THE DINING ROOM circa 1880

Some Americans called the dining room the “eating room”. Ella Rodman Church wrote, “The common practice of furnishing dining-rooms in green has much to do with their cold appearance, for green is eminently a cold color ; and the absence of any play of flame, from the apertures in the wall that usually serve for heating purposes, gives a hard, set look to the stiff belongings“. On the other side of the Atlantic, Robert Eddis pleaded, “but, for goodness' sake, avoid the dreary commonplaceness of light apple and sage greens, which seem to be the only colours thought appropriate for dining-room walls”.

One recommendation for the dining room walls was for a darkly painted dado, with a chair rail or painted paneling about 3 to 4 feet high, then paint or paper above to within 2 or 3 feet of the ceiling. It was felt that a warm brown, or chocolate was a good background color for pictures.

Below is a picture of a dining room decorated by Robert Eddis, and his description.

“In this room the mantel-piece, with the étagère over, is made to form an important feature of the general design ; the wall space is divided by a high dado or picture rail slightly moulded with ½ inch gas piping under, as a picture rod. The frieze is painted in plain vellum tone of colour, and decorated with stencil pattern enrichment. The woodwork generally is of deal (pine)varnished, the panels of the doors and shutters filled in with stencil decoration in a light shade of brown under the varnish. The general wall surface is hung with an all-over pattern paper of good warm golden brown tone of colour, admirably adapted for pictures. The furniture throughout is executed in Spanish mahogany, and designed to harmonize with the general character of the decoration.
The use of what is called a flatting coat, or finishing coat, of paint mixed with turpentine only, for wall surfaces, so as to produce a dull flat or dead surface without gloss, is, I think, a mistake, for this kind of work does not last when exposed to the weather; it shows every mark of dirt, and will not stand washing. This picture-surface, if painted, should not be varnished, but the dado and all woodwork of the doors and windows will be made much more effective if varnished, as I have before recommended. The woodwork should be painted of similar colour, as a rule, to the walls, but of much darker tone in two shades, and the panels covered with good ornament, stenciled on, all of which is inexpensive, and adds materially to the general artistic effect. The broad frieze, above what I call the picture or general wall space, should be much lighter in tone, and here of course there is an opportunity for real art-work. A broad decorative painted frieze, painted in compartments or panels, with figure-subjects, is of course, to my mind, the most desirable finish.”

The American, Mrs. Church, admitted that for the average American homeowner, the illustrations and styles described in decorating books of the day were much too expensive. Chair and picture rails would not be found in a moderately priced American home of 1880.
She advised that a large room should have “dark, rich furnishings, while a smaller one requires lighter coloring and style”. Walnut, rosewood and dark mahogany were woods for a large room, while oak and other lighter colored woods were better suited for a smaller room. Many critics of the day suggested the use of crimson in dining rooms, though brown or green were the more often used colors.
Church described the following wall treatment. Place a picture rail 12 to 15” below the ceiling and a chair rail about 3 feet off the floor. These should be painted crimson, dulled slightly with Indian or Venetian red, using a flat paint. Between the picture and chair rails paint or paper the wall in a green-gray tint. Use a light olive-green, somewhat darker than the field color, and finish with a crimson line at the top, about one inch wide, of molding or paper. Use a dark, rich, maroon and gold or black and gold in the dado space.
An ad for lincrusta

I wanted to point out something on the subject of the chair rail or height of the dado. Nowadays people feel all too often that it must be 3 feet high. This is not necessarily so. In the dining room, most chair backs were approximately 3 feet high, so if they were pushed back against the walls of the room, the chair rail would stop them from causing any damage. If the chair backs were higher, a higher chair rail would be needed. In other rooms, the height of the dado or rail would depend on the overall look desired, they were a decorative element, as opposed to their function in the 18th century, when furniture was ranged along the walls of a room and only pulled out to the center of the room when needed.
Further on Mrs. Church points out that since “In all probability, neither chair-rail nor picture-rail will be found in a moderate-sized, inexpensive house, ……crimson lines may be placed to advantage on the flat surface. The wood-work where walls are so colored should be neutral-tinted green or black, with some of the moldings in crimson ; and a bright look would be given to the whole by papering the frieze, the space above the picture-rail, with a gay pattern of birds or flowers“.


Eddis advised the householder paint or stain and varnish the floor for 2 or 3 feet all around, then place a good Indian or Persian rug in the center.
Mrs. Church felt one could dispense with carpets in a dining room altogether, staining and varnishing the floor and using a drugget in the center under the table. She went on to describe a covering of painted burlap. “This home-made floor covering will look quite like an old-style Turkey carpet if worked in arabesques of light blue and scarlet, with a judicious mixture of black and white, and fringed on two sides with either of the bright colors scarlet being, perhaps, the more desirable. It is a very convenient fashion to do without carpets, for they are perfect locusts to a limited purse, and nowhere can they be better dispensed with than in the dining-room”. She did write that for those who feel they must have carpets, there were new designs with black backgrounds, some with Japanese figures and bordering, which would go well with a red and gold Japanese wall paper.
If you read the article about the front hall, you’ll recall that the Japanese style decorative touch was popular.
Parquet flooring

Church referred to parquet flooring several times in her book.” Parquet or inlaid floors, sometimes known as wood-carpeting consists of narrow strips of oak, ash, walnut, or other hard woods, kiln-dried, and cemented to heavy muslin. An ornamental border and center-piece in contrasted colors usually accompany each design. ……. Parquet borders are often laid in a room, with a carpet in the center. The material may also be used as wainscoting, and even ceilings and walls may be paneled with it. This flooring is a quarter of an inch thick, and can be rolled up like oilcloth”. These wood carpets were used to cover old softwood floors that were unsuitable for staining and varnishing, and I’ve mentioned them before.
An ad for "wood carpet".

