"The comedy was that so many of these rooms were alike"...A.E.Richardson

Who can not recall the huge, towering bouquets of dried grasses in gaudy china vases on the mantel; the numerous family photographs on the walls, in a bleak margin of ghastly white, enlivened, perhaps, by a coarse chromo given as a premium by the vapid periodical that is piled up in back numbers on the table ; the ugly horsehair or brocatelle sofa; the tapestry carpet, combining all the colors of the rainbow ; the showy curtains of coarse lace ; the "fairy basket," filled with artificial flowers, suspended somewhere ; the hideous plaster busts of popular men ?
The entrance hall of such a house is usually furnished with oilcloth and a map of the United States; the best bedroom has a "cottage set," fearful with highly colored flowers and gilding, and the other bedrooms have whatever they can get. Crocheted mats and tidies, of all sizes, shapes, and denominations, overrun everything, like weeds ; and it is quite possible that such works of art as cone frames and wax flowers under glass are added to the other things that should not be. In all this melange there will probably not be a single growing thing, nor a bit of the woods near by, to give a touch of nature.
From, How to Furnish a Home by Ella Rodman Church, 1882

But here I must protest against fluffy wool mats scattered about the tables, antimacassars of lace, worsted, or other work hung loosely over the backs of the chairs and sofas, velvet-covered brackets, with useless fringe fixed on with brass-headed nails, on which too often are placed trumpery bits of Dresden or other china, in the shape of dogs, cats, or birds. The wool mats and velvet-covered brackets are nothing but traps for dirt and dust, while the loose antimacassars are an endless source of untidiness and annoyance.
From, Decoration & Furniture of Town Houses by Robert W. Eddis, 1880

Church and Eddis were two highly regarded decorationg authorities of their age, Mrs.Church being American, Mr. Eddis, English. Decorating advice from both countries is interchangeable. One finds the same “ do’s and don’t’s” on both sides of the Atlantic.
Most of this article is repeated from their books as they were written. Again, you’ll see that in some cases woodwork was painted in others, not.
On the question of a chair rail or dado in the drawing room, it was felt by some, generally, that the drawing room should not sport a dado. Cabinets, bookshelves and other unequally sized furnishings would look better against a wall decorated as a single unit rather than against one cut in two by the dividing dado. A frieze, however, would be good addition. Of course, the dado or no dado ruling depended in the size and proportions of the room in question.

1882 parlor mantle

One drawing-room in a large house was described this way, ….“a rich and effective treatment of the wall would be with a low panelled dado of dark black, with a delicate inlaying of ivory-toned ornament, the doors and general woodwork being painted to match, the general wall surface painted bright warm-coloured golden yellow, and powdered all over with a flower pattern or diaper of a darker tone of golden brown, the frieze being coloured in a delicate vellum or ivory tone, with arabesque or figure decoration in black, the cornice treated with delicate shades of brown and green, and the ceiling slightly tinted to match the frieze”. It should also be noted that when black was used, it was often advised that it be a matte finish, not a glossy one.

More descriptions of drawing rooms from this 1880 period follow, from Mr. Eddis’ book.

I saw lately a drawing-room of a newly built so-called Queen Anne house, in which the whole of the lower portion of the walls was covered with a good golden yellow pattern paper, the woodwork painted a vellum or cream-coloured white and varnished, and the frieze formed m decorative plaster-work in very slight relief, like Adam's work; the ceiling formed after similar designs, and all slightly tinted like Wedgwood ware. The general appearance was bright and cheerful, and the low tone of colour throughout formed an excellent contrast to the Persian rugs, marquetry furniture, blue and white china, and other decorative objects in the room.

Drawing-room, about 28 ft. by 18 ft, .and 14 ft. high.Adam's ceiling, in low relief, tinted in ' Wedgwood ' colouring ; the cornice relieved in somewhat stronger tones ; the walls hung with ' brocade' paper of pale Indian blue, divided by pilasters of'Adam's' arabesques, painted in quiet tones of brown, warm greens, and russets, with carved medallions in each. Dado and woodwork of quiet cream tint, with line ornaments in drab and gold.

Drawing-room, 30 ft. by 18 ft., and 13 ft. 6 in. high.The plain ceiling was divided into three, and ornamented with plaster enrichment in low relief, very lightly tinted, and slightly relieved by gilding, cornice picked out to harmonise with the walls. The walls hung with crimson ground ' brocade' paper, with a pattern in very dull white and gold ; the dado and woodwork black and gold, with margins of rich maroon, next the gilt mouldings of the panels.

