Thursday, February 9, 2012

In Search of Historically-Accurate Victorian Paint

Winter is breaking, the heat is being used less and less, and my tulips are poking up through the ground. Each time the warm sunshine finds its way through February clouds and streams through the windows of my 1890 folk Victorian home, I am reminded of how badly this house needs new siding and a nice coat of paint. The trouble is finding the right siding and the right paint.

Pinterest is one of my favorite new time suckers. I justify the hours I spend pinning, repinning and scrolling through everyone else's pins by telling myself that it's a valuable source of inspiration and information. The first of those two points is true. 

Sorting through what seemed to be miles of pins this morning, I learned that while Pinterest is certainly a terrific way to share inspiration, it's also a fast and furious way to spread misinformation. Victorian homes are a good example. 

Pin after pin, I saw Craftsman homes misidentified as Victorians, vivid tangerine paint described as period-accurate for the 1800s and white paint frowned upon as safe, boring, meek and only selected by homeowners who lack the courage to go with an "authentic" Painted Lady look. 

Fact is, many of the wild colors seen on Painted Lady houses are not only hard to look at, they're flat wrong for the period. I challenge anyone to show me a home that was originally painted in a combination of neon orange, turquoise, fuchsia and lime. Gaudy? Yep. Blinding? You bet. Garish? Well, you get the idea. 

Accurate?  Probably not.

I don't claim to know everything there is to know about historically accurate paint colors, but I do know a few things, and I am always greedy to learn more. 

Many of the colors originally used on Victorians were, indeed, contrasting combinations that highlighted fancy architectural details. But to my knowledge, those colors weren't day-glow pink and turquoise. Muddied reds, browns and golds are a more likely combination than pretty-pretty pastels.

And white is also accurate for some homes, so there!

White is the direction I am leaning for my house. Safe? Of course. But it is also quite accurate for the age and style of my home. The original cedar siding that's hidden under layers of horrifying remuddling attempts is unpainted. While I love the look of cedar, I also think it's a bit dark for this house. 

For those of you playing along at home, you may remember what my house looked like when we bought it. If not, here's a reminder. 

Do I really need another caption about how sad my house looked back then?

When I think about the way I want her to look (eventually), I picture something more like this.

Pay no attention to the crooked siding and windows. My Gimp photo manipulation skills are still in the embryotic stage.
To me, white paint is clean, fresh, bright and tidy. Narrower siding than what's on the house at the moment is correct for the period, and those hideous plastic shutters in the first image are already long gone. 

Dressier porch columns and balusters are in order, and I really want to splurge on copper gutters and downspouts. I also hope to restore the transom over the front door. Maybe I'll add a bit of stained glass there. It wouldn't be too expensive for such a small window. 

Some Folk Victorians originally had fancy trim, which is often called "gingerbread." I don't know if my house was adorned with it, but I did unearth an interesting attic vent cover with what appeared to be tulips carved into the wood. I found it in the attic looking tattered, worn, broken and, well, like this.

I'd love to know what the whole design looked like. The panel is broken, so it's anyone's guess. 
So we have part of a theme, and an idea that there was once a lot more to this house than plain cedar siding. 

If those are, indeed, tulips, maybe the stained glass for the transom could mimic it in something like this.

Or this.

Or this.

You get the idea.

With all of the ideas flying around about what defines a Victorian, I'm trying to stay true to what is realistic for mine. Painted Ladies in San Francisco can get away with outlandish color combinations. My little folk Victorian is situated at the top of a hill in rural east Tennessee. It's more of a farmhouse than anything. 

So white it is. Now to get the new siding and get her painted.



  1. You have such a purty house. Even in its original state. :-)

    Best of luck getting it how you want it! Moar pics while you work! :D


  2. Thanks, Adam! :-) Supposedly the paint adventure will commence some time around April or May. I'm anxious! I'm also tired of looking at that sad brown.

  3. I'm from England, where most houses are brown brick. Brown works for me. ;)


  4. Great post, and so true. Dark colors were the options back then. Since the entire downtown and a good part of the residential area is on the Historic Register, my town has a committee that approves paint and other external changes. Everything has to be either historically accurate or era-suitable.

  5. I love the rendition you created - I can't wait to see more progress pictures leading to achieving that goal!

  6. Yes! Agreeable minds! Thank you Beth and Adam.

    Thank you, Jenn. I figured I should at least have something worth looking at in the interim. ;-)