by Gail Caskey Winkler-Roger Moss


After the Civil War gas and kerosene began to be used much more for lighting.The drawback to gas at the time, though, was that since it was derived from coal, it needed a generating plant and a system of delivery. Because of this it was confined to urban areas, or to wealthy people who could afford their own generating plant.

The use of kerosene grew much more quickly. It became plentiful with the opening of the Pennsylvania oil fields in 1859, and it was portable. Many homes that had gas at the time also used kerosene.

Advances in plumbing in the home were somewhat slower. In 1856 New York City had a population of 629,904 and had 1,361 bathtubs and 10,384 toilets.. American designers encouraged the public to invest in these conveniences . Readers of THE AMERICAN WOMAN’S HOME, in 1869 were told “ water-closets….cost no more than an out-door building, and save from the most disagreeable house-labor.”

People were reading magazines like the one above in great numbers. Due to the fall in postage rates. In 1830 it cost 15 cents to mail an issue of GODEY’S LADY’S BOOK, but by 1852 the postage rate to send an issue had dropped to 1 ½ cents.

In 1840 4/5 of all children did not go past the primary grades in school, and less than ¾ of 1% went to college. There wasn’t much funding for public schools, but this began to change once the states began allowing non property owners the right to vote. The new voters began to see education as an upward path for their children. As a result of all this more and more Americans were reading books, magazines and newspapers.

By mid-century there were a great many magazines and manuals that included tips on home decorating, design and better living. They were full of ads showing all the latest and most modern of furnishings and conveniences. During the first half of the century advertising was comparatively rare. Demand for goods far exceeded supply, but this changed with increased production and distribution of goods.

The average yearly wage during the period from 1860 to 1880 was $590, but there was a wide range in wages. An unskilled laborer might make $1 a day, a foreman $2. Bookeepers made $600-800 a year, an accountant would make $1,300. One historian suggested that “middle class” income ranged from $800 to $5,000 a year in 1860.

Andrew Jackson Downing was the premier designer of homes and gardens at the time. His books were widely bought and referred to by anyone who was building a house or laying out a garden. He greatly influenced other architects and designers of the time in the US.

One of the was Calvert Vaux, who actively encouraged women to become architects. He said that anyone who had the ability to lay out complicated needlework could design a house.


By mid-century interior and exterior color preferences were changing. THE ARCHITECT, in 1849 noted in an article that the color of a room could affect the eyes, minds and behaviors of the people within it.

“Cheerfulness and amiability could hardly be compatible with a dark blue ceiling and dingy brown walls, yet it is very common in country houses to see sitting rooms and bed-chambers so colored that they impart a sensation of oppressed solemnity to the feelings,” while, “pure white walls, so common in our city houses,…are painfully distressing to the eye, and must have an injurious effect upon the sight,” in addition to being “cheerless” and “liable to stains”.

The author recommended colors like brownstone, sage,slate,violet, lilac, peach blossom, salmon, bronze green and orange.

Gervase Wheeler, an English architect who had also practiced in America also pleaded against stark white walls. He felt the only appropriate use for white was for painting woodwork, which would show up nicely against a colored wall.

Because of the new shift toward an interest in color, people were referring to books and articles that taught them the new color rules. Some critics were complaining that people were going overboard in bright color decisions and rooms were getting too gaudy.

One of the color rules of the time was “harmony by analogy”. This meant using the colors that were next to each other on the color wheel. Examples of this would be pairing crimson and purple, or yellow and gold, crimson and rich brown, orange and terracotta, etc.

The second way was called “harmony by contrast”, which paired colors that were opposite each other on the color wheel, such as scarlet and blue, black and white, orange and blue, yellow and black, etc. This latter method was the more popular during the 1850-70 period.

An architect in THE AMERICAN COTTAGE BUILDER, in 1854 advised the use of only contrasting colors: crimson and green, red and bluish-green, orange and blue,yellowish green and violet, for example. Red and green was the combination that was soon most often. If you look at old paintings, you'll see it repeated over and over again.

An 1862 article suggested that maybe harmonizing colors be used in bedrooms or small rooms, while contrasting colors be used in drawing rooms and dining rooms.

In the decades past it had been fashionable to use a variety of shades of the same color in a room, but by the 1860’s this was out of style. GODEY’S LADY’S BOOK, in 1859, regretted this fact because this technique was “ not only in good taste, but saves trouble, as the different apartments may then be generally designated as ‘the blue’, the green’, ‘the red room’, instead of ‘my room,’the southwest chamber’, ‘the room your grandmother had last summer’, etc.