Small drawing-room or boudoir, 12 ft. high. Flat ceiling, panelled out with a painting about 8 ft. by 4 ft. in centre, with low relief ornament outside this. The whole room panelled 9 ft high, with pale wainscot oak; the space above this hung with embossed
leather paper, with pattern in gold, and colours of a light dull green tone. Curtains, silk and wool tapestry. Floor, oak, rather darker than walls, with Oriental carpets. Furniture, dark mahogany; the coverings varied to some extent. A few water-colours hung on the oak panelling; chimney-piece carried up in light oak, with arrangement for bronzes, statuettes in side niches, and spaces for china.

Another decorative treatment of a small drawing or music-room would be by panelling the lower portion of the walls with a deal dado, delicately painted in yellowish pink or blue, and covering the general wall surface with a golden-toned paper, arranged in panels to suit the proportion of the room, with painted and stencil arabesque patterns on the dividing spaces ; the frieze treated with good figure or ornamental enrichment of canvas-plaster or papier mache' in low relief, painted white, with a groundwork of reddish gold or Bartolozzi engraving tint. The floor might have a border of light ebony and maple or boxwood parquet, with a low-toned Persian carpet in the centre, with easy lounges or divans all round the room for rest and comfort, the centre space being left clear of furniture, so as to allow of ample room for guests passing through to other rooms, or to congregate, whilst listening to song or music. Or the general tone of the wall surface may be of a bright bluish drab-coloured pattern paper, with a frieze of small yellowish diaper pattern, the woodwork throughout being painted in brighter tones of blue, with mouldings and stencil decoration on white, like Wedgwood china.

In the following excerpt, the author refers to the decoration of earlier, beautifully decorated Adams period ceilings in Britain. Otherwise, the information is also applicable to the US. I’ve seen similar suggestions in American decorating books from the last quarter of the century.

“It is a somewhat difficult matter in most town houses, where the ceilings are generally plain, and bordered by cornices of inferior design, to treat them with any amount of colour. In houses of the date of Adams, the ceilings have generally some very delicate enrichments all over them, either flowing or arranged in patterns very slightly raised. Whenever these occur, it is well to treat them almost like Wedgwood ware, with, say, light tones of pink, green, grey, or buff, in very delicate tinting ; but where the ceiling is quite flat, it is desirable to tint it a light tone of grey or cream colour, to get rid of the extreme glare of pure white. Next, the cornice, a simple distemper pattern, of a darker shade of the same colour, will often be found effective and useful, or one or two simple lines with stencilled corners. The tinting of the cornices must materially depend upon their design and contour; if plain moulded cornices, they may be tinted in one or two shades, the lighter tones being always at the top or next the ceiling, and gradually darkening off to the wall decoration.”

The following is from Mrs. Church’s book.
White ceilings and white woodwork should only be used with a light colored wallpaper, but a slight amount of color in the whiting would give the ceiling a more agreeable tint that stark white. If the woodwork in a room is pine, and must be painted, then any nuetral light color would be agreeable and preferable to plain white. It should never be grained to imitate richer woods as the graining is never very good and it tends to peel in spots over time leaving a blotchy effect. Pine could also be shellacked and varnished, but most people preferred to have it painted.

A French pearl-gray, a warm stone-color, a pale buff, a delicate green, are all beautiful for parlor walls. The faintest suspicion of pink, like the inner lining of some lovely sea-shells, is both pretty arnd becoming, and will go well with most things in the way of furnishing. A frieze of flowers and butterflies would not be inharmonious with this tint; and a dark, almost invisible, green dado, divided, perhaps, by narrow gilt panels, would bear a lighter green in furniture covering. Pale lemon-yellow is a pleasing tint, or a fuller apricot-yellow is very effective, especially with black wood-work. In speaking of the color of a room it is not meant that the walls must be of one single tint, but reference is made to the predominating hue, which exists even when pattern and coloring are complex.

A pale, dull sea-green goes admirably with a rich crimson or Indian red ; a pale, dull red with deep green ; but they must always be of very different intensity to look well together, and are always difficult to mingle pleasantly. Turquoise ….mixes very sweetly with a pale green ; ultramarine, being a red-blue…… is horrible with green. Pure pale yellow is a very becoming color, and will harmonize with purple; with blue, the contrast is too coarse.

