Odd Victorian Design Fads

The Faux Fireplace

When parlor stoves became a common way of heating a room during the mid-1800s, they were often placed in front of an existing fireplace, and the pipe that carried the smoke would be directed into the chimney flue. The fireplace itself would be sealed up with brick, which could be painted or covered with tile or metal. Oddly enough, if there was no fireplace to start with, the Victorians might still build a fake fireplace mantel and make it look sealed up- and then put the parlor stove in front of it.

This was a modern home project that someone did using a Victorian fireplace mantel and making it look like it had been a real fireplace at one point... Basically the same thing they did in the 19th century.

This was a modern home project that someone did using a Victorian fireplace mantel and making it look like it had been a real fireplace at one point... Basically the same thing they did in the 19th century.

The Fireplace Curtain

In the latter part of the 19th century, Victorians hung a piece of fabric like a drapery or curtain in the opening of the fireplace instead of using the typical fire screen. The curtain would have been pulled aside or removed when a fire needed to be lit. 

In the corner of this partial old photograph, you can see the fireplace curtain. C. 1890

In the corner of this partial old photograph, you can see the fireplace curtain. C. 1890

The Turkish Corner

During the 1880s and 1890s, having a Turkish or Moorish Corner in your home was the height of home fashion. This was a nook in the Victorian home, sometimes found in the stairwells, the family room, or even a boudoir, that was overstuffed with exotic furniture, textiles, and knick-knacks. Sometimes they would devote a whole room to the design fad, in which case it would be called a Moorish Room not a Moorish Corner (might also be called a Persian Room).

Transient

The Victorians considered pretty much anything that wasn't European or American in origin to be exotic, so the items ranged from Persian rugs and fringed "Persian" chairs to Japanese and Oriental furnishings, and even Egyptian themed accents. All of these would be stuffed into the corner along with piles of pillows (with exotic fabrics) littering an upholstered bench or sofa to provide a cushy and relaxing retreat. Fabric typically covered the ceiling, and fabric or Persian rugs were hung as drapes to visually separate the corner from the rest of the room. Even the lamps in the Turkish Corner would have been exotic in design. In an era of the highly ornate, the Turkish Corner pushed even those limits with overly carved accents and lots of different textile and wall patterns.

Interior Door Swings

In modern homes, our interior doors swing open in the direction that works for that room or space. In Victorian times, the door always opened into the room. The idea is that the door would protect the privacy of the occupants from the servants entering and exiting. Obviously it did nothing of the kind, but it apparently gave the Victorians the illusion of privacy, and sometimes that was all that mattered.

Transient

Victorian Gas Lighting versus Electricity in 19th Century Homes

One of the challenges in choosing correct lighting fixtures for a Victorian home or period dollhouse is knowing when a gas fixture, candle/oil fixture, or electrical lighting is appropriate. This article offers a brief history of Victorian lighting and will help you understand what each fixture looks like, when it would have been used, and where in the house it would have been utilized. Most of the picture examples are dollhouse 1/12 lights, and manufacturer will be noted.

Candles & Oil Lamps

Both wax candles and oil lighting would have been used throughout the entire 19th century in the form of table lamps and wall sconces. However, candle chandeliers began to be converted to gas chandeliers starting in the middle of the 1800s in America. It would have been rare to see a candle or oil burning ceiling fixture towards the end of the Victorian era in the public or entertaining areas of the home (except in rural areas), although candelabras and oil burning table lamps were still used extensively throughout the house for lighting. There was a brief resurgence of candle chandeliers among the wealthy at the end of the 1800s, because candles were more expensive than gas at that point (until electricity came along which was more expensive than both).

Bedrooms often continued to use oil burning fixtures because there was a very real threat that fumes from a gas fixture would kill you in your sleep or make you very ill. Kerosene was introduced in Germany in the 1850s and drilling for petroleum oil followed shortly after, giving rise to the popularity of kerosene as a lighting fuel in the last half of the 19th century.

