VICTORIAN DECORATING 1830-50

A book on homes and decorating from 1844 reveals that some of the most frequently used tints were grey, pea, sea and olive greens and fawn. These were readily mixed from a narrow range of pigments on the job site using colors such as Prussian blue, yellow ochre and burnt umber.
Later ready mixed paints became available but there was still a shortage of colorfast pigments. Bright reds, purples, yellows blues and blue-greens tended to fade quickly. The normal Victorian range included black, white and cream, dark reds, browns and ochres of all shades and a wide variety of greens.
Other early Victorian interior colors til @ 1850 tended to be light and soft. Pearl, white, delicate pinks and lavenders were popular. Later deeper colors and complex patterns came into vogue. Throughout the period the dining room, study and drawing room tended to be more masculine. Bedrooms and parlors tended to be more feminine with softer colors and textures.

For entries and stair halls, cool and sober colors were suggested, such as grey (charcoal & white), stone ( a brownish-grayish mix ), or drab (raw umber mixed with white). These colors could also serve as bases for marbleizing.
Another wall treatment that was popular was to score the plaster while wet to resemble cut stone blocks, then marbleize the wall to look like stone. Wall papers in this pattern were also very popular.
Parlors and drawing rooms should be gay and elegant, advised decorating books and magazines. Green was very popular, with sea green, pea green and olive green being the most widely used. A soft grayish rose color, pearl grey and pale apple green were recommended colors, and it was customary for woodwork and moldings to be painted a darker shade of the wall color for contrast. White and gilt were confined to town house drawing rooms.
There were 2 schools of thought on how to decorate the dining room. One group preferred sober colors, another stronger , contrasting colors. Libraries should have sober, grave colors such as fawn, a light yellowish brown, or other brown or grey shades. Bedrooms, on the whole, should be painted or papered in light colors, but a bright room could be done in crimson, claret or dark green.
New walls had to dry for one year before being painted in oil paints, then the average was 5 coats of paint. Turpentine was added to the final coat to cut down the gloss. Whitewash was usually applied on the walls for the first year, and some people preferred this finish, and kept to it. It was cheaper, and it was matte, or flat. Coloring agents were added, so the term whitewash is a bit misleading. The drawback to it was that it was not durable. It was advised to wash it off before repainting or papering, therefore there is little evidence to show what colors were preferred when using it.

Color choices changed over the years partly because of changes in lighting. Gas lights were brighter than oil or candles, electric lights changed the room once again. Early in the 19th century vivid bright colors were used, since they became very muted in the dim light of evening. Toward the end of the century, paler hues began to be used more often used because of the brighter light cast by gas or electric lamps.
Walls, ceilings and woodwork were painted in 3 separate values of a color. The ceiling would be the lightest, then the walls darker and the woodwork either lighter or darker than the walls. In other words, perhaps pale green on the ceiling, light green on the wall and darker green on the woodwork.

By 1840 thanks to technology, wallpaper had become the popular way to decorate walls. Prior to this only the wealthy had wallpaper, as it was handmade and quite expensive.


Critics disliked this sort of wallpaper pattern in the 2nd quarter of the 19th c. They complained so much about the usage of this style of paper, that it is quite likely it was extremely popular.




Two versions of the same scenic paper produced by the firm of Jean Zuber. The top was "Views of North America" 1834. The second version was named "War of Independence" and issued a few years later.

Most writers of the 1840’s advised that the better rooms of the house be papered, especially the parlor and best bedroom. Wallpaper was applied in the French fashion, papered baseboard to cornice, with a narrow border for decoration. The dominant color in the paper determined the color of the ceiling and woodwork. Critics felt that papers should be architectural ,with columns, friezes, panels,etc.,, or landscapes. Also popular were historical papers with groups of figures or portraits, papers representing the previously mentioned cut stone (ashlar papers), or those imitating fabrics, like damask. Landscape papers were very popular across the country and seen in many hotels. Prices varied by the number of rolls in a set and by the colors used. Monocromatic scenes were much cheaper. If you could afford wallpaper, you could afford scenic paper. They were usually hung above chair rails or over architectural papers, that might imitate a stone balustered wall, etc. Wallpapers with depictions of statues were also popular. They were often hung in the front halls of middle class homes so that they would give the air of a statuary gallery. Another popular paper, especially in bedrooms and parlors was one with small repeating patterns of diamonds or stripes, often with geometric designs, fruits, flowers or ribbons worked into them. Some architectural authorities like Downing also liked flocked or “velvet” papers. They were generally the most expensive and did not wear well. They were on the whole confined only to parlors.
Borders were widely used. They covered mistakes in cutting as well as being decorative. In the 1840’s they were generally narrow, @ 3” wide. The most common were florals, trailing vines, or architectural. Fabric swag designs were also popular.

