VICTORIAN DECORATING 1870-1890, part I and introduction

By 1870 the first refrigerated railroad cars had appeared. By 1884 they were carrying meat, fish, fruit and vegetables across the continent. The foods were then brought home to the “ice box”, a term coined in 1860.
The departments store was born. Aaron Montgomery Ward started his mail order business in 1872. Post Civil war American industry created surpluses of goods which gave the average consumer a better choice of goods.
By the 1870’s there were fast, reliable, horse drawn trolleys. Cities began to grow outwards. The middle class began to move away from the cities centers to new communities that were set up along the new trolley lines, in the same way as they later moved out along the new commuter railroad lines.
In 1872 Charles Eastlake’s book, “Hints on Household Taste” was printed in America. Eastlake attained a level of influence previously achieved by Andrew Jackson Downing. Other British designers, architects, and critics began to greatly influence American interior design.
Eastlake loathed the ornate and polished furniture that was in use at the time. He urged his readers to purchase simple furniture without excessive ornamentation. Many of his designs had a medieval quality which was praised by William Morris and other British designers of the new Arts and Crafts movement.
In 1876 nearly 10 million Americans, about 25% of the population at the time, traveled to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exposition. There they saw all the newest and latest in technology, art and design. This event wrought great changes in the American home.
In 1879 Edison created a successful, practical lighting system. This too, greatly affected decorating choices made for the home.
And by the 1880’s some American writers on interior decoration began dwelling on the idea of the bathroom being a pleasurable space and not just a necessity.

Charles Eastlake dismissed the previously popular wall treatments, favoring the idea of a 3 foot high wainscoting around the principle rooms.
By using wainscoting, he introduced a new 3 part horizontal wall treatment which remained in style for 2 decades. This consisted of a dado or wainscoting on the bottom, a frieze or cornice on the top and a section called the field in between. He was the one who popularized this treatment and its imitations in all rooms of the house.
The top of the wainscoting was usually 36” to 42” above the floor, but English designer Christopher Dresser suggested that the most pleasing proportion be used for each case. Depending on the proportions of a room wainscoting could be up to 60” high or even be level with the tops of the doors.

In keeping with the new horizontal lines of rooms, pictures began to be hung differently. They were now being placed at eye level, around 5’ 6” high in a single row around the room rather than “skyed”, or placed high up, one above another in a row reaching upward as they were in the past..
IT also started becoming the custom to hang them from hooks and cords from a picture rail just under the frieze, therefore avoiding damage to the wall and making it easier to reposition them. Most seemed to prefer that the cords coordinated to the wall color.

There were many ways to achieve this new 3 part wall. The most expensive way was to use real wooden panels as wainscoting, but most households couldn’t afford this. Even then, this treatment usually only appeared in entry halls and dining rooms.. By the 1880’s, though ready made wainscoting was being offered for sale. It was made of plain vertical boards ¼” to 7/8” thick, glued to a heavy cloth. Sometimes two kinds of wood would be used to give a custom look. This was finished off with a wooden cap which made installation easy.
Another method to achieve the tripartite or three sectioned wall was to attach a molding (chair rail) to the wall about 36” to 42” high and paint or paper above and below it.
One could also achieve the fashionable look with wallpaper that imitated the dado, field and frieze patterns.

Sets of wallpapers for the dado, field and frieze.

Lincrusta was a paper that was used to this effect, and it became very popular in the 1880’s. It was invented by Fred Walton in 1877, who also created linoleum in 1863. Lincrusta was very durable and easy to shape into corners and curves. It was also paintable. These points made it very popular.
Anaglypta was a thick embossed paper product similar to Lincrusta but not as durable. It was patented in England in 1887by Thomas Palmer, manager of the Lincrusta-Walton company. It was suitable for walls, friezes and ceiling decoration and was painted or glazed to suit the homeowner. There were many other heavy embossed papers around at the time too.

By the 1880’s ceilings were commonly 8 to 14 feet high, and being more and more decorated. This remained the fashionable trend for decades. White ceilings were now considered “crude” and “harsh” and they clashed with the fashionable dark wall colors. By the 1880’s white ceilings were to be used only if the rest of the room was predominately white.
Some suggested tinting the ceiling a few shades lighter than the wall, then applying some ornamentation.
One technique was “pencil striping”, in which strips of color were applied to the ceiling or wall in varying widths from 1/8” wide and up, along the cornice. Another painted decorating technique used was stenciling.

Two examples of decorated ceilings done with paint and stencils

Center medallions, cornices and corner moldings were made of wood, plaster or papier mache.
Tin ceilings also provided the desired effects, and they were lighter, cheaper and more durable than plaster. They were shipped from the factory in “lusterless” white and could then be painted in colors to suit the homeowner.
The easiest way to decorate the ceiling was with wallpaper, which is what most people did. Ceiling papers, however, did not use the same patterns that wallpapers did.

No matter what materials were used for the walls and ceilings, the rule was fairly standard----- ceiling the lightest, then the walls, then the darker shade for the dado and the darkest for the woodwork. Critics recommended staining hardwood trim and painting softwood trim to match the overall scheme of the room.
At this point the traditional white paint for woodwork went out of favor as did graining. By 1893 few housepainters had the skill to even do a graining finish without resorting to stencils or special rollers.

1908, an illustration for a set of graining tools.

At this point in time, unless the room was painted in light colors, that woodwork which was to be painted was usually done in vibrant hues. One decorating critic recommended black, maroon, chocolate brown, orange-green, dull Indian red, dark blue or bronze green. There were also suggestions to use several values of one color to paint the woodwork or several different colors altogether. They also proposed using painted, stenciled or wallpaper decorations on door panels, but this later idea was in style for only a short time and was outdated by the late 80’s.

An example of painted door panels, used to illustrate books in 1882 and 1887.

Fashionable colors for the 1870 to 90 period differed greatly from those of the past because of new technology .

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