The only room that did continue to be often decorated in this way was the bedroom.


By the 1850’s American wallpaper manufacturers were using all the latest technical advances developed by the English. By 1857 only 5% of the wallpaper sold in the US was imported. New chemical dyes began to be used, resulting in brighter colors and more hues, but there were problems. In 1860 GODEY’S LADY’S BOOK warned readers against using apple green wallpapers in bedrooms as it could give off poisonous fumes.

The wallpapers of the 1830’s and 40’s however were still popular sellers. In 1857 GODEY’S listed the most popular pages as, statuary, French scenics and imitations of wood, such as mahogany, oak, chestnut, etc.

Many critics were groaning about the public chose to put on their walls. Most homeowners seemed to prefer papers with bright colors and interesting patterns, flowers and curves, even though critics were trying to steer them toward more subdued effects.

An 1852 issue of GODEY’S offered hints on decorating with wallpapers. Large scale patterns should be saved for large rooms, diagonal trellis patterns and stripes would appear to heighten low rooms,wavy stripes were deemed to be graceful. Small geometric patters would hide soil in high traffic rooms such as sitting rooms, halls and stairs. Papers based on “Elizabethan” designs , like quatrefoils, were declared good. They also recommended marble papers in gray or yellow for hallways. They cut be cut into blocks to resemble stone and then varnished to be made waterproof.

Ten years later, another issue offered tips that show how tastes had changed. Except for dining rooms, where rich darker colors were still generally seen, most rooms had papers printed on lighter backgrounds and with more subtle colors. By 1866 smaller abstract designs in more subdued tones were becoming more popular.

There were several ways of using wallpaper in the 1850-70 period. One could paper the wall from baseboard to cornice, using a fairly narrow border at top and bottom. For most of this period, the border color would contrast with the background color of the wallpaper. A yellow paper, for example, would have a border paper which was done in blue or violet.

Fresco papers, which still remained popular, had ornate columns, fanciful flowers and even landscapes in cartouches. They were often applied to parts of the wall, with the rest of the wall painted or covered in solid color paper.

By mid-century moldings, or paper resembling moldings, were applied to walls to create panels that could be papered or covered in rich fabrics. This was a very popular treatment in the 1850’s, but it had started falling out of favor by the mid 1860’s.


During this period critics began to recommend the use of actual hardwood wainscoating. Chair rails began to be reintroduced, they had not been used much during the first half of the century. However during this period most people did not have hardwoods or wainscoating. Where wood was used it was still most popularily painted or faux grained.


Architects still specified softwood floors during this period, often pine laid in planks or tongue and grooved. Hardwood parquet is rarely mentioned.

Painted floors were still popular, and seen often in kitchens,halls and bedrooms. The paint sealed the floor, making it easier to clean. The floors wouldn’t absorb grease or stain. The decorative painting of floors continued for years, especially on the frontier.

There’s a description of floor painting in an 1859 short story printed in GODEY‘S.

“Tomorrow, you must drive down to Dayton, Albert, purchase some pearl-colored paint, enough to put two coats on the floor, and some green, enough for a border. Take a sheet of tin, mark three large leaves in a group upon it, and take it to the tinman. Tell him to cut out the leaves like a stencil letter; you can, by putting it down and painting over it, make a handsome border of green leaves for your carpet.”


Floorcloths were usually referred to as oilcloths. Both American and English products were available, but critics agreed that though the English product was twice as expensive it also wore twice as well. Another important point was that the importers of the English product would cut them to any size, so one cloth could cover the whole floor.

A Philadelphia auction catalogue recorded the contents of a house that were up for sale in 1856. The house had 73 square yards of oilcloth in the parlor and 32 square yards in the dining room.

By the 1850’s floor cloths were most often used in areas that hard hard wear, like hallways and kitchens. Recommended for kitchens were plain, solid colors like dark red, blue, brown, olive or ochre. Oilcloths were more often seen in English kitchens than American ones, but articles recommended using them as they were easier to keep clean and kept the room warmer by covering the cracks in the floorboards where drafts could seep through.

THE AMERICAN WOMAN’S HOME gave directions on how to make your own cheap kitchen oilcloth in 1869. It said to get some cheap canvas cloth and cut it to the size and shape of your kitchen, then have it stretched and nailed to the side of the barn. Brush on a thin coat of paste and when that’s dry, paint it with yellow paint and let it dry for two weeks. If the paint was dry then, add another coat, let dry two weeks more and after that a third coat. Having done that let it hang there and dry for two months and you’ll have a kitchen cloth that will last for years. They said the longer you let it dry before using it the better, better yet would be to give it a final coat of varnish.


