Wallpaper – NO! Crazy paint colors – NO! Carpet in living areas – NO! Such has been my generic real estate mantra for years, but ah…how tastes change. 150 years ago I would have been most ignorant and unfashionable, and certainly of the lowest socioeconomic class.
In our fifth class of the Master Preservationist Program, we focused on Interpreting a Building’s Interior in order to determine time period, materials used and trends of the day. We then visited the glorious Aiken-Rhett house to get a look at our lesson in action.
Obviously there are countless elements to take in when interpreting an interior, including, but not limited to doors, wainscoting, stair direction, mantels, floors, lighting fixtures, and even the shape of the baseboard. The structure of each of these gives you insight into the period of the home. For an excellent pictorial resource on all of this, you may want to read the book American Vernacular Buildings and Interiors: 1870-1960. For the purposes of this post however, I will narrow my focus down to wallpaper, paint and carpet.
Little did I know that wallpaper was at one point, a scandalous endeavor. Women of the late 19th century were tempted with sensuous language and tactile samples and the always convincing salesman. In order to properly fulfill the ornamental aesthetic of the time, women of class were persuaded to affix not one design to the wall, but rather artfully blend two or three or four – including the ceiling!
At one point this trend reached such a fever pitch, that a group of Wallpaper Reformers arose from the multi-patterned walls, and began insisting that such complex wallpapering was morally inappropriate, ‘clamoring for notice’ and that use of such colors were known to make people ill. Regardless, it is evident that choice of wallpaper in a home reflected your societal standing, education level and worldiness. See below for two examples of the wallpaper found in the Aiken-Rhett house, at least one of which has Parisian origins.
I had no idea that paint was used so extensively throughout homes in Charleston from the 18th C. to today. Yes, today we generally like our walls a little bit brighter than the rest of the United States – there’s even a Sherwin Williams line of “Colors of Historic Charleston,” but one can mostly count on neutral baseboards and crown molding. Not so back then. Not so at all. Different colors were used on each element of a wall and bright colors were not just relegated to the main house, but found in service areas as well. In one of the Kitchen house rooms of the Aiken-Rhett house, it was discovered that at one point in its history the walls were blue, the woodwork was white, the baseboard a dark red, the door dark brown and the mantel a glossy black. It was not uncommon for wainscoting to go from red to grey to blue to green and back again.
Did you know that if you live in a historic home, you might want to check your hardwood floors for tack marks? Carpets were made in two-three foot strips so they could be placed wall-to-wall in the winter months where they were tacked down. In the summer months they were taken up and replaced with something akin to grass mats. Oriental rugs were not used in homes at all until the late 19th century, so if you want to be historically accurate in your circa 1845 house, you are going to have to suck it up and go wall-to-wall.
The latter half of our day, we ventured to the Aiken-Rhett house, which like most Charleston locals, I had not yet seen. And what a shame that was. It’s a preservationist’s dream and serves as a reminder of Charleston’s extraordinarily wealthy and cultured class. At one point, the per capita income of Charlestonians exceeded that of New Yorkers by 400%. (Take that!)
So here are a few photos for your viewing pleasure. (Please note: only special classes are allowed to take photos so if you go there, restrain yourself and enjoy!)
A little closing on the Aiken-Rhett house….The fact that they left the house raw on the interiors makes it infinitely more interesting and gives it a depth of spirit that would otherwise be lost under a shiny coat of paint. Gazing at the tattered walls, you can hear the music of the grand balls and feel the feet stomping merrily. You can see a couple sneaking through the triple hung windows for a proper romantic interlude on the piazza in the heated breeze of a Charleston eve. I have toured countless mansions and castles both home and abroad and while of course Versailles is spectacular, nothing gives me the experience that this beauty does in my own hometown.