As lovely a drawing-room as we ever saw in point of color was carpeted with gray felt with a deep dark-blue bordering ; the lounges and chairs were covered with chintz in the most delicate shade of robin's-egg blue….and the remainder was of wicker-work and black lacquer; the heavy pieces of furniture were in black lacquer and gilt; the curtains were of snowy muslin under lambrequins of chintz ; and the rest of the room was made up of vases, tripods, cups, pictures, flowers, and sunshine, till it seemed to overflow with harmonious color…

Somewhere in the sea of reading a parlor was described that lingers in the mind a warm, glowing, cheerful room, but not in the least glaring ; and, still rarer virtue, it was not expensive. The carpet was in two or three soft shades of red in a mossy pattern ; the walls were cream color with broken red lines in the corners; the curtains were crimson of some twilled material that hung in soft folds. But the furniture, two low sofas and one or two lounging-chairs, was covered with raw silk in rich Oriental colors ; and light chairs and tables broke up all appearance of stiffness. A lovely swinging lamp, with a wine-colored globe shade, hung over the reading-table ; and it was supported by a gilt, triangle, which was also the shape of the candlesticks on the mantel. Here was crimson judiciously used, and yet in sufficient force to make a deliciously inviting apartment
The following is a description of a wallpaper, from Eddis.

The general tone is a warm creamy yellow, with wall-flower pattern diaper (or diamond) of golden brown, in harmony with the yellow ground; the whole brightened up by the powdering over of the pale pinkish-toned petals or leaves, falling, as it were, from the sprays of almond flowers in the frieze. This frieze with its delicate blue ground and well-coloured sprays, with swallows flitting in and out, forms an exceedingly good contrast with the lower paper, when divided by a simple painted deal moulding or picture rail, painted golden brown and varnished, as suggested in the illustration.


I've mentioned quite a bit about floor treatments and coverings in other articles, so I won't repeat it. What was written stands true in the 1880 drawing room. I did however, want to relay this short paragraph written by Mrs. Church.
"It must be admitted that many sensible people are quite opposed to uncarpeted floors, and especially to stained floors, on the score of their showing dust and every footmark, as well as the roughness and inequalities of the boards, when not made for this particular purpose."...people liked their wall to wall carpets.
A carpet and accompanying border from 1882


The usual mantel-piece is a shelf of white marble, …… and the sooner this cold, unsuggestive surface is decently buried out of sight the better. A plain covering of any kind that harmonizes with the other draperies is a great improvement; and this should reach the bottom of the slab beneath the shelf, and be finished with a fringe. Most elaborate mantel coverings are wrought with crewels, and silks, and applique ; but these are not always in good taste, and should be well considered, before venturing upon them, in connection with the other furnishings. The latest fashion is for wooden mantel-pieces, ….In the parlor the mantel is usually surmounted by mirrors, but shelves for holding vases and other bric-a-brac are admissible. The shelves may be covered with cloth, in colors to harmonize with the drapery of the room if preferred. In Fig. 17 we give an example of treating a mantel-piece with lambrequin and back piece supported by rings on a pole. Vases and plaques standing against the drapery have a good effect. The screen and hanging cabinet in the engraving are from objects exhibited in the rooms of the Society of Decorative Art in this city.

figure 17

The following advice is from Mrs. Church
A sofa should, if possible, turn toward the fire, so that its occupant may have his face toward the cheerful glow. At the same time, a little wicker-work tableblack and gold, if you willmay hold a lamp for reading.

As to chairs, a couple of good, well-stuffed easy-chairs…….arranged so as to look toward the fire, ought to be sufficient for luxury while six or eight little ebonized and cane-bottomed gossip chairs are the simplest and prettiest "occasional" furniture one can have. The gossip chair has a curved back which exactly fits the natural curve of the body, and the seat slopes gently downward and backward so as to give the best possible support with the least angularity or awkwardness.
With these pretty little clean cane seats, a black wicker-work chair, two easy-chairs, and a sofa, you should have enough places for family and guests in a quiet household.
The ugliest piece of furniture that can be put into the parlor is a piano ; the cottage, or cabinet shape, is tolerable, because less prominent, but the dark, clumsy, obtrusive structure in general use is a perfect nuisance in a small room, and should be gotten as much out of the way as possible. An irregularly shaped room with recesses is delightful for this purpose, if any of them will accommodate it; and, if there are two rooms, let the piano by all means be placed in the farther one. A handsome cover will clothe its dreary aspect with a little beauty, and its loud sounds will be sweeter from the enchantment lent by distance. Some parlors are all piano and carpet; but such apartments can in no sense of the word be called "living-rooms."
For furniture covering,………Raw silk is an excellent material ; and there are many woolen and other stuffs. The soft, pretty cretonnes of endless tints and styles are charming for a cottage parlor, and also for a city one that may be treated as such. The curtains should be of the same material, while a carpet of plain brown felt with a bordering of green, and a mantel-cover of some brown material embroidered with roses and leaves, would make a cheerful room.
A screen also affords good opportunity for the display of home skill in embroidery.

