GREEK REVIVAL,& 19th c heating, plumbing, etc.

by Joyce K. Bibber

The Greek Revival style remained popular in Maine for over 100 years. Although this book was written about homes in Maine, must of it is applicable to Greek Revival or other Victorian era homes throughout the United States.

Floors during the first half of 19th c. were usually of soft wood boards of medium width, not very narrow, nor very wide. Wooden floors were not expected to be showy. Sometimes they were painted, but often they had no finish at all. They were covered with carpets or oilcloths whenever possible. Hardwood floors did not become common till the second half of the century. While some could have been used in local
Greek revival homes, it is more likely that any found now would be from a later renovation.

Baseboards were also called washboards or mopboards. They were meant to protect the plaster walls from water used in mopping. In back rooms they might be just plain boards 5-6” wide, but in public rooms they would be wider and topped with molding. The exact height depended on the ceiling height of the room, but a 10” board under a 2”-3” molding would not be uncommon. The molding could be attached to the baseboard
itself, or separate. Sometimes the molding was so wide, even in some smaller homes, that it went up to the window and could serve as the apron under the window sills.
Some Greek revival rooms had chair rail, though most in Maine did not.

Cornices were generally no longer made of wood, but of molded plaster when they were used. They had become no longer necessary. It is unknown if the new wallpaper borders or the better quality of the plastering contributed to it’s no longer being used in many cases. The cornice, when used, was often applied to the ceiling rather than the tops of the walls. Before the Greek revival it was not often seen except in grander homes.

Greek revival homes generally had white exteriors. Interior woodwork was also often painted white or off white. Even Andrew Jackson Downing, who despised the over usage of white felt that a parlor in a townhouse could have white woodwork with a touch of gilt. From the fact that he stressed that varnished hardwoods or grained finished softwoods to imitate hardwoods should be used ,it can be assumed that during his period woodwork was often painted white. Graining had been around and was often used in the colonial period, and was also used in many Greek revival homes, from the parlor to the kitchen. It all depended on the whim of the homeowner. As a rule, expensive hardwoods were left unpainted, but other woods were painted or decorated in some manner.

A Greek revival house in Yarmouth, Maine retained it’s original parlor paint till recent years. The walls, mantels, doors and windows were white. The window sashes, however, were burgundy. A similar idea has been seen in some old paintings. It is possible that the darker color was used to downplay the muntins and make the window appear larger. A painter’s ad of 1838 offered “imitations of wood or marble” for chimney pieces and doors. Some doors of the period though painted, show graining on the panels.


In the 1820’s most American homes were built with fireplaces in nearly every room . The one in the kitchen would be the largest, with often a brick bake oven beside it. By the 1860’s they were replaced by cast iron stoves, the one in the kitchen having an oven inside it. They heated faster, and required less fuel. It was in this era that quick breads like biscuits, began to become more commonly used.
Hot water for laundering might come from a copper boiler which had coils that went through the cook stove, or it might be heated in a pot on the stove. Another method was the use of a “set kettle”. This was a large metal pot set into a brick structure, with it’s own firebox with a door for stoking, and another door for ash removal below that.


Although stoves for heating were well known and used in Europe for centuries, they did not become popular in England, and the English colonists did not install them in their homes in America. However, in colonies with large German or Scandinavian settlers they were used.
There were many foundries in Pennsylvania that were producing iron stoves before the revolution.

Ben Franklin was familiar with these stoves, though he preferred an open fire. He invented a compromise which was an iron free standing fireplace which radiated heat from the back while the fire blazed in the front. This was the 1742 Franklin stove. Franklin’s heaters, however, apparently did not catch on in the English colonies any more than did the German stoves. Another Massachusetts born native was Benjamin Thompson, a “Tory” who later was created Count Rumford. He made a lot of improvements to the construction of fireplaces and also published descriptions of a fuel-saving metal roaster that would be set into the brickwork, with an individual firebox. He devised a brick range that was actually a series of boilers each having it’s own firebox under it. A tremendous amount of fuel could be saved by using
this device rather than a then conventional fireplace. It’s possible that the “set kettle” mentioned previously may be a variation of Rumford’s idea. He had meant for his kettles to be used for cooking, making soups, boiling water for the savory or sweet puddings that were common in his era. In Maine these set kettles were used for
heating water for laundry, for the most part. They were built fairly low, so as to be easy to fill or empty by pail. The term set kettle is a fairly recent name, and they may have been just called boilers in their era. There were no instructions in builders books for them, but the term ‘boilers’ was widely used. This suggests that they were widely known and that there was no need to publish instructions on their construction.

