A housepainter in 1893 observed, “Some people want their houses pure white throughout, while others have them painted as dark as possible, and some peculiar combinations of color are often selected, but we never dare object or we might lose the job.”

In the last years of the 19th c there was no single critic who dominated design as Downing or Eastlake had. What critics there were favored divergent styles, like Craftsman or the various revival styles. Homeowners had to sort out and decide what they liked best.
The seeds of the two most popular styles of this period were born at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. The displays that brought Eastlake and his followers to the forefront formed the basis of what later developed into the Craftsman style.
Another exhibit at the fair was a New England log house, complete with spinning wheel, a walk in fireplace, cradle, etc. This sparked an interest in all things colonial, and reviving simpler times. People started hanging brass warming pans on their parlor walls, a fad that House Beautiful warned against.
Other critics also favored traditional, or revival, styles such as Louis XV, Louis XVI and Empire. American manufacturers continued to sell products described as Colonial, Louis and Empire well into the 1920’s. The Colonial style was in vogue all through the 30’s,40’s and into the 50’s.

The American public at large, lacking any sort of single leadership in what was “right” or “wrong” chose whatever they darn well pleased. Japanese fans, Moorish “cozy corners”, spinning wheels, peacock feathers, Morris chairs, French draperies and small rugs scattered atop wall to wall carpet came together to form a new kind of strange individual “style”. It was this hodge podge, found in homes throughout the economic strata that caused early 20th c critics to condemn all Victorian interior decoration.

During the 1890’s wall, ceiling and woodwork treatment depended on which style the homeowner preferred, traditional or Craftsman. For traditional interiors, fresco painting, paneling and tapestries were advised, but the middle class homeowner, who could afford this, achieved similar effects with wallpaper or cheaper fabrics like chintz. Many traditionally furnished rooms used wallpaper and friezes without wainscoting. Floral papers were popular in bedrooms and in sitting rooms were the furniture was of a delicate design. Other papers included those with narrow stripes in two shades of the same color, tapestry patterns, single color flocked papers and damask patterns. The simplest wall decorating scheme was a painted or papered wall with a frieze above, just below the molding. This continued to be popular well into the 20th century.

two revival style wallpapers
Craftsman style interiors used different kinds of papers altogether. The papers had more geometric, stylized patterns. If a room had no wainscoting, then a frieze would be placed above a paper. If there was wainscoting, then a single paper would be used. Many homes were using plain solid color papers, but these disappeared toward the end of the century, replaced by burlaps and canvases . These fabrics could be painted or stenciled if desired.

Decorated ceilings remained popular into the 20th c. Some critics felt plain ceilings were dull and gloomy. Manufacturers sold ceiling friezes to complement patterns used on walls. On the other hand, there were those who condemned overly decorated ceilings, preferring something simpler, or just a single color. One treatment for ceilings was to use a simple wallpaper pattern on the ceiling, perhaps carrying it down to the picture rail, which could be a distance of anywhere from 6” to 3’. The junction of the wall and the ceiling could be bridged by a cornice, connected by a cove or just left plain. Another treatment was to paint the ceiling in a color that blended with the wallpaper. A single paper would cover the wall from baseboard to ceiling. A picture rail could be placed either at the top of the wall, or about 12” below it.

Until the 1870’s woodwork had generally been grained or painted a hue similar to the walls but darker. Eastlake and other reformers advocated stained and varnished wood or wood painted a color to contrast with the walls. By the 1890’s those following the Craftsman school recommended stained and varnished woodwork, especially for the first floor. Critics of the revival schools preferred painted woodwork. They felt that natural wood might be appropriate in dining rooms or halls, but never for parlors or bedrooms. White woodwork was increasingly gaining favor. Both the revival and craftsman schools accepted painted woodwork in bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms because of its sanitary qualities. In other words, it was easier to keep clean.
Picture rails could be either next to the ceiling molding or below the frieze, if a room had one. Larger pictures were still being hung from cords, but smaller ones were often hung from screws hidden behind them on the wall, the beginning of the modern method of picture hanging.

