Just What is Colonial Revival?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “colonial revival” before.  Most people think of it as an architectural style –what they mean when they say “a colonial style house.” In actuality, the phrase refers to a whole cultural movement in the United States that had its beginnings in the late 19th century and that still exists today.  It is a style of architecture, decoration, literature, art, fashion, and even philosophy that has become so intertwined with American identity that we often have difficulty in separating what is truly Revival from what is truly colonial.

As with many trends in American history, the Colonial Revival can trace its birth to a World’s Fair, specifically the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, commemorating the nation’s centennial.  At the time, the United States was still healing from the Civil War, dealing with a rough economy, and experiencing a wave of immigration that was drastically changing the population.  In the midst of this upheaval, Americans began to look longingly to their colonial past, when life seemed so simple and pure, and the ideals of the Revolution were supposedly clear-cut.  Exhibits at the 1876 Exposition highlighted the virtues of simple, sturdy colonial American craftsmanship in furniture and household goods.  Romanticized biographies of the Founding Fathers set forth a new American mythology.  The clean, simple lines of Georgian and Federal style architecture were extolled as the epitome of Americanism. The realities of life in war-torn colonial America were lost in the skirl of fifes and drums, powdered wigs, and pewter tankards, however.  Yet, Gilded Age Americans went wild for it.  A craze was born, complete with wallpaper, draperies and spinning wheels.  The Colonial Revival peaked in popularity in the 1920s, but then experienced a Colonial Revival revival in 1976, during the Bicentennial.

Philadelphia Exposition 1

Photos showing the Kenmore exhibit in the Virginia Hall at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1926. Emily Minor Fleming (pictured second from the left, front row in the photograph below) lead the effort to construct a life-size replica of Kenmore’s portico and East façade. The exhibit highlighted important antiques from the colonial era in Virginia. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1345 and .1345-2 PBW)

Philadelphia Exposition 2

The Colonial Revival had an especially interesting effect on historic sites and museums across the country.  Today, historic house museum employees spend a great deal of time (some might say too much time!) pursuing historical accuracy and researching everything we do. Our early 20th century predecessors had a different idea of what a historic house should be.  The homes of the Revolution’s great figures were seen as memorials not only to those great figures, but to their way of life, and thus the true American way of life.  Emphasis was placed on collecting fine examples of antique furnishings, although the actual dates of those antiques were not so important.  An English hall chair from the 1690s might sit beside a pie crust tea table from the 1790s, while the tea was being served from a silver plated teapot from the 1890s.  It was more important that when put together these antique pieces created a certain feel and image to a room, one that conveyed a sense of cozy warmth, family values, and individual enterprise. The result was the postcard-perfect rooms that we’ve all seen – a wooden hutch against the wall, lined with pewter plates and tankards (which in actuality would have been used on a daily basis and not reserved for decoration), a handmade rag rug on the wide plank pine floors (rag rugs were actually a 19th century staple), a spinning wheel before the fireplace (spinning was considered labor and would not have taken place in the public spaces of a house, and probably not near open flame), a pot bubbling over the fire (cooking didn’t happen in the house), a smattering of toy soldiers scattered playfully on the hearth (children didn’t have much in the way of toys, let alone toy soldiers).  The time, care, and effort that went into creating these rooms was immense, and it was the first time that the American public saw their history brought to life. While perhaps inaccurate by our measure today, the Colonial Revival created an intense interest in American history and is probably the main reason so many historical sites have survived.

Postcard 1

Postcards from the 1970s showing Kenmore’s kitchen and “Children’s Room” in all their early American splendor. Descriptions of the rooms on the reverse of the postcards capture the essence of the Colonial Revival spirit. (The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection, MS 1675 and MS 1684)

Postcard 1b   Postcard 2a

Postcard 2b

Events and programs at historic sites at the height of the Colonial Revival also reflected this emphasis on the colonial ideal.  Especially in the early 20th century, there was a strong belief that by exposing America’s youth to the style of colonial life, they would be instilled with the virtues — honesty, integrity, a strong work ethic and patriotic spirit — of the Founding Fathers.  As such, events at historic sites were often aimed at young adults, and often called upon the participants to role play the parts of historical figures. At Kenmore, for instance, Colonial-themed balls took place and theatrical presentations were held on the lawn.  Young soldiers headed to battle during the Second World War were entertained at Kenmore with ginger bread and tea, served by young ladies in colonial garb, and encouraged to “remember the Spirit of ’76, boys!”  At Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his childhood, a home for wayward boys was established on the property, specifically in the hopes that living on the site of Washington’s youth would cause the boys to reform their ways.

Peace Ball 1

Photos from a re-enactment of the Peace Ball, held in the Kenmore dining room in 1924. The participants are students from the Fredericksburg State Teacher’s College. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1713 and .1713-2 PBW)

Peace Ball 2

The ideas of the Colonial Revival even traveled from the museum into people’s homes.  It was during the heyday of the Colonial Revival that museums and home fashion crossed paths, perhaps for the first time in any significant way.  Thousands of antique pieces from museum collections all over the country were selected to be reproduced for re-sale to modern homeowners wanting to bring the colonial style into their lives.  Some of it was, shall we say, kitschy, while some of it was actually quite well done.  Colonial Williamsburg became a leader in this industry, making a concerted effort to educate their customers on the history of the pieces they were selling in their shops and through an extensive mail order business.  Even today, there are collectors who focus exclusively on finding pieces from the height of Colonial Williamsburg’s reproduction sales.