The use of tiles for floors increased in the 1850’s to 70’s, and they were recommended for use in hallways, vestibules and conservatories. They were still quite expensive, however, and not widely used til later in the century.


Grass matting was still in use as a seasonal or year-round floor covering. For seasonal use THE LADY’S HOUSE BOOK suggested , “in the middle and eastern section of America, it is best not to put down the matting, and arrange the rooms for summer, before the middle of June: and it should be taken up and replaced with carpets before the middle of September.”

Matting covered the gaps between floorboards, a common problem at the time, and households that couldn’t afford carpet made to with the matting for less money. It was popular in middle class parlors and bedrooms for many years. The mats were often bound with colorful edging and when in use in parlors would often have a colorful rug placed on top of them in the seating area.


Drugget was also still listed in estate inventories during this time, but it was raely mentioned. It was advised by some that it be used as padding under better carpets, which would be better than the then usual practice of laying carpets over straw, which never remained smooth. It was also recommended that it be used in eating rooms to protect the carpet from crumbs or spilled grease. The use of “crumb cloths” however declined during the second half of the century. Many people also laid a strip of drugget up the middle of a staircase to protect the carpeting.


Carpet production in America increased by 45% between 1850 and 1860. Prices fell and more and more American homes began to be carpeted. In THE ECONOMIC COTTAGE BUILDER, the author wrote, “ as it is customary in this country to carpet every room in the house, flooring need not be laid with a view to appearance. It is cheap to lay down an undressed floor, covering the joints with slips of brown paper, and then spreading old newspapers, instead of straw, under the carpet.” As carpets became more affordable, the cheaper carpeting used in previous years such as the Venetian began to be relegated to back stairs and passageways.

There were many different kinds of domestic and imported carpets available to the American public at this time, each kind of carpet had a preferable use.

In 1855 GODEY’S described proper floor coverings for various rooms in the house. All this of course, depended on what the homeowner could afford.

For the vestibule or floor of the stair hall , for example, marble or tiles were preferred. If tiles were used they should be covered by runner of velvet, tapestry or Venetian carpet. If the floor was of softwood it should be completely covered by oilcloth. Stairs should have velvet or tapestry carpet with flat stair rods from 1” to 3” wide in brass or silver.

Critics frequently condemned carpets having bright floral patterns, by wich we can gather today that a great many people bought them anyway. Critics preferred they be of more somber shades, or use only 2 colors or perhaps be of Turkish or Persian design. An Axminster carpet displayed at the New York Exposition of 1853-54 was condemned as being too realistic.


The most commonly mentioned window treatment in the years between 1850-70 was the window shutter. Americans tended to want to exclude light from their rooms, a tendency that went back to the 18th century. Foreign visitors would even remark on it. This was partially to keep rooms cooler in the warmer climate of America as opposed to cooler Europe.

By 1850 there were two kinds of useful exterior shutters. Panel shutters were used on ground floor or basement windows to be used as a protection against housebreakers. Second and third story windows were equipped with louvered shutters, the slats of which were either fixed, or later movable. These latter ones were called “Venetian shutter blinds”.

By mid century critics were advocating interior shutters, because the exterior ones were difficult to manuever and not very attractive on the newer styled pointed or arched windows. To keep these shutters out of the way when not in use architects could provide the option of sliding shutters, which slid into a pocket within the wall, or folding shutters that fit into boxes along the interior trim of the window.

The shutters with interior movable louvers were referred to as “pivot blinds” or “Venetian rolling blinds”. Generally the interior shutters would be louvered, but some homeowners preferred solid panel ones.

Outdoor shutters were often painted green, but any color could be seen on the indoor ones. Generally they were painted to match the room’s woodwork or wall. These shutters gradually replaced the hanging Venetian blinds used in the 18th and early 19th centuries.


Flying insects were always a problem. It was recommended to homeowners in areas with hot summers to have doorways outfitted with two doors, a solid paneled one and one with slats to admit a current of air. In the South it was even advised that you have double interior doors.

It was advised that windows be fitted with lightweight wooden frames covered with wire, gauze or linen netting to keep insects out of the house. Netting used at windows or over beds were often referred to as “mosquito bars”. It was not an uncommon practice at meal time to have a child, a servant, or a slave if in the antebellum south, wave away flies from the dinner table with fans or feathers.