This is a reproduction of a marbleized style of wallpaper.



This is a version of an ashlar paper.



Two popular styles of wallpaper border from the first half of the 1800's.
Paper was rarely used on the ceiling in this period. Ceilings were generally decorated with a plaster or papier-mache center medalion from which hung a chandelier. The decoration was often based on leaves or a flower. Most critics of the period advised the use of a cornice to separate the walls and ceiling. If there was no cornice, then the wallpaper border would be used alone.
Graining and marbleizing appeared often on doors and woodwork. If you were having the house painted in oil paint, then the added cost for graining was slight. A coat of varnish was added to the decorative finish to protect it. This also made it smooth and therefore easier to dust and wash. Because of this, graining appeared often on doors, window sashes and baseboards, areas that were exposed to the most dirt.
Stencils and tromp loi were also popular.

Most American floors during the first half of the 1800’s were of softwood boards, often laid in random widths, and never stained and varnished. If they were not completely covered with some kind of floor covering, they had to be scrubbed with a stiff brush and sand, and sometimes bleached with lye. Painting floors was something the homeowners could do themselves and was a bit better than leaving them bare. This was a fairly common thing to do.
Floors were often painted in patterns to simulate rugs. The next step up was a painted floor cloth. These could be rather costly, but a homeowner could make their own and save quite a bit of money, and many did. Generally they were placed in hallways and parlors. There was a varnished paper floor covering advertised for sale in the 1820’s, but it’s not known if it ever became popular. Floor tiles came into use by the 1850’s, but on the whole, those that survived tended to be the less expensive solid colored ones. One of the most universally used floor coverings was matting. The coarse ones were made from coconut fiber, straw, and corn husks. Finer ones were made from sheepskin or thick wool. Some households used it to cover woolen carpets during the summer. Others used it as their only floor covering. Still others used it under carpets as padding, or as an edging if the carpet was not wall to wall. It came in @ 3 foot wide strips, which were cut and them seamed together.
Another popular floor covering was drugget. It was used to cover and protect carpets, or used as the sole floor covering or underneath rugs as protection and to cover any unattractive floorboards around the perimeter. It was so popular that it became the generic term for any covering used to protect another carpet, including baize, or heavy linen. They were also used as runners, with decorative borders stiched along their lengths. Some factories produced patterned druggets. They were also painted, and one article proposed that housewives make them from cloth remnants stiched together not unlike a patchwork quilt. Another article had an interesting idea. The author suggested that the home owner cover the large central section of the floor with a drugget, and then lay strips of carpet around the edges of the room, to suggest that there was an expensive carpet covered by the drugget.
There were many kinds of carpeting, but the machine made kind, and therefore the least expensive and most widely available, was a flat-woven carpet that had no pile. The machines of the day were only capable of weaving strips of fabric no wider than 36”. The carpet we use today is therefore known as “broadloom”, and not in wide use at the time. The strips could be used as runners, or cut into doormats, or stiched to what ever width was desired.


Most homeowners of the 1830’s and 40’s did not use elaborate curtains. English and American writers recommended “blinds”. This however, can be confusing to people today, as there were many different kinds of blinds. Shutter-blinds , or folding Venetian blinds, or Venetian shutters, were shutters with louvers that could be opened and closed. Venetian blinds were the wooden slats held together with tapes, that we now generally refer to as blinds. They were in use in America since the mid 18th c. They were often topped with cornices of wood or pierced tin. They were also used outdoors, but installed within frames to prevent them from blowing in the wind. Awnings were also described as blinds. Some were of linen or canvas, others were made of wooden slats.
Wire blinds were a version of the modern insect screen. Woven wire, or wire gauze was stretched on a wooden frame and placed on the window casing. Since the wire could rust, it was proposed that they be decoratively painted with landscapes, etc.


