Walkabout: Victorian Woodwork and Paint

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

A quick search on our own Brownstoner Forum, or in any old house/restoration magazine or website, will soon come up with someone asking about painting and woodwork.

The following is a timeline of what kind of finishes were used at the time, from around 1830 to the beginning of the 20th century. As time goes by, popular opinion changes, as does the finish and look of woodwork in the home.

We have very few homes in Brooklyn from before the early 1800’s, so I’ll start there. Paint. That was the traditional finish of earlier Federal style homes, of the late 1700’s, and that carried well into the 1830’s.

Woodwork, baseboards, doors, wooden mantle pieces, built-ins, window and door frames were painted. In the 1830’s, the tastemakers of the day, including Andrew Jackson Downing, advocated three gradations of color for a room. The ceiling was the lightest, followed by a darker wall, and the darkest hues were reserved for the woodwork.

Victorian Woodwork and Paint -- Brooklyn History

Pasadena House. Photo via oldhouseonline.com

Especially popular at the time was wood graining and faux marbleizing. An oil base coat was painted, followed by another coat of a thinned darker paint, with was then manipulated with special tools and brushes to mimic the grain lines and natural features of different species of wood.

A top layer of varnish would protect the graining from wear and tear. In a similar way, various types of marble could also be faux painted on fireplace mantels, columns and paneling.

While itinerant painters and professional grainers did ply their craft, graining was seen as a skill that almost anyone could do, with a little practice, and this paint treatment appears in homes both grand and modest.

For those who did not faux grain, a dark paint color was preferred. For our brownstones, this would have been the recommended treatment for Greek Revival homes.

Victorian Woodwork and Paint -- Brooklyn History

Stanford White colonial revival house. Photo by Jonathan Wallen for oldhouseonline.jpg

By the 1850’s and up to the Civil War, when Italianate and Gothic Revival brownstones and homes were being built, times changed. The domestic critics began to like bare wood.

One home adviser suggested the proper woods for an American home were patriotic national woods, like Southern pine, black walnut, American oak and chestnut. He also recommended that wainscoting and other woodwork be oiled with boiled linseed oil, or other oils, not varnished.

Architects at this time began to reintroduce the chair rail, which had fallen into disuse. They were seen as necessary to protect the walls and wallpaper, which was hugely popular at this time, from the backs of chairs, and careless people.

Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, in their book The American Woman’s Home, also advocated natural wood, and decried the still popular practice of using lesser grades of wood, and faux graining them.

Victorian Woodwork and Paint -- Brooklyn History

Olana interior. Photo via wird.com.au

In spite of what the experts said, however, most people still preferred the faux grained or painted finishes of the earlier decades. Decorative paneling was also very popular, with wall spaces broken up by small pieces of wood or plaster framing creating boxes or frames.

As these frames got more elaborate, critics began decrying their use, one critic explaining that the ornate crests and curlicues were nothing more than dust catchers and places for spiders to weave their webs. One would write, Bases, casings, doors and sashes should all be plain, and painted or stained a quiet russet color, a color natural to the wood…..there is no poetry about common housecleaning.

The period between 1870 and 1890 changed everything. This is when our Neo-Grecs were built, as well as the Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival houses.

Victorian Woodwork and Paint -- Brooklyn History

Photo via tommannion.com

This is the time of High Victorian style, with the patterns and influence of the Aesthetic Movement the greatest influence. A wall was now a tri-partite affair, with a frieze near the ceiling, a dado or wainscoted paneling on the bottom, with a field of wall in the middle.

The wainscot could be a wallpaper, like Lincrusta, or it could be wood. Ornate wooden mantlepieces, built-ins, doors and other woodwork were important to the overall decor in the room. They were often the only calm in a fussy room with lots of color and pattern on the walls, ceilings, draperies, and furniture.

Natural wood was back in vogue. By in large, stained hardwoods were ideal, while softwoods, usually relegated to lesser areas of a house, could be painted, but for one critic and home writer, white was objectionable.

Victorian Woodwork and Paint -- Brooklyn History

Doors at Monticello. Photo via oldhouseweb.com

This writer also didn’t like faux graining, complaining that it only took a scrape to expose peeling strips amidst the exposed under wood. Since the parlor floor was the public floor, this is where the best woods were used, and where everyone advocated natural woods, stained and varnished.

Upstairs, in the bedrooms, paint was still allowed. Interestingly enough, the colors many of the period found most appealing would not appeal to many now.

Constance Cary Harrington, a New York society writer and home expert, wrote that she liked woodwork painted in black, maroon, chocolate brown, orange-green, dull India red, dark Antwerp blue, and bronze-green.

Victorian Woodwork and Paint -- Brooklyn History

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

Another critic suggested painting doors and window shutters gold on black, India red on black, or ivory on black, painting the lighter colors on the panels and the darker colors on the stiles and rails. He also advocated painting a line several inches out from the panel in the contrasting color.

Also extremely popular during this time was painting or stenciling the panels of doors with floral motifs, Queen Anne decoration, or in the case of a child’s room, nursery characters or birds and other animals.

The best example of this kind of painted woodwork and decor can be found at Frederick Church’s home in Hudson, NY Olana. This fad didn’t last very long, as most architects and style mavens called it a waste of effort. All in all, with all of the colors, patterns and ornateness and stuff going on everywhere, one could barely see the woodwork anyway.

By 1890, of course, it was inevitable that a backlash started. The over the top decor of the previous period had more or less run its course, and the reformers were crying Simplicity! Everything started to get simplified and pared down.

The more rustic and simple lines of the Arts and Crafts Movement coincided with the more classical lines of the Renaissance Revival movement.

Interior woodwork began to be less ornate, with simpler mantles and pier mirrors, and plainer wainscoting. Coffered ceilings were popular, but with simple beams, usually with plaster ceilings, not full wood panels, although those do appear in more upscale homes.

The Colonial Revival begins to take hold, shaping the interiors of architects like Axel Hedman, producing clean cut interiors, very often with white painted woodwork. The Arts and Crafts homes are known for their rich dark oaks, and dark stained woods.

Faux grained wood was totally condemned as fakery by the 1890’s, and natural woods on the parlor floors of homes were still preferred. Natural woods were necessary for dining rooms and parlors, but upstairs, white woodwork with a highly polished surface is gaining in public favor, says House Painting and Decorating, as were painted surfaces in bathrooms and kitchens, as that was seen as sanitary.

As the 20th century progresses, the popularity of natural wood waxes (sorry) and wanes. Today, you can do as you please. The beauty of natural wood can’t be beat, and if a home has unpainted wood, I would strongly advocate that one leave it be.

Lighten it by removing old varnish, but don’t paint it. If your woodwork is painted, stripping is an option, and so is painting. If you are adventurous, perhaps thinking of a different color scheme other than white may be explored.

The early Victorians and their woodgraining, the later Victorians with their strong color choices, are all alternatives. For the later Revivalists, glossy white paint was the way to go, and some of their woodwork was never without paint.

Whatever you choose, whatever reason you have to choose how you treat woodwork, I hope you cherish it as one of the most important features in an old home. The Victorians did.

Gail Caskey Winkler and Roger W. Moss’ book Victorian Interior Decoration, as well as Charles Lockwood’s Bricks and Brownstone were the sources for this article.

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