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Interiors of Colonial Era Homes (17th to 18th Century America)

Ancient art and architecture are not only for historians but for people like us who’ve always been interested in periodic art and crafts.

The interiors of the Colonial Era Homes were devoid of style, comfort, or aesthetics. This is because the early settlers on American soil were mostly concerned with meeting their everyday basic needs that were essential for their survival.

They neither had the mind to consider anything else except building functional dwellings in a fairly short period of time, using materials available in their immediate environs nor the space to fit in all they need except the bare basics typical of a spartan life.

Their plain structures, constructed with the braced-framing system, were built with wide oak planks of varying widths and lengths, creating an irregularity of form and the enclosing external walls also served as the interior only walls. Planks fixed on the external wall was fixed horizontally while those on the inside were fixed vertically.

In the 17th century, oak wood was used exclusively to cover both the inner and outer walls but by the early 18th century, pine wood was used thereafter.

How the Interiors of Colonial Homes Developed

The development of the interiors of the Colonial period homes started from a simple and humble open-plan single space but it wasn’t until over-a-century later that homes became a bit more personalized and their interiors more comfortable to live in.

The earliest homes consisted of a single all-purpose room with a large fireplace for heating and cooking, and while variations occurred in each locality, they all followed a definite pattern.

The structural developments in the 17th and 18th centuries are as follows:

  • 1650 to 1675 – One all-purpose room homes
  • 1675 to 1700 – Two room homes
  • 1700 to 1750 – Saltbox homes (with a long, pitched roof that slopes down to the back)
  • 1750 to 1775 – Four room homes

These homes all came with attics. Thereafter, from 1775, more complex interior designs and layouts were introduced.

A typical interior of an Early Colonial home

A typical interior of an Early Colonial home

Interior of a 17th Century Colonial Home

The early 17th century homes were basically primitive dwellings, a single-storey structure with one lone room that served as a multi-purpose room. Asides the attic which was introduced shortly after, this lone room served for cooking, eating, sleeping, and living.

With the development of two-room structures by the last quarter of the 17th century, the family had an extra room that was used as a bedroom for the whole family.

By the end of the 17th century, additional rooms were added, and the two-storey home design evolved. However, their interiors remained simple and functional, though a bit more spacious than it was at the beginning of the century. Nevertheless, they still featured a single batten entrance door, and some shuttered windows.

Their frugal interior features include:

  • Single batten doors
  • Low ceilings that were seldom more than 7ft high
  • Rough wood ceiling beams
  • Pine panelled walls
  • Stenciling on wall paneling
  • Fireplaces made of clay bricks, or a mix of stone and mortar
  • Small windows with wood panes or shutters
  • Casement windows with glass, oiled paper, or isinglass panes
  • Whitewashed walls
  • Stone flooring (early 17th century, it was bare earth floors)
  • Pine, oak, and chestnut wood plank flooring of irregular widths

In the 17th century America Colonial era, furniture pieces were constructed crudely and left bare. They were handmade and had simple forms, basically designed with only use and functionalism in mind. Soon after, many were finished with a coat of whitewash.

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Early settlers didn’t need much when it came to furniture, furnishings, and other personal possessions like clothing and footwear. Their basic furniture and ‘furnishing’ requirements were no more than the following:

  • Wood benches
  • Gate-leg tables
  • Ladder-back, turned, and wainscot chairs
  • Spartan tables
  • Stool and settle
  • Desk box
  • Beds – four-poster and trundle beds
  • Old clothing made into rag rugs
  • Storage chests and trunks
  • Iron lamps and candle holders
  • Wooden cradles

Comfort was introduced using loose chair cushions made from fabrics that were mainly imported (for those with means) from Europe. They were mainly silks, wool, polished chintz, linen, embroidery, and needlepoint. Soon, the rise of wealthy individuals led to some form of sophistication in the interiors and the arrangements of all furniture, furnishings, and prized possessions..

Interior design of an 18th Century American Colonial home.

Interior design of an 18th Century American Colonial home.

18th Century American Colonial Home Interiors

In the early 18th century, classical architectural styles and forms of the English became reflected in Colonial America. These new styles were introduced by Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren, and partly through fresh immigrants arriving from England who came laden with books on the creative and decorative arts, building, and architecture.

This spurred a passion for sophistication by royal governors and the elite who desired to make their homes a show-piece, something to reflect the dignity of their status and position held in society.

Characteristic features of the interior design of early 18th century Colonial homes was a great improvement from the interiors of homes of a century earlier. With the European influence and that of craftsmen who migrated from Holland, France, and Germany, homes began to get furnished in sophisticated and stylish manners.

Entrance doors became more prominent and the windows while windows were casement with large diamond-shaped panes and draped with imported silk fabrics. Other typical features include:

  • Shutters
  • Wood wainscoting and panelling
  • Upholstered chairs
  • Chairs with cane seats and backs
  • Ladder back chairs with rush seats
  • Daybeds
  • Upholstered wing chair
  • Gateleg table
  • William and Mary style chairs with ornate carvings and turned legs, stretchers, and ball feet
  • Mahogany wall panelling
  • Wallpapering
  • Japanese styled lacquered chests
  • William and Mary tallboy chest (supported by six turned legs which soon evolved into the classic American highboy)
  • Needlepoint pillows and seat cushions

Further Reading

Eclectic Home Styles of the 19th to 20th Century

Georgian Period Interiors – 18th Century Furniture and Interior Design

© 2011 artsofthetimes


artsofthetimes (author) on October 21, 2012:

Thank you Linda.

lindsays5624 on October 17, 2012:

There are some good classical ideas here

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