A cabinet is usually a handsome piece of parlor furniture…..This is the proper receptacle for all sorts of dainty and fragile things : choice bits of china, carving, or engraving, the numberless little treasures that one picks up along the path of life, and that one does not like to see carelessly handled.
Many parlors as well as purses will not admit of a large piece of furniture … and the small hanging cabinets are both pretty and convenient. These may be made by an ordinary carpenter of common wood, and ebonized at a comparatively small expensethe two little doors painted, if one can paint, in birds and flowers, with a little gilding judiciously added. Where painting is not to be had, panels of Indian red oilcloth decorated in various ways or pieces of embroidery can be used instead. Small, hanging shelves without doors, and a railing across the top, will make a very good substitute.

Marble-topped tables have very justly been stigmatized as parlor tombstones; and the simplest cover is preferable to one of these cold, polished surfaces. A crimson table-cover gives a warm, bright look to a room ; and the effect is heightened by making it long enough to touch the carpet. What a rich, warmly tinted picture is made by the "Cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet".

Parlor tables are of various shapes and sizes ; and, whatever may be said to the contrary by those who condemn center-tables, a goodly sized round table with a crimson cover on it, and on that a handsome lamp, emitting a soft, steady light, and two or three new books and magazines, looks cozy and delightful, and as though the room was really lived in and enjoyed. A small upper cover, being in fact a square formed of small squares of white linen and drawn work alternately, saves the crimson cover as well as the eyes, and can be laundried as often as necessary.
Small corner tables with fancy covers are useful for five-o'clock tea, and, where this is not indulged in, for a great many other purposes, besides being exceedingly pretty and "helping to furnish." Very cheap ones can be bought, made of walnut or of ebonized wood, and apparently well made; these, with the tops covered and fringed, are quite unexceptionable. Felt, velveteen, canvas, satin, are all used for this purpose, and embroidered as fancy dictates.

Brackets, pictures, knickknacks, give a home look to a room ; but, with abundant means, there is such a tendency to overload in these matters that some are disposed to resort to the opposite extreme.


Large mirrors in quiet frames, a walnut frame with a gilt line of from a quarter to three eighths of an inch in the middle of the molding, and with perhaps a slight ornament at the corners, is recommended as having a richer effect than a gilt frame. Mantel mirrors are always handsome ; but a long, narrow one in the pier is a by-gone fashion belonging to heavy gilt cornices and immovable window draperies. Small, ornamental mirrors are almost as decorative as pictures, and may be hung in any part of the room.
The subject of pictures is one which opens a wide field for discussion ; and bare, indeed, are the walls that have not two or three of these ''counterfeit presentments" to relieve their bareness.
The next two art works mentioned by Mrs. Church must have been displayed in many a parlor.
What pleasure is there, for instance, in contemplating that dreary engraving, " The Death-Bed of Washington," or " Queen Elizabeth signing the Death-Warrant of Essex"?

I believe the engraving mentioned may have been based on this painting done in 1851

