in 1937. Gas was seldom used on the second floor in bedroom areas because it could asphyxiate occupants in their sleep. The old tried and true candle was used instead. After electrification, old gaslight fixtures were often converted to use electric light bulbs. Many of these old fixtures are still available from architectural salvagers, such as Conner's Architectural Antiques. They are also widely reproduced by lighting companies such as Rejuvenation.

The early Victorians era favored elaborate, multi-arm light fixtures. Low output gas burners and early carbon filament electric bulbs did not produce much light, so multi-light fixtures were not just an aesthetic preference, they were necessary for adequate illumination.

It was not until 1910 that tungsten lamp filaments that produced three times more light were introduced by General Electric giving electricity an edge in the competition between electric and gas utilities to light America's homes. Gas fixtures were inconvenient to use, which also helped spur the conversion to electricity. Each burner had to be turned on and off directly at the fixture and ignited separately. The brighter inverted Welsbach burner invented in 1905 produced a much brighter gas light which kept gas competitive for a few more years. But, by 1915 natural gas illumination had largely given way to electric light in urban areas.


Flooring evolved rapidly during the Victorian Era as industrialization made both traditional and innovative types of flooring more widely available and much less expensive.

Wood Flooring

In the 19th century, North America, unlike much of Europe, still had vast forests of virgin hardwood, which made wood an early favorite for durable, relatively inexpensive flooring.

In the early 19th century flooring was untreated, random-width pine planks. Floor planks were massive, often 1-1/2" thick and up to 8" wide. Some planks were 16' long. Subfloors were seldom used and plank ends were nailed directly to joists. These were usually left unfinished with, at most, just a coat or two of wax for protection. Wax wore off quickly in well-used rooms and turned dark in unused corners. It had to be reapplied whenever the floors were scrubbed, and in the hygiene-conscious Victorians scrubbed wood floors frequently, often with lye soap which left the floors gray and dull.

Toward mid-century floors were starting to be painted, often in fanciful patterns including stripes, checkerboards, and stenciled designs evoking carpets. Stains and varnishes did not become common until factory-milled tongue and groove flooring became more common in the latter part of the Era. The earliest permanent finish was shellac followed by wax which had to be renewed weekly to maintain the shine.

Oil-based varnishes, made from tree resin, did not appear in any great quantities until the 1890s. Varnished finishes required a very smooth floor. Floors were leveled by planing and scraping manually using massive floor planes and scraper blades. It was back-breaking labor that was not eased until the 1920s when the electric floor sander was invented.

Then two or more coats of varnish were applied. Curing times were often long, several days to several weeks between coats. After varnishing, the floor was waxed and polished. It was not until the 1950s housing boom that synthetic alkyd varnishes (primarily polyurethane) began to replace traditional natural oil varnishes, producing the quick-drying varnish and the first wax-less hardwood floors.

After 1885 with the invention of a machine called a "side matcher" to cut a tongue in one edge of a board while simultaneously: a groove in the other, modern strip hardwood flooring became increasingly affordable and more widely available. Board widths became standardized. Board ends were still without a tongue and groove and had to be nailed directly to the floor joists until the end matcher was invented in 1898.

Involved patterns were normal as were floors composed of multiple wood species. Intricate borders and marquetry often decorated public rooms, especially late in the era. Herringbone and parquet patterns were common even in family areas.

Tile and Stone Flooring

Tile and stone were the common floorings in entries, kitchens, and late in the century, bathrooms. Ceramic tiles of the period were often encaustic, a type of ceramic tile in which the finish colors are created by inlaying different colors of clay. Some elaborate encaustic tiles had as many as six colors in the pattern. By embedding the pattern into the body of the tile, the design remains even as the tile is worn down over the years. Today the colors and pattern of the tile are normally a part of the glaze rather than the body of the tile. Encaustic tiles are no longer made by major tile producers but are still available from specialty tile companies.