Stoves for “kitchen, parlor, shop and cabin” were advertised for sale
in Portland, Maine in 1804. Stoves appealed initially to lower and
middle classes because of the great savings reaped in fuel costs,
and by the fact that they required less care and maintenance than
fireplaces. There were hundreds of design for cast iron cook stoves
in the first decades of the 19th c. Many were of regional design,
unseen in other parts of the country. Ovens could be located behind,
above or to the side of the firebox. Some stoves had more than one
firebox. Some models had “rotary” tops, which brought different pots
to the fire as needed. There were stand alone models and others
designed to fit into the fireplace itself. Some were designed to be
built in specially designated niches.

Even with the great popularity of stoves in kitchens and for home
heating, there were house plans published in the 1850’s that featured
brick ovens and kitchen fireplaces. There was opposition to stoves
from some people. There were those who just liked to see the flames.
Others hated the smell of hot iron. Ben Franklin had written that he
suspected that the bad smell from stoves was due to the fact that
people did not clean up spills from cooking. In any event, it was
thought at the time that bad smells carried disease, so therefore
some believed that iron stoves were disease spreaders.

Some larger homes could have central heating at this time. Steam and
hot water furnaces were in use in America by 1850, but they were
primarily in large buildings because they were still a bit too
troublesome and expensive for the average homeowner. The hot air
furnace was also available, and was apparently the central heating
system used more often in Maine. The first coal furnace in Portland,
Maine was installed around 1833. In that year appeared ads in local
papers that offered to install furnaces “as practiced in New York
and Philadelphia”. The advertiser also said he did all kind of
masonry work, which leads one to conclude that perhaps the system
consisted of stove like units that were set inside brick chambers.
In 1835 a Portland dealer listed the names of 21 customers who
would recommend his work, and there were at least 2 more dealers who
were his competitors. By 1837 houses that had piped hot air were
being offered for sale.

Gas Lighting

Maine lagged behind the rest of the country in the widespread use
of gas. Baltimore had a gas company in 1816. New York and Boston
started theirs in the 1820’s, but they were primarily for street lights.
There were problems with installing gas lights in homes, but they
were resolved by the 1840’s. At that point other gas companies began
to operate across the country. The Portland gas co. was organized
in 1849, and by 1860 gas companies existed in many Maine towns.


During the colonial era and through the Federal period water
continued to be hand carried from wells or springs, but by 1860 more
and more houses were equipped with running water, hot and cold.
Some houses were planned with “bathing rooms” and water closets.
There are indications that some Maine houses had some kind of indoor plumbing before 1820. Houses that were built on land which was lower than a spring could have water piped in by a gravity fed aqueduct. A traveler noted in 1796 that a certain householder had “a cock in his kitchen and in his chamber” to turn on the water.
Hand pumps were for sale, but as yet there has been no proof that
any were installed indoors in the early 19th c. In the 1820’s brick
cellar cisterns were used to store rainwater, which could then be
piped into the kitchen. I’ve seen colonial era house plans for
Philadelphia that showed a large cistern in the cellar.

In this period there were those that thought bathing was healthful,
and those who thought otherwise. Some felt that all-over bathing
could cure practically everything, and others who felt that a warm
bath could be debilitating. ”No prudent person will, we trust, have
recourse to a hot bath without medical advice”.
Portland had 5 public bath houses during the first 5 decades of
the century, but the last one closed by 1850. It may be that by
then bathing at home may have become more common. By the 1840’s
everything from pipes to tubs and shower baths were offered for sale.
In one shower the water sprayed from not only the top, but the sides,
and was described as looking like a book case or wardrobe when closed.
Upright copper water heaters were used in the 1840’s and 50’s, and
were generally heated with pipes that ran through the firebox of the
kitchen stove. Water for showers and baths was still usually carried
by bucket, though some showers had hand operated bellows pumps that
filled a tank on top. I’ve also seen an illustration for a shower
sold in the Philadelphia papers, probably in the 1870’s that showed
a shower with a see-saw type foot pump that the bather tread to pump
Porcelain sinks were offered by Portland dealers in the Greek
revival period, so they could have been installed in homes that
had the needed pipes and other plumbing arrangements.

Andrew Jackson Downing praised the “W.C.” in his 1842 book. He included
it in 3 of the 10 plans in his book, but showed in a separate area
away from the bathroom. Edward Shaw’s plan book showed baths, 2 of
which included a w.c. in the bathroom itself in 1843. On the other
hand, Samuel Sloan’s 1852 house plan book showed bathrooms and w.c.’s
only in the largest homes, and never together. Lafever’s
MODERN BUILDER’S GUIDE (1846) had one bathing room which opened
off the dining room.


Michelle said...

I have an 1853 historic home. In several rooms, there are "chimneys" in the corners of the rooms. It appears that there are some spots where the bricks were put in after the fact. In the basement, there is a place to clean out ashes. Any idea if this was how they heated it originally?

Grazhina said...

I can only go by what I've seen or read, but I do recall mention of chimney like flues being used to provide heat circulation to various rooms in the house.

Michelle said...

I suppose I need to find some more reading material on the subject, but other than the internet, I haven't researched much. It would be fabulous if I could find out though so I know why they are there, lol.