It can be interesting to imagine what your home interior might have looked like 25, 50, 100 years ago. Thankfully, many design books and catalogs have been digitized and so are available online for anyone curious about the topic.
When you begin searching through digitized resources and archives, make sure to check out your local library or historical society. Online collections can be helpful as well – so check out the Library of Congress, the Internet Archive, and the Hathi Trust Digital Library and others that are available.
The information below comes from materials and booklets printed in the 1900s-1950s. Please keep in mind modern painting procedures and safety regulations that may not have been around when the information below was printed. Check out our Painting Your Old House page for more information about painting your home today.
The following text and images come from Artistic Interiors for Homes produced in 1909 by the National Lead Company.
Color has the power to alter the apparent proportions of a room. Red contracts, blue and yellow expand. Green, unless very dark, has little effect upon the room, keeping the walls, as decorators say, well in place. Tan, gray, blue and pink have the effect of adding space, while brown, unless very light, has the same quality as green.
To the majority of people, green is restful, red stimulating and blue depressing; but under certain conditions, these colors may have quite a different effect. Blue when combined with green or certain tones of yellow is anything but depressing, while red, if placed in a dark room, will so absorb the light as to make a room positively gloomy. Green holds its own, but is warm or cold according to the proportion of blue or yellow of which it is composed.
Pure yellow is the most sunshiny color in existence and is far more satisfactory in a north room than red.
After the color for a room has been decided comes the question of treatment. The beauty of a plain wall needs no emphasis. Highly figured walls are fatiguing and the eye soon wearies of them. In rooms where there are pictures and bric-a-brac a figured wall is often very confusing. It is, therefore, with relief that we turn to the restful, quiet effect of plain walls.
While it must not be thought that the color harmonies suggested in these pages are entirely unsuitable for figured effects in the wall decorations, it will be seen that a variety of charming schemes can be obtained by the use of plain colors and that on the whole they are more desirable in a home than figured effects. The plain colors contribute the restful atmosphere so essential in our homes, particularly in these days of restless activity. Quiet surroundings tend toward the simplifying of life.
Different surfaces require different treatment. Soft woods drink in paint easily; it has to be forced into hard woods. Some turpentine is needed, and less oil, in the latter case. Old wood requires different treatment from new unpainted wood, and brick needs different paint from either. Variations in temperature also call for variations in paint. These are only a few of the differing conditions which a painter meets, and the skilled workman never thinks of mixing his paint until he has examined the surface to be painted.
Plate No. 2, Living-Room
In our first suggestion we have combined green and blue, two colors which properly blended give very good results. They are particularly effective in a room of the character illustrated which is not a formal book room, but used as a general living-room. The number of objects in this room makes a plain wall especially effective. If a figured paper should be used in place of the plain wall, most of the charm of the room would vanish. A plain effect is necessary in a room where there are many pictures and much bric-a-brac.
With blue and green a third color used sparingly adds to the harmony. Orange is the complement of blue and thus makes a harmony of contrast with blue while it forms an analogous harmony with green inasmuch as both orange anti green are composed in part of the same color, namely, yellow.
In the kitchen we have suggested blue and white for both schemes with a slight variation in the treatment. In the first scheme we have advised white woodwork, white tiles, blue and white linoleum, cream walls and a lighter ceiling.
Blue and white are always satisfactory in a kitchen, forming a particularly clean and inviting scheme, also making a most effective background for kitchen utensils which are now ornamental as well as useful.
The following images and text come from Color Harmony in the Home: an invaluable reference book on the uses of color… with a description of the Magic Doorway published by the Lowe Brothers Company in 1928.
Following on the heels of a period when natural or subdued colors were quite the proper thing (in our apparel, as well as in our homes) we have been thrown pell-mell into a period of color madness. The result is a stimulating reaction. Color has become the very breath of life to us, and rightly so, for dingy places are made bright and dark lives cheered, as the result of vivid color everywhere in evidence. Unconsciously we are livened by color, even though we give it not the slightest thought.
…The finish on the woodwork plays an important part when choosing wall treatment for any room, as some walls are quite lovely with enamel that would not prove at all pleasing with woodwork in its natural color, not with dark stain. Dark-stained woodwork is always in good taste, but walls should be done to suit it – richer, darker tomes that will not produce too sharp contrast in color value as would a light, airy wall treatment.
The following images and text come from Your Ideal House: a house for every budget published in 1946 by Authentic Publications, Inc.
Do Your Accessories Fit Your Rooms?
One of the most disappointing things that can happen when you have bought a new piece of furniture or a new drapery, is to find that it doesn’t seem right when you get it home. It was such a pretty thing in the shop – and yet it doesn’t seem to work in with the scheme of your room a all.
…The day of ‘living-room suites’ is definitely over. Even if it is somewhat large for your room, the chance are that you can still use the Davenport without ill effects. Take out the other two chairs, supply them with cretonne slip covers, and let each for a part of a cosy nook in, say, your own room and the guest room…
Remember, too, that size and style are two very different things. You can get a Louis XV armchair, of the sort that looks light and delicate, in generous size, in spite of its dainty lines. You can get a comfortable armchair in small sizes – the ‘slipper chairs’ of today seem small, but really measure much the same as the ‘easy chairs’ of yesteryear. If the general effect of such a chair is light it will fit nicely in your small room, or if it looks sturdy it will harmonize well in your large one, regardless of its actual dimensions.
The following images and text come from the booklet How to do Your own Color Planning with Sears Harmony House Co-ordinated Colors: an easy-to-use guide to help you choose home furnishings in perfect color harmony produced by the Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1956.
The following images and text come from Sherwin Williams’ 1958 Home Decorator and How to Paint Book.