Monday, January 23, 2023

The American Colonial Period Decorating Style: Practical, Eco-Friendly Home Decor Part I

American Colonial Period Interior Decorating 

The picture above shows an interior from
the Jamestown settlement. It is available at
in a variety of formats and sizes.

American Colonial is a popular home decor style and one of the main inspirations of today's "Country" and "Shabby Chic" styles of decor. This page will help you understand the variations in American Colonial interior decorating, so you can find the one that best suits the style of your home and your needs.

You'll also find DIY tips, photos, resources, and advice on how to achieve this warm, welcoming decorating style.

The American Colonial Style covers the period from the arrival of the first early settlers in the sixteenth century to the Declaration of Independence in the eighteenth century.

American Colonial interiors include not only the early primitive styles that inspired today's popular "country," "primitive" or "shabby chic" looks in home decor, but also variations according to the region the settlers had come from.

American Colonial architecture and home decor styles range from rustic to sophisticated and are largely dependent on location, population, and the availability of natural, economic, and individual resources. The Colonial period encompasses about 200 years, so it is not surprising that it includes a progression of styles from the simple basic and rough-hewn to the classic lines and finesse of Queen Anne style.

An Overview of the American Colonial Period

Functionality, Frivolity and Fashion 


Photo above, New Amsterdam Settlement on Manhattan Island
in the Mid-1600s
, is Available at
In the earliest American Colonial homes, Interior Functionality understandably took precedence over Interior Decorating. The emphasis on simplicity and utility also suited the Puritan ethic of the Plymouth colony, who disdained pleasure and embraced austerity.

The first colonists at Jamestown, Virginia (established in 1607) and Plymouth, Massachusetts (established in 1620) were most concerned with meeting the basic needs necessary for survival and did not have the time or luxury to consider anything else. Constructing a functional dwelling in relatively short time from whatever materials were available was their main objective. This was a time of living in one-room houses with the few items the settlers managed to take with them on their voyage to the “New World”. These early homes were more primitive dwellings built by the settlers themselves from local natural resources using whatever skills they had.

The Early Years: Life in the 16th and 17th Century American Colonies 
Photo in Public Domain

In the early settlements, American Colonial houses and their interiors were necessarily bare-bones and spartan, with low ceilings, rough wood beams, plain whitewashed walls and wide plank floors. Tools were limited and skilled craftsmen were rare so quality varied greatly. Furniture and accessories not brought from Europe were handmade, idiosyncratic, and simple in design with an emphasis on function.

Nevertheless, the basic plank construction of simple benches, tables,stools, and chests suited the no-frills frugal Puritan morality of the New England colonists. Furniture was sometimes painted with white wash or naturally pigmented milk paint to disguise the fact that it was usually made of leftover wood from a variety of trees.
Windows were small and panes, if there were any, were likely to be made of oiled paper. Windows were generally left as-is or covered with plain wood shutters or a simple piece of cotton or linen fabric that was most likely homespun and woven by the housewife. (Continued below.)

Photo above shows a colonial fireplace in Salem, Massachusetts as it was in 1750.
It is Available at in a variety of formats and sizes.
(Contintued from above.) Fireplaces were essential for cooking and heating, as well as light. They were made of brick or stone and mortar and very large. Home-made candles provided the only other source of light as the small windows provided little natural light. Dishes for the majority of families were made from earthenware or wood, but those who could afford it would have brought china and silver with them or, once tradesmen had establlished shops, purchased finer wares. Cast iron and pewter were also used for cookware, utensils and tableware.

The Later American Colonial Years

Late 17th through Pre-Revolution 18th centuries 
A Small Brick House in Williamsburg.
Photo is Available at
in a variety of sizes and formats

As time went by, a second story or additional rooms may have been added on, but interiors remained simple, multipurpose and functional — more an assembled mix of hand-made items and whatever was carried across the sea.

The early primitive structures evolved into brick or stone houses or wood-framed structures with clapboard siding and brick chimneys. Almost all of these homes, whether wood or masonry, featured a single batten door and shuttered windows.

More prosperous cities often afforded (pun not intended) access to more craftsmen, imports, and communication while homes in smaller towns and country farms remained pretty much unchanged. Other variations arose from qualities inherent in the different woods available regionally as well as the tastes and backgrounds of the inhabitants. Different types of construction, finishing, and style identified the city or area furniture originated from.