Setting the tile was an exhausting business that required great skill. Boards were installed between the floor joists creating cavities into which concrete was poured and trowelled even with the top of the joists. Next, guide strips of wood were temporarily fastened to the floor, and a layer of tile cement was spread between the strips and leveled. The tiles, thoroughly soaked in water, were laid in the cement and leveled with a straight-edge. The foundation had to be kept wet while the tiles were being laid, so only a few feet could be set at one time.

Once the cement was cured the joints between tiles were grouted with pure cement mortar, sometimes colored with lampblack, red ochre, or other natural pigments, mixed to the consistency of heavy cream. Excess mortar was wiped off the tiles with a piece of flannel or sponge. Then the floor had to cure for up to six days before it could be walked on. While it was curing, it was washed several times to remove the salts that leached out of the drying tiles for several days after installation. Finally, if the tiles were not glazed, a good coat of wax was applied to seal the floor.

All of us who had to learn and practice this old method back in the day are mighty grateful for cementitious backer boards, thinset mortar adhesives, and ready-mix grouts.


Linoleum, invented by Englishman Frederick Walton in 1863, did not arrive in the U.S. until Walton opened the American Linoleum Manufacturing Company in 1872 on Staten Island. By the end of the century, it was in widespread use in Victorian homes and was even more popular during the Arts & Crafts period that followed.

The material is composed of solidified linseed oil (linoxyn), pine rosin, ground cork, wood flour, and mineral fillers such as calcium carbonate, usually on a burlap or canvas backing. As flooring, it was considered an excellent, relatively inexpensive material for high-use areas such as hallways and kitchens.

Its water resistance enabled the easy maintenance of sanitary conditions and its resilience made standing more comfortable and reduced breakage of dropped china and glassware. As the drive for hygiene and sanitation in the home wore on, linoleum, which was considered sanitary, began to replace rugs, which were thought to be germ havens, even in public rooms. Nearly every manufacturer offered linoleum rugs in common sizes up to 12' x 15'.

Victorian Decorative Motifs

Victorian interior design progressed throughout the 19th century from relatively simple to ever more elaborate.

Prior to the American Civil War, interior decoration was sparse, functional, and utilitarian as befits a largely agrarian society. After the explosive expansion of the country's industrial base during the war years, objects needed for more opulent decoration became increasingly abundant and much less expensive.

Factory-made ready-mixed paint, wallpaper, and wood ornamentation of all kinds could be shipped to any part of the country on the nation's new continental railroad network. By the last years of the century, decoration had become so ponderously elaborate that by 1910, given a nudge by vocal critics, it almost literally collapsed of its own weight, to be replaced in large part by the more agrarian, simplified vernacular of the Arts & Crafts period that followed.


Dominating the 1860s, Neo-Classical interiors borrowed freely from the Greek and Roman design and often included elaborately carved furnishings and extravagantly draped windows beneath ornamented ceilings. The restrained elegance of classic Greek ornament inspired decorative artists such as prominent architects George and Maurice Ashdown Audsley of London and New York and Walter Crane a well-established fabric and wallpaper designer of the time.

Much of the Neo-Classical interior design was painted, often by itinerant painters from Germany and Italy, who stenciled and painted elaborate designs in the homes of newly wealthy industrialists and merchants. Wallpaper was still very expensive in the 1860s, unlike twenty years later when giant roller presses reduced the price of colorful and elaborate wallpapers to within reach of most of the middle class. Stencils, however, were cheap, as was the labor to lavishly decorate with paint. Stencils could be mail-ordered from Europe through subscriptions that ensured a continuous flow of the very latest designs.

The decoration was restrained. Stenciling and painting took a lot of time, so less was more. Classical detailing using Greek and Roman designs was the dominant motif, and colors were muted compared to the explosive palette of the later Aesthetic Movement.

The Aesthetic Movement

If the elaborate Queen Anne-style was the height of Victorian excess on the exterior of the house, the Aesthetic Movement was its counterpart inside. The predominant theme of the movement, l'art pour l'art (art for the sake of art — a Victorian slogan that survives even today in MGM Studios logo as the Latin "Ars Gratia Artis") led to the abandonment of all pretense of restraint. Combining Gothic designs with Japanese motifs, much of it was truly over the top in form and color, and just the sheer, ponderous weight of ornamentation.