And here is Queen Elizabeth signing the death warrant of Essex

Yet there are rooms where these are the most cheerful adornments of the Avails. Neither is a picture made up principally of figures in black coats capable of giving the pleasure that a picture should give ; and many dismal representations of an historical character that are fondly supposed to be embellishments cast a gloom over country parlors, and depress the casual visitor.
Many valuable paintings, especially those of the Spanish and French schools, are no better, but rather worse : who, for instance, wishes to see portrayed on the wall the very unpleasant manner in which Cato committed suicide, or the details of a dissecting-room ? A picture that treats of a revolting or gloomy subject, if designed for a mural ornament, should be discarded as not answering the purpose for which it is intended.
Oil paintings are handsomer and more valuable than any other kind of pictures ; but fine oil paintings can only be secured at a price that places them quite beyond the reach of the majority.
Paintings in water-colors, some of which are expensive enough, may often be found at moderate prices by those who understand buying such things ; and, as a rule, they are better suited to moderate rooms than more pretentious pictures in oil. Colored pictures are bright and cheerful-looking, and their moderate use is very effective in a quiet parlor. Steel engravings, on the other hand, are somewhat depressing from their somber tone, and require the neighborhood of warm hues in walls and hangings to be thoroughly pleasing.
Engravings and photographs of the works of the old masters, or of any paintings that educate the eye, are always desirable ; and the low price at which really fine works of art may be purchased brings them within the reach of nearly all who care for such things.
The latter class of pictures look even worse side by side with water-color sketches than do the water-colors with oil paintings; "the print looking cold and harsh beside the water-color sketch, and the sketch seeming unreal and gaudy by the side of the photograph." It is also advised never to hang glazed drawings, when it can be avoided, opposite a window. " The sheen of the glass reflects the daylight and annihilates the effect of the picture behind it."
The frame of a picture should always be subservient to the picture itself, and, except in the case of oil paintings, it is better to have it of noticeable plainness. It should be substantial, but not wider than is absolutely necessary for a look of strength, a slight frame around a heavy picture being particularly objectionable. A walnut frame, with straight lines and a little gilding in the middle of each of the sides, or one of eboriized wood treated in the same way, has an appearance of quiet elegance; and very suitable
frames for engravings and photographs can be made of common pine, painted or covered with velvet.
Steel engravings and water-colors can not, like oil paintings, be framed with the frame close to the picture, and a space of white paper usually intervenes, which commonly makes an ugly and inharmonious spot on the wall. This can be avoided by first having the picture mounted in a passe-partout with a mat of gray or some neutral tint, and then placed in a frame. The required space around the picture is thus secured, while the objectionable expanse of white is avoided.
On the hanging of pictures we are told that, " to see them with anything like comfort or attention, they should be disposed in one row only, and that opposite the eye, or, on an average, about five feet six inches from the floor to the center of the canvas. A row thus formed will make a sort of colored zone around the room; and though the frames themselves may vary in shape and dimensions, they can generally be grouped with something like symmetry of position, the larger ones being kept in the center and the smaller ones being ranged on either side in corresponding places along the line." The cords used to suspend them should match the general coloring of the room ; wires, which have been so much in fashion, give an uncertain look to pictures, as though they had no visible means of support.

Finally a few window covering suggestions from Mr. Eddis
In the lower sitting-rooms of most town houses it is necessary to have some sort of lower screen or blind, to render the rooms fairly private from the gaze of too curious passers-by. For this purpose all kinds of contrivances have been carried out, from the old wire-gauze blind, with its general dirty and dingy look, and everlasting painted ornament of Greek fret or honeysuckle border, to the curious twisted cane inventions, which are bad in design, and infinitely too spotty and strong in colour to be pleasant accessories in any room, in which artistic decoration of any kind is thought of. Instead, therefore, of these coarse and unsatisfactory arrangements, I suggest that either a pattern of good diaper (note, by this is meant a piece of prettily embellished cloth hung in a triangle, or draped over a simple rod, point downwards.)or good ornament, be done on the lower portion of the window-glass, by the ordinary means of embossing, or that a second sheet of glass containing the pattern which may be done in slight tints be fixed on the inside face ; or, better still, have blinds of what is called jewelled glass in square quarry lights, or good figure or flower decoration in leaded glass, either done in outline, and stained in delicate tones of yellow, or worked out in good stained glass of various colours ; these can be made to any height, and fixed inside the sash so as to be easily removed for cleaning purposes....Blinds fixed to the sashes in this way may be objected to, on the ground that the sash weights will have to be altered to carry the extra weight of the blind, and that when the lower sash is opened the use of the blind is practically done away with ; but the first objection may be got over at the price of a few shillings per window, and if flower-boxes are fixed on the sills outside, made of ordinary zinc, with blue and white tiles inserted in the front, at a cost of from 205-. to 30^. each box, not only will the latter objection be done away with, but the bright and cheery look of low shrubs in winter, and many-coloured and sweet-scented flowers in summer, will add materially to the pleasantness of the room.
I am quite aware that I am offering no new suggestions in these remarks on blinds and flower-boxes. I am simply advocating their much greater use. For, beyond the pleasure to yourselves in the pleasant outlook upon bright flowers, the colour of the tiles and flowers would be grateful spots of life and colour in the dreary monotony of our town streets. All this kind of arrangement will be found much better than the ordinary frame blinds, which are fixed with bolts to the sash-beads, and are troublesome to take down and often in the way, especially when flower-boxes are set outside as I have suggested.

Decoration & Furniture of Town Houses: a series of Cantor lectures delivered before the Society of Arts, by Robert W. Eddis, 1880

How To Furnish a Home, by Ella Rodman Church, 1882

More pictures are available at


livingdowneast said...

What an interesting read!

SwirlDancer said...

I love the description of colours over here. Purely tantalising.