This is an example of a painted window screen
Another, more commonly used method of keeping out insects was the short blind. These were curtains placed over the lower half of open windows to keep people from being able to see into the house. They were hemmed top and bottom and gathered onto brass rods that were affixed to hooks on either side of the window.
Roller blinds were probably the most common window covering of the 19th c. There were spring operated blinds as early as the 1830’s, the ones we use today are spring operated. Much more common, however, were pulley operated blinds, since factory made spring rollers were not produced in America til 1858. Any kind of fabric could be used, and books gave instructions on how to make them. Many were decorated with paintings, the most popular seems to have been landscapes. Some homeowners used paper instead of fabric. “Curtain” papers were in production. Wallpaper was also used.


This is a painted window shade, circa 1840. It has a border around it, though in earlier years it was more customary to have the scene painted from edge to edge. Shades were also painted with floral designs.

Curtains were much simpler in design than the heavy ones generally associated with the Victorian era. A simple piece of fabric, with rings sown to it could be threaded onto a string which was nailed to both sides of a window frame. A frill or valance could be added to cover the rings at the top of the window.



Two examples of simple curtains that were widely used.



Here are two examples of curtains and valances. The one on the right would be identified as "Gothic", the one on the left, "Grecian". The shape of the valance is the only identifying difference.
A Venetian curtain was another popular window curtain. It was similar to today’s roman shade. Swags were also popular. A fully draped window consisted of a cornice, a drapery or valance, and one or more curtains. In the 1840’s a cornice was generally a painted, gilded or stained pole or narrow panel that was screwed to the molding at the top of the window. The drapery or valence hung below this, attached by rings, hooks or tacks, and over the curtains. The curtains were also not as full as those we use today, they used less width of fabric in ratio to the width of the window. Curtains were measured to fall to the floor when looped back. When they were closed, the extra fabric would “puddle” on the floor in order to help keep out drafts. Most curtains were drawn by hand, though there was a pulley system by 1800 called a “French rod” , but it was expensive and even as late as 1845 was not often used. By the way, pinch pleats did not come along til late in the century.
The boxed wood cornice served 2 uses. On one hand it covered the curtain rings or the rope pulleys. On the second hand it also was important in excluding drafts.
In the 19th c. a valance was a piece of fabric that hung in vertical folds from a rod or cornice, very similar to what we think of as a valance today. A drapery was a piece of fabric that was draped over a pole roughly horizontal to the floor. In today’s decorating terms a window scarf or a modern swag or festoon would fall under draperies. Many critics did not care for the draperies, citing them as being expensive, time consuming to make and care for and a depository of dust and vermin. An interesting note in the shift of fabric usage …In 1833 it was recommended that window fabrics should be identical to the color and fabrics used elsewhere in the room, such as upholstery or bed hangings. If there was no other fabric in the room, then they should match the woodwork, red, brown or scarlet with mahogany, for instance, and lighter ones with oak. By 1844 people were reading that window fabrics should only harmonize with other fabrics in the room.


A sketch done in 1841 showing Venetian blinds, folded back interior shutters, valance, sheer glass or undercurtains and draperies.

In England and America the best bedsteads at the time were either four poster, tents, or “French”. Most people, however, slept in simple unadorned beds. Curtaining beds took an enormous amount of fabric. A fully draped four poster used over 50 yards of fabric, a tent bed 43 yards. Hangings for a four poster included a head cloth, a valance, tester (canopy) and side panels which could be drawn at night. There could be more than one valance. Fully draped four posters or French beds would be quite expensive, and therefore not the norm for your average homeowner.



These are the three most popular "best" bedsteads of the 1830's through 1850. They are the "four post bedstead", the "French" bedstead, shown in the center, and the "tent" bedstead on the right. These beds, however were not in wide use in America or Britain. Most people slept in simple uncurtained beds.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I'm going to visit my girlfriend who's volunteering at a victorian house-museum. I hope this information impresses her. :P

Denise said...
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Anonymous said...

Nice :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. I am working on a dollhouse and this period is what I am decorating it with. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for consolidating this information. I, too, have a Victorian dollhouse and have questioned my authenticity. This information is extremely helpful.