Aestheticists believe that the beauty of art is its own purpose. It does not need a moral or ethical underpinning, nor does it need be useful or have any utilitarian purpose at all other than merely being beautiful. In this, they rejected much of the underpinning of Victorian philosophy espoused by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris who held that the purpose of art and design is to improve the social and moral condition.

Aestheticism as a moral philosophy did not gain much footing but it did introduce decorative elements that greatly influenced late Victorian decor. Chief among these was the oriental influence expressed in ebonized wood with gilt highlights, blue and white porcelain, and the extensive use of nature themes, especially flowers, birds, and foliage in decoration. These influences can be seen in many of the later Morris designs and were given impetus by Christopher Dresser, a professor at the Government Schools of Design in London, and prolific designer of pottery, metal-ware, wallpaper, and fabrics.

Anglo-Japanese Ornamentation

In 1853 Admiral William C. Perry sailed four American gunships of the "Black Fleet" into Uraga harbor (now Yokosuka) Japan and cordially invited the Shogun government, at the business end of dozens of cannon, to end Japanese isolation and enter into a trade treaty with the United States. Not surprisingly, the Shogun agreed, although with some reluctance.

America quickly became fascinated with all things Japanese. But it was a very schizophrenic interest. The Japanese were considered dangerous and warlike, with a thousand-year militaristic Samurai tradition; but also slight, slender, and bespeckled, no match for robust Americans. They were refined and artistic, creating beautiful things from the most common of materials but they were also brutish, bombastic, and barbaric, lacking the civilized refinements of genuinely advanced societies.

The ugly side of this stereotype resulted in the unjustified and reprehensible internment of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent in concentration camps during World War II. The admiring side spurred the wide-spread adoption of Japanese ornamentation; and both the physical form and underlying principles of Japanese residential architecture — particularly evident during the Arts & Crafts period.

The American fascination with Japan crossed the ocean to Britain where it was turned into decorative ornamentation using Japanese motifs. Re-crossing the Atlantic, Anglo-Japanese design became one of the dominant themes of the Aesthetic movement in the last two decades of the 19th century, fueled by noted designers of the time like Christopher Dresser, whose books the Art of Decorative Design (1862) and Principles of Decorative Design (1873) introduced and emphasized oriental motifs.

The ebony-wood finishes favored by Aestheticists were an adaptation of Japanese wood treatments, as were stylized wallpaper and stencil patterns featuring motifs such as the stylized Imperial chrysanthemum, lily, and sunflower taken from traditional Japanese woodblock prints.

On this side of the Atlantic, one of the primary influences on late Victorian Aesthetic design was Christian Herter (1839-1883), a partner (with brother Gustav) in Herter Bros., a prestigious New York furniture-making and interior decorating firm. New York cabinetmaking at the time was dominated by German immigrants, and the Teutonic influence in Herter's works is quite evident. The magnificent Gothic Revival furnishings produced by the firm graced upscale American homes all over the country, and today command almost unbelievable prices on the antiques market.

But, Herter's enduring influence is not his furniture but his decorating vision. One of the leading champions of the Aesthetic Movement in the U.S., Herter employed as many as 600 designers and craftsmen and designed and built the interiors of such Gilded Age luminaries as Vanderbilt, Morgan, Gould, and Stanford, including original wallpaper designs, 14 of which he patented in 1879. Many of the houses he decorated were destroyed in natural calamities, such as the San Francisco Earthquake and fire but a few survive to give us an idea of the rich legacy of the Herter Bros. enterprise.

The Itinerant German Craftsman

Outside of Belle Epoch mansions, the Gothic influence was expanded by itinerant German carpenters who roamed the country, tools on their backs, seeking commissions1. For a few week's room and board in the servants' quarters, and some silver dollars, a skilled carpenter would build furniture, paneling, moldings, doors, staircases: whatever needed building; even a whole house.