If you’ve read the previous articles, you’ll know that until the 1870’s homeowners generally covered their floors with carpet, wall to wall. It was in the 1870’ and 80’s that the move toward varnished hardwood floors began. Design critics had been suggesting the use of hardwood floors for some time, but they took quite a while to catch on. Some could not afford to redo their old softwood floors in hardwoods, others liked their carpets.
One design critic exclaimed “It is a matter of astonishment to me, to find that there are still a large number of people who are content to keep this exceedingly bad arrangement of floor covering, and who object altogether to having a certain amount of plain floor space all round the sides of the room. In the first place, this covering of the whole surface is unhealthy ; in the second place, it is dirty; and, in the third place, the cost of the carpet is infinitely more than the cost of painting or staining the edges of the rooms.
By these last few words, one can safely assume that many were still purchasing new carpeting instead of replacing their old floorboards with hardwood flooring.


If one didn’t have a fireplace similar to one of these in their dining room, having only an old fashioned, outdated marble one. Mrs. Church had a suggestion, “…..the ordinary marble mantel-shelf will be much improved by a covering of maroon leather, or velveteen, finished with fringe. These coverings, when well made and harmonizing with the rest of the furniture, are extremely ornamental; and foundations of satin, felt, or momie cloth will also be found suitable“. She goes on describe how it was done.
“To make the cover fit smoothly, a board is cut the exact size of the mantel-shelf, and an under covering of cambric muslin is fitted carefully over it. The embroidery is put on the curtain, or lambrequin, which is usually made quite straight and without fullness. For a rich material, heavy fringe is sufficient ornament; while crewel or cretonne embroidery is very handsome on the last-mentioned fabrics, and affords scope for the exercise of artistic taste.”
To add additional ornament…..
“At the sides of the fireplace, tiles painted on a pale pink or green ground are a bright and suitable ornamentation. A skillful amateur could do this herself, and the numerous representations of mediaeval dining-tables and customs would furnish appropriate subjects. If tiles are impossible, small wooden panels, painted a dead white and ornamented with transferred French pictures, the whole highly varnished, and set in narrow maroon-colored frames or borders, will produce the desired effect. A legend across the front, in old English lettering, is very appropriate for a dining-room mantel, the ground-work being of the same color as that of the tiles or panels, and the letters either in black and gold or maroon and vermilion“.
If one could not have an open fire in the fireplace, a screening of ivy or other plants would do.
In another article, I mentioned the practice of using a curtain in front of a fireplace. Here's an example used in a dining room.

Ella Rodman Church liked the colorful look of a bit of stained glass in dining room windows. If stained glass was out of the question, one could achieve a nice effect by pasting thin figured muslin or lace over each pane. One could go a step further by arranging ferns and autumn leaves over the lace, or perhaps pressed pansies or daisies.

A plain brass or wooden rod, or even iron gas pipe was considered more appropriate for hanging curtains than “the heavy lacquered brass or wood poles and unmeaning fringe valances, which only serve to show dirt and dust, and are execrable in taste“.
The curtains themselves could be made of almost any fabric.
“Unbleached muslin trimmed with parallel bands of blue and red has a macaw-like effect that is quite wonderful considering the material; horizontal stripes of Turkey-red and crash-toweling are very Oriental-looking ; our maroon-furnished room would be elegantly finished with curtains of horse-girths or netted twine, separated at intervals of half a yard or so by five-inch bands of maroon velveteen. All the pretty Oriental stuffs that are to be had at such fabulously low rates seem to find their natural sphere as dining-room draperies; while curtains of crewel-work, appliqué on Turkish toweling, cretonne-work almost everything that can be invented or made appear to be just the thing in the dining-room. Anything but lace draperies, on the one hand, or material that is too rich and heavy, on the other“.

The most important article of furniture in a Victorian dining room was considered to be the sideboard. It was a massive piece, as a rule, and all the glittering best china, glassware and silver were arranged upon it.
In addition to the table and dining chairs buffet and sideboard, both Church and Eddis recommended a couple of comfortable lounge or arm chairs, perhaps with a hassock for each.
A dining room lounge

A sideboard

The normal lighting in a dining room was a gas chandelier, or gasolier, hung over the table. Out in the country it might be replaced by a lamp sitting directly on the table. Apparently neither was quite satisfactory.” Side-lights, or sconces, may be placed on either side of the sideboard and the mantel-piece, one or both. It is better to have them on two sides of the room. It is also very pleasant to have one set, those by the sideboard to burn gas, and those on the chimney-piece made for candles. Many designs are now produced, and many very good ones ; some are wholly of brass, some enclose a bit of mirror or a plaque of pottery. "
Some pleasant pictures were advisable for the walls of the room. Paintings of fruit or flowers were agreeable, pictures of dead animals were passé. Though portraits were often hung in the dining room, Mrs. Church felt they should be kept out of the dining room or parlor .
Finally, an example of a very simple dining room


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Enjoyed your posts! Ta for now ~ Jessica

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