Roses and ruffles! Ribbons and cherry! Mahogany and marble! Does any particular word come to mind? For anyone with architectural knowledge, the word “Victorian” should be writing itself across his or her forehead. During the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) architecture became a fanatical beauty as the Victorian house became an expression of character, social status, and aspirations. (Sommer, 7-8.)
Gothic Revival, Italianate, French Chateau style, Second empire, Greek Revival, and Romanesque Revival all influenced the picturesque beauty of Victorian architecture. The Victorian house was built with wood, brick, and stone. The exterior was accented with shingles, stucco, ornaments of delicate spindle-work, bright contrasting colors, wrought-iron crestwork, and stained glass. (Sommer, 10-12.) Large porches called verandahs were commonly found wrapping around two to three sides of a Victorian house. The verandahs were like a large outdoor sitting room. The verandahs often had gingerbread like trim, and decorate railings of floral and lacy motifs. (Sommer, 96 – 97) Some verandahs were fully furnished with a table and chairs for dinning. (Sommer, 141). Floral gardens and walks were designed by landscape architects that, along with the verandahs, united the house with its grounds. Victorian architects were very respectful of the relationship between house and site. (Sommer, 95)
The Victorian House is made up of both formal and informal rooms. The front parlor and dinning room were generally more formal than the back parlor, kitchen, and bedrooms. The utility area, which consisted of the kitchen, basement, laundry room, and servants quarters was often grouped together in the same portion of the house, spreading over various levels with staircases separate from the main. (Sommer, 126.) The main staircase was most often located in the grand entrance foyer. Victorian foyers often had marble tiled floors, grand French doors carved and varnished with great detail, and metal crestwork that created patterns of light and shadow. (Sommer, 127.) The wide sweeping main staircases arose from the open foyer with elaborately carved railings and stair detail. Large stained glass picture windows were often located at the landings of a grand staircase. (Sommer, 135.) The Victorians believed it was proper for public rooms and bedrooms to be located on separate floors. (Zingman-Leith, Elan, 91.)
The Victorian bedroom was considered a feminine domain and private retreat. (Sommer, 136.) The typical Victorian bedroom consisted of a bed, armoire, chest, table, chairs, and commode. The beds came in sizes of full, three quarters, and half. The bed would most likely had a huge arched rosewood headboard with ruffled engraved roses at the top. The footboard was generally a smaller version of the headboard with matching engravings. Sideboards wrapped around the bed, connecting the headboard and footboard, creating a compartment for the mattress. The armoire, chest, mirrors, and drawers usually had similar arches and floral engravings to those of the bed. Closets were not common in Victorian homes because clothing was generally stored in armoires and trunks. (Zingman-Leith, Susan, 46 – 47.) Many Victorian bedrooms had Sleeping Porches. Sleeping Porches were balconies that one could sleep on to breath in fresh air all night long. (Zingman-Leith, Elan, 105) The bedrooms were usually wall to wall carpet, of light colored floral designs. The walls were most often wallpapered with stripes and floral designs. Wallpaper was generally floral in all rooms of the Victorian home. Some wallpaper was glazed with satins or silks and often divided into vertical sections. Many rooms also had borders of wallpaper at the top of the walls. The borders were generally of darker colors and often used to conceal the joining together of the wallpaper sheets. (Zingman-Leith, Susan, 37-38).
Bathrooms became more and more common in Victorian homes. The earlier bathrooms were commonly sheathed in wood with carved decorations. There were wooden cases for the toilet and the tub. Later on in the Victorian era bathrooms most commonly had hexagonal white tiled floor and walls, which made the bathroom much easier to clean. Bathtubs were claw-footed, as were the pedestal sinks. All of the bathroom pipes were left exposed, as it was believed to be cleaner that way. (Zingman-Leith, Susan, 114-116.)
Early Victorian kitchens had wooden counters with built in bins for flour, potatoes, beans, and other goods. There were also wooden cabinets lining the walls that held the dishes and glasses. These cabinets were concealed with glass doors. Open shelves for groceries also lined the walls, as did hooks for hanging utensils. Kitchens had cast-iron sinks with either faucets or pumps depending upon the water supply. All pipes and plumbing were left exposed. In the center of the kitchen a table and chairs were often placed upon an oilcloth or linen canvas. The kitchen floor was generally bare wood. Later on in the Victorian era the sink, counters, and other kitchen furniture were raised up on legs. Since underneath the furniture was then accessible, cleaning the kitchen became easier and more thorough. (Zingman-Leith, Susan, 116-117).
Victorian houses were generous with windows, decorative on the interior and exterior. The exterior windows were most often trimmed with gingerbread-like moldings. (Sommer, 96.) The interiors of the windows were highly decorative with at least five layers of upholstery. At the top of the window arrangement there were cornices of either wooden moldings or thinly pressed metal swirls. Below the cornice was a valance. The valances were most often solid colors with tassels, cords, and fringe that may have been gathered in swags. The drapes matched the material of the valance and were full and gathered in large folds. The drapes were held back by tiebacks made of metal, cord, or tassels. The drapes were most often velvet, silk, satin, or wool and matched the color of the walls. Beneath the drapes were lighter curtains of lace or net. Underneath these curtains were shades of linen, often stenciled with elaborate floral designs. Strings pulled up the shades, allowing sunlight to enter the room. (Zingman-Leith, Susan 45-46.)
The walls of Victorian houses were very decorative. Walls were most often floral wallpapered or wood paneled with intricately carved designs. Mahogany, cherry, oak, pine, and walnut were used in Victorian interiors. On the walls ornamental coat and hat racks hung. Portraits of landscapes and famous people were popular wall decorations. Large mirrors of French plate glass could be found hanging on the walls, often above mantels. The walls of Victorian houses were lined with shelving and bow front cabinets etched with glass doors display valuables and photographs. The fireplace mantels were often of many different layers, also used to display valuables. (Sommer, 126.) Mantels were most often made of white marble with semi-circular arched openings. The marble often had leaf and floral moldings at the top of the fireplace’s arch. (Zingman-Leith, Susan, 35-36.)
Victorian ceilings were generally of plaster. Some ceilings were painted to mirror the floral wall to wall carpet common in many rooms. If not carpeted, floors were either tiled or pattern-carved wood. The wooden carved floors were called parquet floors. (Sommer, 127.)
Rosewood was the preferred wood of Victorian furniture because it was less expensive than the more solid mahogany. Victorian furniture was famous for S-shaped curves and claw legs. Marble-top furniture was also very popular. Lace doilies were placed beneath most objects set upon the marble. (Zingman-Leith, Susan, 33-35.) Gas lamps generally lighted Victorian homes. The most popular Victorian lamps had pear-shaped bases and lampshades decorated with tassels. (Zingman-Leith, Susan, 35.)
Flowers, tassels, pastels, pinks, moldings, and engravings combine together to make the Victorian home a Romanesque beauty. Victorians took pride in their homes, as it was believed that their houses displayed not only social status, but also the status the owners aspired for. (Sommer, 8 – 10.) Victorian architectural styles are used in modern residential construction of today. The irresistible charm of the Victorian house has made the Victorian era a historical symbol of elegance and class.
By Stacy Ann Padula 2001
Sommer, Robin L.: The Victorian House. Edison, NJ. Chartwell Books Inc., 1999.
Zingman-Leith, Elan: The Secret Life of Victorian Houses. Washington DC. Elliot & Clark Publishing, 1993.
Zingman-Leith, Susan: Creating Authentic Victorian Rooms. Washington DC. Elliot & Clark Publishing, 1995.