Some barely spoke English but as the language of design, like the language of music, is pretty universal, it seldom mattered. These pieces are usually not as refined as the works of Herter and similar high-end cabinetmakers such as Daniel Pabst (1826-1910), and rarely include intricate oriental flourishes. They were of the style learned at the apprentice bench in Berlin, and Hertzberg, Schwa­bing, and Oberamergau, toned down a little for American tastes but overwhelmingly Teutonic. Antique shops in the Mid-West are full of them.

The homeowner provided the materials and hardware, the carpenter provided the skill and labor. When he was done, he moved on to another block or another town, and another commission, nameless and soon forgotten but leaving behind an enduring legacy in wood and stone that ornaments thousands of heritage homes in historic neighborhoods still today.

This is how my great-grandfather got his front parlor furniture of beautiful Arkansas walnut heartwood — carved, ebonized, curved and embellished — and easily the most horridly uncomfortable furniture any kid ever had to endure without fidgeting during mandatory Sunday afternoon High Tea with The Great Aunts (which on more mature reflection some half-century later, was probably an even greater trial for The Great Aunts than it was for us kids. They couldn't fidget either, notwithstanding corsets and stays.)

Except in major cities, painting was often done by itinerant painters. Most paints were still mixed from local materials rather than ordered from paint suppliers. This meant that the range of colors available locally was often determined by the minerals and plant colorings that were readily obtained, and the quality of the paint depended on the skill of the painter.

Once commercial pigments became more common, a wider range of colors became available. But painting was still not to the level of a do-it-yourself project. Mixing dry pigments and liquid binders such as linseed oil was a tedious business, and if done incorrectly, the paint would not dry, and if it would dry, would not last.

Family-Area Decoration

Despite the impression created by many modern decorators, rooms in the family areas of Victorian homes were seldom richly decorated. They were, as Eastlake described them, "withdrawing rooms" where the family removed itself from public view. They were comfortable, as befits areas where most daily living was done but practical and rarely opulent.

Contemporary illustrations almost uniformly show very simple rooms. Plaster walls might be painted or papered but seldom with the elaborate, many-parted themes of public parlors. Furniture consisted of some bought pieces but often it was hand-me-downs — items no longer good enough to display in the public rooms. Carpets were treated the same way. A carpet showing wear was moved to the family parlor. A little more wear relegated it to a child's bedroom, and then, finally, to the servants' quarters before being donated to the Church for some other, not-as-well-off but deserving family.

Bedrooms were not in any sense public rooms. Even children were often banned once separate bedrooms for children became common, except for supervised special visits.

The bed might be a four-poster with side curtains, although four-posters were not nearly as common as we imagine today. Bed curtains were less decoration than needed to keep out drafts. In the later years of the period, once hygiene became an obsession, heavy curtains, suspected of hiding disease germs, were discarded or made of lighter materials.

Seating, a chest of drawers or two, trunks, a washstand, and screens rounded out bedroom furnishings. In these small rooms, even this minimum of furnishing made the room extremely crowded.

What was missing entirely were closets. Victorians did not hang clothing until very late in the period. Clothes, even heavy Victorian dresses, were folded and stored in chests. When hanging clothing grew popular (so the clothes aired: thought to be more sanitary), they were hung on racks, not hidden in closets. The use of hangers originally called shoulders) did not become widespread until well into the Arts & Crafts period of the early 20th century.

Understanding The Victorian Kitchen

To those of us of a certain age, much of a Victorian kitchen would seem familiar. There would be cupboards and working tables but no built-in cabinets and probably a sink or two after piped water became common. There might have been a new Hoosier cabinet after the turn of the century and almost certainly a gas range during the later Victorian period, at least in the cities. Some of it would be a little mysterious. The lark spit, sugar nippers, spice tin, and marmalade cutter would be unfamiliar but the iron skillets, brass pots, steel cutlery, and chinaware would be old friends …


Rev. 10/23/18