Primary and secondary colors began replacing the older hues. One writer recommended six hues of a single color for painting one room, beginning with grayish blue and working through to a greenish blue. Another decorator used creamy yellows through medium russets in a room. The fewer colors were in a room, the better. Some went as far as saying that all the fabrics in a room be of the same color, and the walls painted a neutral ivory or gray. Another view was to use contrasting colors that were not opposite one another on the color wheel, but adjacent to opposites. For instance, red with green would be garish, red with blue-green would be acceptable.
A decorating tip from House Beautiful...
If the hall had India red walls and ceiling and a dark red rug, the dining room should have a tapestry paper in green and red, a red ceiling and woodwork stained green, with a green rug, etc.. The parlor should be "old Blue" with a French floral paper above the picture rail and on the ceiling a paper containing red, green and blue.
Room use was another consideration in color selection. Halls were to have low, quiet tones, parlors should be light and cheerful, and never done in “hot” colors like salmon or terra cotta.
Dining rooms were to be “full-toned and rich” and libraries “thoughtful and sober”. Mineral and earthly greens, white, stone, slate, bronze and copper were all suitable for halls, dining rooms and libraries. Pure color tints, fawn, sky grays, sky blues, silver, gold and leafy greens were all good for parlors and bedrooms.
The darkest colors should be used on the floor and maybe the woodwork, progressing to a lighter wall, then frieze and lightest yet, the ceiling. Stained and varnished woodwork also played into color selection. Mahogany blended well with deep blue or orange yellow, but never with red. Maple should go well with old pink or gray, walnut with golden yellows, chestnut with reddish brown or tan and light oak with gray blue or pale olive. I’d like to note, however, in the previous paragraph, the tip from House Beautiful, the hallway done in red had mahogany woodwork.
1895 color combination recommendations for wall and frieze…
Robin’s egg blue wall with dull yellow frieze
Pale olive and warm salmon
Golden brown and blue
Claret and buff
French gray and vermillion
Olive and orange
Pale lilac and lemon yellow
Blue and warm fawn
Apple green and warm tan
Chocolate and pea green

Advice from 1898 if you had an old soft pine floor. If it was in fair condition, cover it with parquetry or a wood carpet, if it must be washed and scrubbed, cover it with oilcloth or linoleum, or paint it.
Wood carpeting was increasingly popular in the 90’s. Some used it as a border around the fashionable new rectangular rugs. Others covered the entire floor with it. It was used in both Revival and Craftsman homes. The carpets were laid directly over the existing softwood floors and wire finishing nails were driven in, set and puttied over to match the floor. Modern homeowners have found to their regret, that old floors that had been sanded often during the years, have had the surface layer of wood and putty removed, allowing the nail heads to reappear. Tongue and groove parquet was installed differently and so presents no problem

Hardwood floors were still considered a luxury, magazines from the 1920’s had ads telling people how they could now afford the luxury of oak floors. Many floors were being painted with a deep border to complement the rug placed in the center. The 1902 Sears catalog reveals that the rectangular rugs were commonly known as “art squares”.
Oilcloth was still used, but beginning to lose ground to linoleum. There were lino patterns that imitated wooden planks and advertised for “fitting around rugs”.
Encaustic tiles were still on the market, with new colors being added. Unpatterned tiles in white or black glazes began to be manufactures These could be laid in any design wished and became increasingly popular in bathrooms.
Matting continued in use, though primarily only in bedrooms or sitting rooms of country houses.
The Japanese matting came in a variety of colors and patterns, the Chinese matting was a bit simpler as far as patterns went.Denim was also used on floors, tacked down over a padding of newspapers, then covered with rugs.

The carpets of the previous decade continued to be purchased, and many homeowners still preferred wall to wall. New advice in this case was that if your floors were old soft pine, use the same carpet throughout the entire floor, removing door sills so that the carpet would flow from room to room.
The best carpets of the 90’s were simpler in pattern, excluding the Orientals. The new fashion was to have a pattern on the wall or on the carpet, not on both. Solid color carpets began to be produced, and since the seams are more obvious on a solid color, manufacturers adopted “broad looms”. By the beginning of the 20th c. carpets were produced in 12, 15 and 18 foot widths.