Candle burning chandeliers often employed cut glass or crystal that helped refract the light around the room. The candles would begin replacement by gas lights starting in the 1840s, though. This example is made by Heidi Ott.

Candle burning chandeliers often employed cut glass or crystal that helped refract the light around the room. The candles would begin replacement by gas lights starting in the 1840s, though. This example is made by Heidi Ott.

A hanging oil lamp such as this might be used in the bedroom throughout the 19th century since it was considered a safe alternative to gas lighting. This example is made by Cir-Kit concepts.

A hanging oil lamp such as this might be used in the bedroom throughout the 19th century since it was considered a safe alternative to gas lighting. This example is made by Cir-Kit concepts.

The flame in this oil lamp wall sconce is protected by a glass chimney that directs the vapors upward. Often a mirror behind the lamp helped to reflect more light into the room. Wall sconces in public areas of the home were often gas lit after the 1840's. This example wall sconce is made by Cir-Kit Concepts.

The flame in this oil lamp wall sconce is protected by a glass chimney that directs the vapors upward. Often a mirror behind the lamp helped to reflect more light into the room. Wall sconces in public areas of the home were often gas lit after the 1840's. This example wall sconce is made by Cir-Kit Concepts.

An example of an oil burning table lamp made by Cir-Kit Concepts. Candelabras and oil lamps were used throughout the entire 19th century, often as the primary light source in private rooms, even after gas lighting was introduced. 

An example of an oil burning table lamp made by Cir-Kit Concepts. Candelabras and oil lamps were used throughout the entire 19th century, often as the primary light source in private rooms, even after gas lighting was introduced. 

Gas Lighting in American Victorian Homes

In the 1840s, gas lighting fixtures went into production in the United States,which meant they no longer had to be imported solely from Europe and were now more affordable and available to homeowners. Up to that point, gas lighting had been used primarily in venues such as such as large theaters, public parks, public streets, and grand hotels. Oil and candle chandeliers and sconces began to be converted to gas lighting in the public areas of the house , and new homes would be built with gas lines already installed. This applies to homes built in cities, not rural areas, because they had to have access to a gas provider. The homes converting to gas lighting would have also been middle class up, not the poorest who would have continued to use candles and oil lamps.

Unfortunately, gas powered flames produced black smoke and soot so ceiling roses or medallions were used over gas chandeliers to cleverly conceal vents. Decorative ceilings, dark colors, and elaborate wallpapers were all used to disguise the grime that gas lighting produced. Often fixtures would also use a smoke bell, which was a piece of metal decoratively suspended over the fixture to help capture the soot.

Here is a checklist for identifying a gas lighting fixture:

  1. There must be a solid pipe or tube running from the wall or ceiling to the light for the gas to flow through. If your fixture is hanging from  a chain, it is not a gas light.
  2. The flame always pointed up (until after 1905), so all of the fixture's globes, glass shades, etc, must be directed up.
  3. The glass shade had to allow an egress for the smoke produced by the flame. This could be a glass chimney rising from inside a decorative globe shade, a shade completely open at the top, a globe with a decorate metal cap at the top, etc.

For a truly stunning collection of antique photographs showing almost exclusively gas lighting from the Victorian era, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/antiquelighting/

A real-life example of a gas chandelier with smoke bells above the lights.

A real-life example of a gas chandelier with smoke bells above the lights.

This would be an appropriate billiards light for a Victorian home. Note the gas piping and the upright lights. This dollhouse light is made by Clare Bell.

This would be an appropriate billiards light for a Victorian home. Note the gas piping and the upright lights. This dollhouse light is made by Clare Bell.

A beautiful gas light example made by Lightingbug. These lights use the metal cap on the globe to help filter the smoke.

A beautiful gas light example made by Lightingbug. These lights use the metal cap on the globe to help filter the smoke.

From about 1905 on, inverted incandescent burners for gas allowed the fixtures to hang upside down as shown in this dollhouse example by Lightingbug.

From about 1905 on, inverted incandescent burners for gas allowed the fixtures to hang upside down as shown in this dollhouse example by Lightingbug.