Painting of Colonial Silversmith Paul Revere
by John Singleton Copley from
American Artisans: Crafting Society Identity, 1750-1850
As the colonies prospered and trade expanded, craftsmen established businesses to serve and prosper from the growing market for their goods. The settlers learned of the latest fashions in Europe, but didn't slavishly copy them. Rather, they adapted them into their own way of life, and in the process produced a unique and totally American colonial style.

British colonies along the mid-Atlantic coast turned to Tudor, Jacobean and Elizabethan styles as the inspiration for what became known as the William and Mary style of the early 1700s. French colonies to the north and Spanish colonies to the south adapted the styles they were accustomed to.

With the increasing financial wealth of the colonists, design -- including architecture, furniture, and decor -- began to catch up to European standards and styles.

Homespun fabrics were supplemented with imported calicoes and prints from India and, for the very prosperous, English damasks, brocades, and needlepoint. Floor coverings were no longer limited to braided, handwoven or hooked rugs. The wealthy could import fine Oriental rugs as well.

American Colonial Colors 

The picture above shows a basic American Colonial color palette.
However, since computer monitors do not accurately and consistently
depict color, the photo should be considered an approximation.

Paint colors in the American Colonial period would have been limited by the settlers’ knowledge of pigments and available natural resources. Whitewash, a solution of lime and water, was the most readily available and frequently used.

Basic primary colors including barn red, indigo blue, and yellow ochre were predominant after the very earliest strictly “survival mode” years. Optical green was made by mixing yellow ocher and charcoal black with calcite and animal glue as a binder. Sometimes, instead of paint, a tinted layer of thin plaster was applied to walls.

Circa 1680-1730, it was not unusual to paint a lamp black “baseboard” directly on the plaster wall instead of using wood. A similar black outline technique was also used to outline features such as door frames and steps.

In the early 1700′s, sponge painting and “spotting” appeared. “Spotting” dates to around 1730 and refers to the decorative application of dots on walls and sometimes ceilings. This was usually done in black dots on whitewash, but occasionally colored water-based distemper paints were used, such as dark gray dots (about 2 to 3 inches in diameter) on a red ceiling.

Over time, as the colonies began to thrive and expand, colors became a bit more varied, but the palette was still quite limited when compared to later styles. The most usual method was to whitewash walls and ceilings and use colors for woodwork.

By the 18th century, wealthier homes would have added wood wainscoting and possibly paneling. Woodwork that was made of mahogany would have been left in its natural state, but other woods were often painted in either a solid color or with grained and marbled effects. The later colonial period palette included earthtones of yellow, almond, red and browns with some blues and greens.

American Colonial Interiors

The Eighteenth Century 


As with all furnishing styles the American Colonial Style was initially influenced by practical considerations. Fancy soft furnishings were not exactly at the top of the list for the original settlers. As we saw, floors were planked wood, usually scrubbed pine, sometimes covered with rag rugs.

Wallpapers were much too expensive for most people, and even in the later part of the period only the wealthy could really afford it. Later on, the availability of materials, imports and the wealth of more individuals led to more sophistication and luxury in interior design.

By the early 18th century, those who were prospering would have had walls decorated with Mahogany paneling and imported wallpapers from France and China.

They would also be able to afford larger windows with glass windows (in a diamond or rectangular pattern of smaller panes) hung with draperies made of imported silk fabrics — usually panels and/or swags and cascades. ( See picture below for typical diamond paned window.)

Those without the financial resources would have used a simple panel of cloth for curtains. It might have tabbed headings and be hung on a wood or simple iron pole or attached to a strip of wood lath that would be nailed onto the window frame. Shutters were also used, either by themselves or in addition to the fabric panel.
As homes grew larger and more detailed, increased attention was paid to their interior decor as well. Chairs were upholstered or had cane seats and backs. Ladderback chairs typically had rush seats. Chairs in the William and Mary style featured decorative ornate carvings and turned legs with stretchers and ball feet. The upholstered wing chair dates to this period (c 1710-1720) as well as a daybeds topped with a loose upholstered cushion.

The gateleg table (see photo on right), which originated in England, became ubiquitous in the colonies as it was an ideal space-saver in rooms that, although larger than they had been in the previous century, were still smaller than their European counterparts. Chests were also decorated and imitations of Japanese lacquerware designs were popular motifs. The popular William and Mary tallboy chest, which was supported by six turned legs soon evolved into the classic American highboy. Needlepoint pillows and seat cushions would have been used in homes that afforded the leisure or skilled help to make them.

