Home Decoration

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Do-it-yourself home decoration was a hot topic in the early twenty-first century. Cable television programs taught decorative painting and the basics of furniture arrangement; mail-order companies offered high-style accessories and ready-made draperies and slipcovers; there was even a home-decorating book club. The leisure-time home decorator was graced with an abundance of information and purchasing options, from cable television programs to instore crafts classes. Home "improvement"—remodeling the architecture of a house—was an activity that men and women shared. Home decoration, however, remained primarily a woman's game.

In the eighteenth century, a handful of wealthy Americans furnished the rooms of their new Georgian-style mansions to reflect their status and membership in a transatlantic elite. The restored interiors of Mount Vernon, George Washington's plantation, reflect the "good taste" of the time, a taste that produced elegant and rather impersonal public rooms. Women from well-to-do families sometimes made needlework chair covers or pictures, but the abundance of accessories, houseplants, framed pictures, and textiles that characterized the home-decorated room of 100 years later were not in evidence in the mansion houses of the time. Because self-conscious interior decoration was rare, it must have seemed particularly impressive to ordinary folk who lived in tiny houses of two, three, or four rooms—not much room for useless ornaments of any kind, even assuming that the hardworking women dwelling there had time to make them, or the money to purchase them.

Before factory production of the sewing machine began in the 1850s, women who did their own housework and sewing had little or no time to devote to embellishing their physical surroundings; they were too busy hemming bed sheets and sewing straight seams by hand. Curtained beds, which tended to be the single most expensive item in household inventories through the 1820s, were small islands of decorative splendor in sparsely furnished rooms that almost never had either carpets or curtains.

Once women were able to devote less time to basic home sewing, many of them turned those hours of labor toward adorning their households. Do-it-yourself home decoration became a truly popular activity, thanks also to the declining prices of attractive, factory-woven fabrics by the mid-century. Several chronological surveys of interior decoration document the trend toward visual complexity and material abundance in American rooms. Elizabeth Donaghy Garrett's At Home: The American Family 1750–1870 is a well-illustrated survey of décor and housekeeping practices organized by room. Jane C. Nylander's Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home 1760–1860 offers a detailed account of decorating practices, including information on the burdens of sewing. William Searle's The Tasteful Interlude: American Interiors Through the Camera's Eye, 1860–1917 is still the most comprehensive collection of photographs documenting the period of greatest elaboration in American décor, the Victorian era. Its limitation is the absence of color; the parlors, dining rooms, and halls of Victorian houses were usually decorated in deep shades of red, green, sienna brown, golden yellow, and dark blue. Even so, the careful planning evident in even the most modest interiors suggests just how important home decoration was to the women who lived their lives within these rooms.

Until the 1870s, the beau ideal (or ideal of beauty) for home decoration can be expressed simply: everything should match, having been purchased in sets, and the upholstery (the draperies and fabric covers for beds and seating furniture) in well-decorated rooms should be of a single color. The décor of these rooms should appear to be clearly planned, orderly, and symmetrical, rather than a randomly placed, simple accumulation of goods. People who could afford rooms that met this ideal—and there were very few of them—demonstrated that they had the means to do all their buying at once. (Purchasing a new set of bedroom or living-room furniture continued to suggest the same in the early twenty-first century). A few Americans could afford to use skilled upholsterers, the interior decorators of the time, but even well-to-do women were often accomplished seamstresses. They were able to make patterns for, and sew bed "furnishings," draperies, slipcovers, and other decorative textile objects for their houses. One of the best overviews of the complexities of home sewing before the sewing machine, including for interior decoration, is a period source, The Workwoman's Guide, written by "A Lady."

During the first half of the nineteenth century, a new American middle class coalesced, one that had more money to spend and was preoccupied with appropriate forums for displaying respectable identity. The cultural ideal of domesticity, the belief that the private home should be a haven for family life and that its operation was solely the province of women, gave new impetus to do-it-yourself home decoration. Their houses were larger, with distinct public spaces intended for company, but the stakes were now higher than a simple display of means. By the mid-nineteenth century, advice writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine E. Beecher argued that home decoration had a moral influence on family life: the "aesthetic element. . . holds a place of great significance among the influences which make home happy and attractive, which give it a constant and wholesome power over the young, and contributes much to the education of the entire household in refinement, intellectual development, and moral sensibility" (p. 84). In other words, happy family life was not dependent on regular meals and basic physical comfort alone; it was now a component of interior decoration.

The sisters addressed their chapter "Home Decoration" to an aspiring woman, who had to economize and plan carefully—and do everything herself. If she wanted a parlor, the most important room of the Victorian household, she had to hang the wallpaper, sew the curtains, upholster a homemade wooden "lounge" (the futon sofa of its day) and "ottomans," turn a "broken-down arm-chair" into an "easy-chair," and cover an unattractive center table with 30 yards of the same fabric, a "green chintz."