American Victorian Adoption of Electricity

Although the light bulb was improved by Thomas Edison to a point where it could be used in a practical setting by 1879, a widespread electric grid did not exist to provide electricity to homes. Chicago and New York were among the first cities to provide electricity, but even then, like with gas, the first to convert were industrial venues, theaters, high-end hotels, and the homes of the most prominent and wealthy- like governers or industry titans. The use of electricity to light homes would not become widespread until the the first half of the 20th century (see historical notes at the end), so solely using electric style lights in a Victorian home is not appropriate, nor is any electric lighting appropriate in an authentic period home before the mid 1880s to 1890s.

Because the early electric grids were so unreliable, the light fixtures were often a combination of gas lights and electric light bulbs. When the electricity would cut out, as it often did, the gas lights were used instead. Homes that started to adopt electric lights would often have only one or two fixtures with electric bulbs, because usually only one fixture could be lit at a time with the amount of electricity being provided.

This is the only electric and gas combination light for dollhouses that I have run across so far, and it is produced by Lightingbug.

This is the only electric and gas combination light for dollhouses that I have run across so far, and it is produced by Lightingbug.

For anyone interested in more facts about the history of electricity, these notes are for you! 

Thomas Edison established the first commercial electric plant in 1882, New York, which was steam powered. That same year, the first hydroelectric plant also went into operation, and it was located in Appleton, WI. Linda from LightingBugltd.com has visited the first house lit by electricity there (now a museum).

"We have a friend who grew up in a historic Victorian home that was powered by the first Thomas Edison hydroelectric power plant in the country in the 1890s.  It’s located in Appleton, WI and called Hearthstone – now a historic museum (there is actually Wikipedia info on it).  We were able to tour the home with him a few years ago and it’s on my list to go back to for more pictures.  The light switches looked like outdoor water faucet knobs and the original wiring was bare copper run under the floors (which has since been replaced because of the fire hazard.)  They had several gasoliers and original Edison bulbs.  According to the tour guide, the bulbs cost about $10 a piece (in Victorian times –so very expensive) and lasted maybe a month at most so gas was the backup."

For more information on Hearthstone, and some pictures, visit http://www.focol.org/hearthstone/index.html 


The first electric trolley system was built in Richmond, VA and started operating in 1888. Other cities based tram systems on the design, leading to the obsoletion of animal powered street cars by the turn of the century.

Although the use of electricity to light homes became widespread in urban areas from the 1920's on, electricity would not reach rural areas of America until FDR started programs specifically for that purpose, believing that every American should have access to electricity as a basic quality of life.

List of Common Victorian Rooms

Types of Rooms in a Victorian Home

Entrance Hall: The front door of the house usually led into a grand entrance hall that often had impressive woodwork and decorative tile flooring. A hallstand was used to hold umbrellas, canes, and hats, as well as provide a spot to leave a calling card. A bench or chairs might be provided for seating. The stairs were no longer just a utilitarian device, but instead became a focal point in the halls with impressive woodwork and carving. Windows in stairwells/halls often showcased stained glass as well.

Parlor (Drawing Room, Lady's Room, Sitting Room, and Family Room): Parlor was a term commonly used in America to refer to the reception room or sitting room used to socialize with guests. This was a very ornate and well furnished room, usually accessible from the main hallway of the house.

In some houses, the Parlor also served as the Drawing Room (from the term "withdrawing room"), where the ladies would sit together after dinner as the men continued to socialize around the dining room table.

Many floorplans do show a separate Family Room or Drawing Room, which was often less decorative and used just by family or close friends.

Music Room: A variation on a separate Family Room would have been the Music Room. In the wealthiest homes, they might have even had a grand piano. This room would usually have a piano as its focal point. It might also have card tables and games that could be played while listening to the music. Usually, a small square harpischord or square piano, or even an organ, was simply put in one of the sitting rooms, though.