Shown above: a carved frame and panel Jacobean chest made in Connecticut around 1660, c.1670
Massachusetts plank table with drawer, early 1700s Boston couch or daybed, a damask upholstered
Queen Anne sofa from Philadelphia (1740-1750), a side table and chair c. 1740 Philadelphia,
and a Massachusetts Queen Anne highboy, c. 1720-40). For additional information,
see American Furniture of the 18th Century: History, Technique, and Structure

American Colonial Motifs & Materials

What to look for 

It is important to remember that the American Colonial period preceded the American Revolution. Although American Colonial is frequently confused with Early American, which followed the Revolution, patriotic American motifs like the 13 Star Flag, Bald Eagle, and so on, do not belong in authentically period American Colonial decor.

Instead, look for motifs from nature including birds, flora and fauna. Simple stencil patterns are also appropriate. 

Common themes included the pineapple (symbol for hospitality), weeping willow (symbolizing longevity), heart (love), and anchor (hope). Geometric designs and patterns that could be incorporated in weaving (stripes, plaids, checks, flame-stitch style) were also used.

After 1750, the more affluent colonists would have been able to add chinoiseries and, at towards the end of the colonial period (c. 1770), large scale French toiles to their decorating options. Larger towns and cities were thriving and merchants offered imported fabrics and other household necessities and niceties. Skilled craftsmen set up shops, making other items, like pewter and silver, available for those who could afford it.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, however, materials were more limited and included locally available regional woods and natural dyes and pigments (see Early American colors). Blacksmiths provided iron tools, implements and decorative practical pieces such as candle holders in addition to horseshoes, nails, and similar items. Coopers provided wooden buckets and barrels. Clay was the basis for earthenware and bricks. Basketry and other items might have been woven by the colonists or obtained as gifts or from trade with Native Americans.

Early American colonial furniture was utilitarian and generally heavy and solid, with straight lines and little ornamentation. Chairs were either fiddle-back, ladderback, solid or spindle. Rustic plank top tables and benches and blanket chests were common. The later Colonial period saw a distinctly “American” style develop that was a typically less ornate combination of the features found in William and Mary, Queen Anne and Chippendale-style furniture.

American Colonial is an eclectic style and interior decorating in that style needs to be handled with care so it does not become a mishmash. Although many may think of sites like Williamsburg, Sturbridge, and similar restorations as the epitome of American Colonial style, remember that they represent the later more prosperous period and not the earliest settlements. Although similar elements can be found in both, you should decide which type of “American Colonial” decor you wish to use as your choices will be somewhat different.

An array of fabrics and wallpaper suitable for American Colonial period interiors.
You can find more of these at Restoration Fabrics & Trims.


Early American Colonial Period-Appropriate Home Decorating Fabrics 

Prior to the American Revolution, the most frequently used fabrics were American homespun, worsteds (cheney, harateen, moreen, and camlet), and striped Hollands of linen and cotton. After the mid-1700s,  and resist printed cottons and linens were imported. The wealthy would have used damasks woven from silk or silk and wool, silk and linen striped satin, wool velvets and brocades, and toiles imported from France.

Bed rugs woven from home spun and dyed wools, "Rag" type floor rugs, woven or braided, and sometimes hooked rugs were used for warmth and comfort. Wealthier colonists might have imported Persian area rugs on their wood floors.

To see a collection of historically appropriate fabrics that will help you recreate an Early American Colonial period interior decor in your home. Please visit Restoration Fabrics & Trims. (Page will open in a new browser window.)

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Coming next time in Part II

How to Accessorize Early American Colonial Period Decor 

Throughout Your Home

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  1. Your decoration is really nice. Everyone has a dream to decorate their home in beautiful ways. Please keep sharing your blog, it helps in getting new idea.

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  3. Fantastic blog about historical interior design and home decor

  4. Thanks for sharing such an informative post.

  5. Thanks for sharing such an informative post.

  6. Great Content!You have explained everything very nicely,thanks for providing quality content.

  7. Hello, I am doing some small research on something I had " read " years ago. That colonial women would have gathered dried flowers for Winter decoration within the space, maybe on the mantle. Would this be correct ? I am also thinking, it may have been a way to hold over seeds for next years medicinal gardne, since bottles, would have been scare. If gathering the flowers / plants, was true, what type of vessel would have been used to hold / display them ? I see that you wrote clay was used in pottery, so I can guess, that may nave been an option for some. Your writing was interesting. I will look through the rest of your blog. I am fortunate to live not 10 miles from Old Sturbridge Village, and within the boundries of Quaboag Plantation.

  8. Thanks for sharing such an informative post. This post is very helpful.