The Beecher sisters also included a few suggestions for homemade ornaments, including "rustic" picture frames made from twigs and a hanging planter made from a coconut shell. These kinds of projects, including wax flower arrangements, needlework lamp mats, calling-card receivers, and other small items, were a mainstay of the women's magazines of the time, particularly Godey's and Peterson's, whose editors provided pictures and instructions every month. The materials came from "fancy goods" stores, the forerunner of crafts shops of the twenty-first century. For women without drawing talent, these shops even sold canvas for Berlin needlework with the patterns already painted as a guide. These were the forerunner of the modern craft kit.

In 1868, a British curator, Charles Locke Eastlake, published a book called Hints on Household Taste. Eastlake's book appeared in an American edition in 1872, and became arguably the first bestseller devoted entirely to household interior decoration. His success set off a flurry of publishing do-it-yourself decoration books, which, at the time, were called "household art" books. Their authors encouraged women to express themselves by making their rooms "artistic." The old ideal of rigidly matching décor went out the window, which suited many do-it-yourselfers since they could not afford it in the first place. Books were directed both to wealthy women, like Clarence Cook's The House Beautiful, and to women who lived with tight budgets, as in the case of Our Homes: How to Beautify Them, which was published for rural and small-town women. Authors of decorating advice encouraged women to take up decorative needlework and other crafts, including indoor gardening and painting on china and fabric. They also encouraged women to use unconventional and less expensive materials, such as burlap, old wool blankets, and muslin, to create tasteful embellishments for their houses.

The household art craze resulted in rooms that were riots of pattern and color, epitomized by the crazy quilt, an innovation of the 1880s. Patchworks made from silks and velvets, embroidered with flowers, insects, and other motifs, crazy quilts were intended for use as parlor throws rather than as bedcoverings. Like Berlin work (or what is now called needlepoint), they are often early examples of the use of craft kits; many women purchased bags of fancy fabric scraps to make them. The household art movement also expanded the range of women's decorating activities into areas like wood working and successive crazes for new crafts such as decalomania (decoupage, or decorating with paper cutouts) and pyromania (decorative wood-burning). The point to all this activity was that rooms now embodied the creativity of women, rather than simply being containers for displaying possessions.

By the early twentieth century, a backlash against this exuberant do-it-yourself decoration appeared in such women's magazines as Ladies' Home Journal and the Modern Priscilla. Both the arts and crafts movement and the colonial revival encouraged women to continue as decorating do-it-yourselfers, but they promoted simpler décor. The authors of this advice were often products of the new departments of home economics in land grant colleges (colleges specializing in agriculture and manufacturing programs). They attempted to train their readers, and the students in their classes, in the "domestic science" of their homemaking, including their efforts at interior decoration. For example, the Modern Priscilla Home Furnishing Book encouraged women to study the science of color harmony and to apply geometry to arranging small accessories. It also invited women to tackle home decorating tasks that would once have been unthinkable, including stripping and painting old furniture white and reweaving cane-seat chairs. Some old techniques, particularly making hooked or braided rag rugs, survived as "colonial" crafts. All advice on home decorating, however, still assumed that its female readers could sew with some skill, even if they no longer made most, or any, of their family's clothing. Movies also helped to shape women's taste by providing close-up examples of attractive interiors in use.

The 1950s and 1960s saw home decorators see-sawing in an era of prosperity between "modern" interiors and versions of "colonial" décor that also encompassed other styles. Women's magazines and books continued to be important sources of ideas for do-it-yourself decorators. Reflecting the status anxiety of the 1950s, the authors of Revive Your Rooms and Furniture encouraged homemakers to "look at each room in your home with impersonal eyes, as a stranger would," before tackling the "tired and out-of-date" rooms that women had tolerated during the Great Depression and war years (p. 7). The new medium of television also began to offer information and decorating advice in the home. The first home-decorating program to air on television is undocumented, but "how-to" programs were not the only places that women gathered information on how to furnish. Soap operas, dramatic series, and even situation comedies displayed the array of goods that postwar capitalism supplied, and showed how to put them together. Additionally, the craft kit continued to expand in popularity, including the paint-by-number craze and the use of new plastics like Styrofoam to create decorations. The first do-it-yourself decorative painting techniques were introduced to home decorators, particularly "antiquing," where gilt paint, brushed and rubbed on, highlighted painted furniture surfaces of cream, gold, or avocado green paint.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the single most important trend for do-it-yourself decorating was the "American Country" look. To some extent, American Country expanded upon the earlier colonial revival's interest in American vernacular or "folk" art. Mary Emmerling's American Country: A Style and Source Book was the pioneering text of this decorating approach. With its emphasis on vernacular, homemade and improvised objects, including an aesthetic that embraced the appearance of wear and use, Emmerling's text invited American women to embrace décor that was overtly anti-modern. While women could make some elements of country décor themselves, much of the aesthetic consisted of artful assemblage of goods purchased in flea markets and garage sales to make cozy, homey rooms.