In another decorating development of the 90’s , a wallpaper manufacturer contracted with 2 other companies to produce carpets and fabrics to match their wallpapers. This was considered a wonderful new concept by critics.
The fashionable ideal was to have rugs atop hardwood floors, in both the Craftsman and Revival schools of decorating. There were, of course, true Orientals and imitation ones. Braided rugs were coming into vogue and Navajo blankets on floors and walls was another suggestion. Animal skins were popular, with or without heads. Some even placed these animal skins on top of wall to wall carpets.

decorated window shades

Spring-operated roller window shades, the kind in use today, began replacing the old pulley systems.
Many styles of draperies and curtains were available, but it was difficult to curtain the windows in a room when each one could be a different size and shape, which was a common problem at the time. Another dilemma was the lack of drapery men. The style of the last decades was predominately that of Eastlake, who advocated simple straight drapes. There were few who knew how to cut and sew anything else.
Some critics advised that curtains be hung to cover the woodwork of the window, and that the window would appear higher if the drape was hung just under the cornice. Others took the opposite view, that the woodwork shouldn’t be hidden. As a result, if you look at old pictures, you’ll see anything goes.

some popular window treatments

examples of french shawl drapery

A look popular in revival styles was “French shawl drapery” at the top of a window. A swag was draped over a pole with cascades on either side, a style that can be seen today.
A new development was the use of grilles in upper sections of windows that received little sunshine. Curtains would be hung below them. The grilles were also used in doorways and became quite popular. Sometimes they would be paired with portieres below them.

portieres with grille work above

Portieres continued to be popular. In the Craftsman style they were generally made of the same fabric as the window curtains, in Revival they tended to be of a different fabric. New innovations in portieres included once made of netted cords with fringe, beads, or bamboo.
The idea of bed curtains was fading.

bead portieres

from the 1902 Sears catalog


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this information! I'm using it for a project and you saved my grade!

Elaine said...

fantastic article, which is shall use in my interior design coursework. Thanks Elaine

Jessica said...

I just found this and would like to link to your very interesting article. We just bought an 1892 Victorian and found out that what I thought was an odd beaded curtain thing from the 1970's was actually original (if still a bit ugly). Thanks for the information!

grazhina said...

You're welcome, Jessica, and it's fine with me if you want to link to this site.

Lindsay said...

I recently purchased an 1890s Victorian, and the windows in most of the house are enormous. They have 4 panels, 2 thin double-hung windows on the right and left, and a large static pane in the middle, with a smaller stained glass rectangle above. The entire thing has elaborate moulding around it. Do you have any idea what type of window treatments would have been used for something like this? I find it hard to believe they would have covered up the stained glass and the moulding! But those darn Victorians did like those excessive details, I suppose! Any help is appreciated.

grazhina said...

The decorating books written during this period put an emphasis on letting fresh air and sunshine in. That windows formed a frame through which to view the world. I've seen examples of such large windows with stained glass panel above shown with a heavier weight curtain on rings, the rod hung below the stained glass panel. The curtain would be open all day, drawn closed at night.
Some people preferred lace or sheer curtains, hung criss cross, in Priscilla fashion, with maybe a bit of heavier drapery on the far sides as a color accent. Shutters were another option.

grazhina said...

Forgot to mention, the rod didn't always hang below the stained glass, since the curtains were open all day, the rod could also go along the top.

Anthony said...

Great Stuff! I'n in the starting phases of restoring my girlfriends 1895 Vic. What I have in mind,so far with her blessings,is to restore it to what it most likely would have looked like a yr or 2 after having been built. I mean as close to exactly like. I wanna walk through the door and be transported. Have been doing TONS of research on 1890's kitchens,living rooms (parlors,front rooms,etc. Going to keep all the modern conveinences but,hide them well.
Wainscoting and hardwood...Here I come..