For the current Washington house reconstruction project at Ferry Farm, we find ourselves in a unique situation with regard to the Colonial Revival different from the one at Historic Kenmore.  We recently completed a 10-year long restoration and re-furnishing project at Kenmore that was intensely focused on historical accuracy as determined through a nearly-forensic investigation of the house and its documentation.  In essence, we have been trying to be less Revival and more colonial.  Ferry Farm’s Washington house recreation has been a similarly intense forensic project but, in this case, we are actually turning to the Colonial Revival for some assistance.  As you probably know, the Washington house will be fully furnished with reproduction pieces, allowing our visitors to sit on the chairs, open drawers and pick up the plates on the table.  However, finding accurate, well-made reproductions of pieces from the Washington-era is no small feat.

Because of the scope of the Colonial Revival in this country, there are in fact well-made reproductions to be found, and there are craftsman trained in colonial-era techniques who know how to make these reproductions.  Our Washington house furnishing project is the melding of intensive research into what the Washingtons really had in their house with the skills and products born out of a movement that ran counter to such research.  Rather than finding our furnishings in antiques showrooms and in the treasure-troves of dealers and auction houses, our sources are a little different.  In the coming weeks, we hope to share some of those interesting sources, from Hollywood production sets to hole-in-the-wall flea markets, and to give you some insight into how we find them.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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Building George’s House: Why Red? How We Picked the Paint

A few weeks ago at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, painters finished painting the exterior of the Washington house.  They used a red color known as “Spanish brown.” The paint is linseed oil-based and actually behaves more like a stain.  Modern oil-based paint can, in a way, be thought of as a plastic that laying atop the surface and coating the wood.  The historic pigment we used actually seeps into the wood itself and essentially stains the wood the deep red.

Washington House without Scaffolding

River-facing side of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

 

House Painting (8)

Falling snow against the new paint on the Washington house.

In the 18th century, the pigment came from clay mixed with red lead, an iron oxide. The paint was “made by grinding the earth into a very fine powered consistency that would then be added to the linseed oil and turpentine – the content of the dirt and the amount used ultimately determined the color” which could range from “burnt orange through reds and into browns.”

Why did we choose Spanish brown as the Washington house’s exterior paint?  Well, we have evidence, both documentary and archaeologically, that suggests the original Washington home was this very color.

First, our archaeologists recovered fragments of plaster with Spanish brown on them, which demonstrates the color was available and used at Ferry Farm.

Second, Mason Locke Weems wrote “The house in which he lived is still to be seen. It lifts its low and modest front of faded red, over the turbid waters of the Rappahannock.” (Page 11)  While Weems included myths about Washington, his biography was published in 1800 meaning the house could certainly have still been standing for either him to visit or for persons who had seen the house to describe it too him.  We know the house became a ruin just after 1830.

Finally, when paint analysis of colonial houses is done, Spanish brown is frequently encountered.  The color was extremely popular during the 1700s.  Here in Virginia paint analysis found it used at William Randolph’s Tuckahoe and in Williamsburg at Nathaniel Walthoe’s storehouse, Bruton Parish Church, and, most notably, the Peyton Randolph House.[1]

Peyton Randolph House

The Peyton Randolph House in Colonial Williamsburg. Credit: Wikipedia / Jrcla2

Spanish brown was also popular beyond Virginia.  It adorned the Palmer-Marsh House in North Carolina and Sotterley Plantation in Maryland.[2]  A survey of advertisements for Rhode Island paint shops between 1760 and 1819 found it offered “in nearly every ad.”

Palmer Marsh House

Palmer Marsh House in Bath, North Carolina. Credit: North Carolina Historic Sites

Spanish brown was “the ubiquitous color of colonial America” and “was cheap, probably the cheapest available – dirt cheap because it was dirt.”  Its inexpensiveness did not prevent it from being popular among the gentry class.  If possible, the Washingtons and their fellow gentry would have preferred homes of brick that symbolized “dominance, prosperity, and social status.” With this desire in mind, “red paint in its various shades can be seen as an attempt to give otherwise well-finished frame buildings the same aura of permanence that brickwork offered.”[3]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Susan Buck and Willie Graham, Chap. 15 “Paint” in The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg, ed. by Cary Carson and Carl R. Lounsbury, Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 364.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Photos: Building George’s House – Painting the Exterior

Painters recently finished painting the exterior of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.  The house was painted a red color common to the 18th century and known as “Spanish brown.”  The paint was linseed oil-based just as it would have been in the 1700s.  We’ll have a more detailed blog post in a few weeks explaining how we came to choose Spanish brown as the color to use.  In the meantime, here are a few photos of the painters working as well as of the finished job.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.