American Country soon split into two distinctive approaches to home décor. One, based on the classic Emmerling style, included sophisticated preferences for rooms that were deliberately anachronistic and even dilapidated, with dramatically faded textiles and worn objects. Some country decorators went to extraordinary lengths to hide modern amenities inside period cabinetry; hence the origin of the television "armoire." The other, more popular, approach to country décor used objects representing a softer, quaint vision of farm life—quilts, statuary geese wearing decorative bows, baskets of dried herbs and flowers, mottoes with humorous or inspirational texts, and stenciling that recalled nineteenth-century "theorum" painting of flower baskets and fruit. Martha Stewart, whose catering business begat how-to books on holidays and weddings, followed by books on decorating and a lifestyle magazine Martha Stewart Living in 1990, had used some country motifs, but her style represented an upper-middle-class alternative to the busyness of home-made American Country rooms. In fact, the signature Martha Stewart look was clean, orderly, and serene, with echoes of the classic living spaces of the 1920s through the 1950s. It demanded a level of organization that many busy women found difficult to attain.

For busy American women, holiday decorating became the most important form of do-it-yourself home decoration. There Martha Stewart was an important voice for the re-creation of family holiday traditions, including special decorations that had a homemade, nostalgic quality. Christmas décor expanded dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s, and it was supplemented by whole new constellations of objects designed to mark the passage of Halloween, Valentine's Day, Easter, and the Fourth of July. Holiday decorating was typically laid over the existing foundation of home décor, and it allowed a greater expression of play and whimsy, precisely because it was temporary.

Hobby decorators in the early twenty-first century were awash in information and products intended to make their dwellings more attractive. The difficulty, then, was finding the time to sift through that abundance at a time when employment, an increased number of social activities outside the home, and increasingly important and complex high-tech media equipment made it very difficult to practice what lifestyle-trends guru Faith Popcorn once christened "cocooning," (which Popcorn defined as "the need to protect oneself from the harsh, unpredictable realities of the outside world" at her Web site).

Magazines such as Martha Stewart Living, as well as other forms of media, recognized how valuable women's time had become as they tried to balance the pressures of modern life against the desire to cocoon and did whatever they could to make home decoration easier. Issues of Stewart's magazine from the early 2000s featured party favors and accessories utilizing patterns that could be scanned and printed with a color inkjet printer. For more ambitious decorators, the projects themselves were different, as skilled sewing played a very small part in many home decorating projects. Other mass media devoted to home décor, including the programming on Home and Garden Television, pushed constant innovation, such as fantasy-themed décor for such settings as young professionals' apartments and children's bedrooms. The Complete Idiot series of advice books even included a decorating guide. Craft kits allowed women to try their hands at making faux stained glass, artificial wreaths for every season, nosew valences, and painted stenciling on walls. The treasure hunt that goes into selecting appropriate consumer goods to be recombined as home décor is now the single most important home-decorating practice.

See also: Antiques, Collecting, Home Improvement, Quilting Parties, Women's Leisure Lifestyles


Beecher, Catherine E. and Harriet Beecher Stowe. American Woman's Home or, Principles of Domestic Science. 1869. Reprint, Hartford, Conn.; The Stowe-Day Foundation, 1987.

Brostrom, Ethel and Louise Sloane. Revive your Rooms and Furniture. New York: Viking Press, 1959.

Cook, Clarence. The House Beautiful. New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Company, 1878. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1995.

Eastlake, Charles Locke. Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details. 1st American ed., Boston: J.R. Osgood and Company, 1872. Reprint, New York: B. Blom., 1971.

Emmerling, Mary Ellisor. American Country: A Style and Source Book. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1980.

Garrett, Elizabeth Donaghy. At Home: The American Family 1750–1870. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.

Grier, Katherine C. Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle Class Identity, 1850–1930. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

Leavitt, Sarah Abigail. From Catherine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Martin, George A. Our Homes: How to Beautify Them. New York: Orange Judd Company, 1888.

Modern Priscilla Home Decorating Book. New York: Modern Priscilla Company, 1925.

Nylander, Jane C. Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home 1760–1860. Reprint, New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1993.

Searle, William. The Tasteful Interlude: American Interiors Through the Camera's Eye, 1860–1917, 2d. ed., Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, 1981.

The Workwoman's Guide by A Lady: A Guide to 19th Century Decorative Arts, Fashion and Practical Crafts. 1838. Reprint, Guilford, Conn.: Opus Publications, Inc., 1986.

Young, Mary Ann and David Nussbaum. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Decorating Your Home. Indianapolis, Ind.: Alpha Books, 2000.

Katherine C. Grier

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