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Friday, December 18, 2015

American Colonial Interiors

In search of design authenticity, it's best to go straight to the source.
Many months ago, perhaps even many years ago, I ran a series detailing various American domestic architectural styles. At the time, I didn't go into much detail as to the interiors of each style. In lieu of that oversight, I now plan to do a series dealing with the insides and the various authentic decorating efforts associated with each architectural style. I'm starting with the American Colonial style, the earliest style aside from Native American and possibly Spanish Mission styles. (I just noticed, the link above is to a post of more than three years ago.) One of the major problems in discussing Colonial style interior design is that people hold so many visual misconceptions of it. Part of that is simply that there is no one Colonial style. For the sake of simplicity, I've broken the Colonial style into three periods, Early Colonial (before 1700), Mid-Colonial (1700-1750) and finally Late Colonial (1750-1800), though that causes the latter to overlap into what's come to be known as the Early American style. However that's not the problem it might seem in that the Late Colonial style blended gently to Early American just as the Colonial period in history blended into that of our young nation after the Revolution.
A horrid example of Colonial Revival at it's eclectic worst. Notice the wall phone with the rotary dial, the fifty-star crocheted flag, Aunt Jemima on the shelf, and the cutesy lamp on the modern style end table. Also, red is almost never used in authentic Colonial interiors.
Another problem in discussing Colonial period design is the damnable habit Americans (and others, I suppose) have of instigating "revivals" of past styles--bastardizations which inevitably warp people's visual images of the original. In this case Colonial Revival very often results in the most hideous, heinous, hellacious homogenizations of the authentic original style imaginable. The word, eclectic, most often accompanies such criminal acts of design, but so far as I'm concerned, it's come to be way too respectable a term for such sordid sins.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Now that we've looked at "counterfeit" Colonial, let's start with the living room and wander though some of the other major rooms to be found in American homes during the three eras outlined earlier. Early Colonial (above, left) is harsh, functional, and often crude. Structural components are often left open and unadorned. The Middle era (above, right), is more refined, though often sparse and lacking in decorative touches. Late Colonial (lower-left) interiors frequently have woodwork of a bluish, greenish, grayish hue having a hundred different shades and paint names today. Handmade wool rugs adorn the polished hardwood floors while portraits and landscapes adorn the whitewashed plaster walls. Colonial Revival has all this and WAY too much more (lower-right).

You should notice that the Colonial Revival is much too "Frenchy" and
elegant for the Colonial style, belonging more accurately to Early American styles.
The Early Colonial dining room was literally in the kitchen, while the middle era saw the gradual separation of food preparation and consumption. The open ceiling beams and simple, sturdy, unadorned furniture along with highly functional interior accessories remained. The Late Colonial period often boasted a certain wholesome sense of style, carved spindle furniture legs, and the beginning of the "cluttered", ornamented look that was to reach it's ungodly zenith during the Victorian era. During the Late Colonial period, furniture was often imported, designed and made by professionals rather than handmade by those using it.

Now that we've had our sumptuous fill in the dining room, we move on to the Colonial kitchen from whence all our imaginary feast began. Brick and stone dominate the often enormous fireplace which in turn dominates the kitchen. Without the fireplace, the room might just as well be a pool hall. The Early Colonial kitchen often had a stone floor while the Middle Era kitchen sported the luxury of a hard-scrubbed, unvarnished bare wood, plentiful table workspace, even kitchen cupboards. Any eating in the kitchen was done by children or servants. By the Late Colonial period, dare I say, the kitchen was starting to become an attractive, even inviting place. Cooking utensils adorn the walls and the "good" china rests safely on display in "hutches" designed and built for that purpose. Again, the furniture is made by skilled craftsmen rather than the local log cabin carpenter.

Colonial era stairs were not what we've come to erroneously imagine.
They were narrow, steep, and very simply adorned with lathe-turned spindles.
Space inside most Colonial style homes was too valuable to afford grandiose stairways. Charles Wilson Peale's stairway Group, (portraits of his sons, Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), dates from 1795, though the stairway he depicts with surprising tromp l'oel skill for a colonial painter, is quite likely much older, reflecting Middle Era construction. Early Colonial stairs were quite often simply permanently installed ladders to the attic sleeping loft. Only in the Late Colonial period did stairways begin to move beyond the simply functional, taking on the roll of impressing visitors with a sense of grace or beauty.

From log cabin crude to hand-printed French wallpaper.
Upstairs, the Colonial style bedroom grew in size, comfort, and opulence during the three periods we've been discussing. Tucked away up under uninsulated eaves, a good night's sleep in winter meant simply not freezing to death, or being eaten alive by guest mosquitoes in the summer. However, by the Middle era, the bedroom had evolved into one of the more comfortable rooms in the house. By the Late Colonial era, walls sported imported French wallpaper, while the woodwork was coated with leftover green paint from the dining room downstairs. Beds grew softer, carpeted floors grew warmer, while the ancestors staring down from the walls kept watchful, humorless eyes on the nocturnal activities of their descendants.

Bathing was a major undertaking during the colonial eras.
The bathroom? What's a bathroom? During the colonial eras, on the rare occasions, one actually immersed oneself in warm, soapy water, it was done in the privacy of a bedroom utilizing a big wooden, copper-lined tub on wheels (directly above) or something like the green "vat" designed with the user's modesty foremost in mind. Any of the more "serious" bodily functions, one took outside to a crudely designed and built "privy" (top-left) or the more stylish and euphemistic "necessary" (top right). Now you know from whence the term "brick _ _ _ _ house" derived. Therefore, if you have in mind to create a bathroom in anything even approaching an authentic Colonial style, you have your work cut out for you. A couple of the attempts above come close, but no cigar. I was especially fascinated by the audacity of the curved glass shower amid the stone trappings of an otherwise rustic "necessary" looking bathroom (top-center).

A Colonial laundry room? Don't even try.
There you have it, all you really need to know about turning your home d├ęcor into an authentic, antique, Colonial style showplace. Just keep in mind that Early Colonial furnishing were designed for rugged, and often comfortless use (think twice before going that route). As you move into Mid-era and Late Colonial styles, the padding beneath one's "tush" tends to increase. By the way, there are some rooms you should just never attempt to decorate in a Colonial style. The laundry room (above) is foremost among them. Take it from me, no amount of checkered or plaid table cloth is going to disguise the gleaming white porcelain of a computerized, digitized, environmentally friendly, automatic washer and dryer.


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