People still used “short blinds” to cover the lower halves of windows. They were generally made of muslin, with a casing in the top through which was run apiece of string of fabric tape which was tied around two nails at either side of the window frame. GODEY’S LADY’S BOOK advised that blinds made with wire gauze, or netting were a better product and longer lasting. Although these blinds, or as we know them, screens, were known in this period, they were still not in wide use.


1859 roller shade. Instructions on how to make this shade were in a popular magazine, Godey's Ladies Book
While architects praised interior wooden shutters, women writers seemed to prefer fabric roller blinds, usually called “window shades”, by the 1850’s They didn’t require constant dusting “with a small brush or turkey wing” and were easier to maintain. Paper shades were preferably for kitchens and bedrooms, fabric ones for other rooms. Homeowners often made their own roller shades using linen or any other fabric they preferred. “Window curtain paper” was advertised as late as 1859.

Commercially manufactured shades were available in America by the 1850’s. In 1858 GODEY’S listed the following colors as the most desireable for shades; buff, stone, pearl, rose and ashes of rose ( a grayish pink). The window shades of this era were decorated with borders and centers instead of the landscapes of the decades before.

A window treatment showing a hand painted wndow shade

The rich, heavy draping of windows that we associate with the Victorian era was not as common as we would think. Decorating critics of the era kept trying to encourage people into using curtains and draperies. Books and magazines devoted much to the subject of correct and fashionable window covererings, but evidence tends to show that most middle class homeowners continued to use simple window dressing.

The following information pertains to the fashionably dressed window, as the critics saw it, and those who were willing to spend the money for it.

By 1850 a fully equipped window might include a shade, a valance or lambrequin, an “under curtain” next to the glass and a pair of heavy curtains. For a pair of windows, it was fashionable to place a large mirror between them, placed on a pier, and a brass or gilded cornice above that matched the flanking windows. Earlier, a mirror above a pier table was generally placed in the same position. The valance known as a lambrequin was an important part of mid-century window design. It could be made of a different fabric than the curtains. They could be adorned with cording, tassels, fringe, etc.

Undercurtains, or “glass curtains” were meant to hang next to the window. They would generally be of lace or muslin, and could be “tamboured” or embroidered. They would be shirred onto a rod and left to hang down, or were looped back during the day. If they were meant to be looped, they would be cut long, so that they would touch the floor when looped, and therefore would puddle when closed at night.

The heavier curtains were hung from tenterhooks behind the cornice or from a pole behind the lambrequin. Iron or brass rings were common, but many preferred rings of gutta-percha, a sort of early plastic, as they didn’t rattle when the curtains were drawn. A pulley system was available for draperies placed upon very high windows.

The available fibers of the time were cotton, wool, linen or flax and silk. Many different fabrics were concocted from these fibers. Silk brocades, damasks, satins, plushes, etc. were used only by the wealthy. Middle class homeowners could have satin that was made of a wool and silk blend called “satin laine”. This fabric was often recommended for parlors, dining rooms and libraries.

Since most homeowners couldn’t afford draperies made of silk there were woolens that were mainly for use in formal rooms and cottons for bedrooms. Chintzes and calicoes were the most popular bedroom choices.

Also critics suggested that in bedrooms the window curtains, bedspreads and upholstered furniture be done in the same fabric. This technique, however was not acceptable for parlors and dining rooms.

A fully draped parlor window, from cornice down to drapery pins could cost hundreds of dollars, and cost more than many of the carpets. A middle class home with an income of $1,000 a year would not be able to afford all that.

GODEY’S LADY’S BOOK described a summer drapery treatment; “the cornice is of a lighter style, the long curtains of delicate French lace embroidery, and the lambrequin….with its heavy garniture of fringe, cords, tassels and gimp” formed the only truly ornate note.

It seems that a similar sort of window treatment appeared in many homes year round., and can be seen in paintings of middle class homes of the period.

You can see illustrations of Victorian rooms, and rooms from other periods in my PICASA albums
Also, there are pictures of Victorian rooms in some of the albums on my FLICKR site. Check the Willowbrook Village album. You may also find some in the Strawberry Banke album. For those interested in the early 1800's, there pictures from Sturbridge Village, albums 1. 2 and 3.


Michelle said...

Fabulous reading! Thank you for posting!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this very good post. I really enoyed reading it.

Sandfa said...

I just moved into a home built in 1850. I have no idea how to incorporate some of the homes original style into our modern life. This is a great article, very helpful. Thank you.