Dining Room: Having a formal dining room was a must! The Dining Room was often connected to the Kitchen (usually via a Butler's Pantry), and to a sitting room that could be separated with a curtain or sometimes a door. The Dining Room's essential furniture included the dining table and chairs, a buffet or sideboard (for serving), and a hutch that stored the fine china and glassware.

Kitchen: The kitchen was a purely utilitarian room with little to no decoration. Work surfaces were plain tables, and storage would be plain wood hutches or pot boards,. Utencils and pots were also hung directly from the walls and ceilings. Wood or coal burning iron stoves were seen in the last half of the 19th century, replacing the metal lined fireplaces (Franklin Stove) used to cook in up to that point. A copper boiler attached to the stove provided hot water to the house in later years, and ice boxes were the precursor to the electric refridgerator. 

Scullery (Back Kitchen): Sometimes a partitioned area of the kitchen and sometimes a completely separate room, the scullery is where the messiest chores were performed which included scrubbing dishes, cleaning fish, plucking fowl, etc. A scullery maid handled the most labor intensive cleaning around the house and was the lowest ranking servant.

Butler's Pantry: Many floor plans show that a Butler's Pantry separated the Kitchen from the Dining Room. It was usually a small area used to securely store the silver and the serving utensils, but in large houses (especially in Europe) this could be a room large enough for a butler to sleep in,  so he could protect the valuables.

Library: Libraries became a mark of social status, and later homes show a room denoted as a library on either the first or second floor. (Note: In the first part of the 19th century, the term library was used to refer to a collection of books not a room, so floor plans might simply reference a Study.) Since this was another opportunity to show sophistication and wealth, the library had social seating areas. If there was a Billiards Room, the library might be connected.


Billiards/Snooker Room (Game Room): If a Victorian home had a separate Drawing or Family Room from the Parlor, it might contain game tables for chess or cards. However, a true Game Room was really a Billiards or Snooker Room. It was uncommon to have billiards in an early Victorian home because  the game was associated with "vulgar" behavior and was considered quite risque. Because of this stigma, when a Billiard Room was put in a house, it was usually separated from sleeping and entertaining areas to insulate the women and children from the drinking, smoking, and cursing that might occur. There are examples, though, at the end of the 19th century of some Billiards Rooms on the main floor and treated as a family activity.

Study: Sometimes a small chamber was dedicated to the man of the house as his study. This is where he would retire to read or work. This would have been a private room, and so decoration would have been more simple.

Interestingly enough, the Lady of a Victorian home almost always had a desk, because she ran the household and also spent quite a bit of time on correspondence. The location of her work area varied. It could be in the library, the bedroom, a study, or even one of the sitting rooms. 

Bathroom and Water Closet: Early Victorian homes used chamber pots in the bedrooms and did not have a bathroom as we think of it today. Bathing was usually done in a metal tub stored in the kitchen that would be pulled out and filled with hot water for baths.

When the toilet was first put into use, people were afraid sewage gases would leak out, so the water closet was relegated to the lower, less appealing parts of the house. Even after advances in plumbing, the toilet was often still self-contained in its own little part of the bathroom known as the water closet because of the persistent view that it was unsanitary.

The turn of the century bathrooms were fairly open, though, with porcelain showers, tubs, toilets , and sinks all in one room. A bathroom could be connected to a bedroom or centrally located so that it could be accessible by multiple chambers.

Bedrooms: Bedrooms were usually small and dimly lit, with a bed, storage chests for clothes, a screen to dress behind, and sometimes a washstand and a vanity. Small closets could be found attached to late Victorian bedrooms, but even armoirs were not common earlier in the period. Everyone folded clothes, even dresses, for storage until in the late 19th century airing out textiles was considered good for health. Husbands and wives in America did not often sleep in separate bedrooms (usually only the most wealthy), although they might have had separate dressing areas.

Nursery: The nursery was a room dedicated to babies and very young children. If the mother was the primary caretaker, the nursery might be joined to the master bedroom, otherwise the nursery was located near the nanny's quarters. Sometimes there was a separate daytime nursery where the children played.