Monday, June 24, 2013

Period Book: Successful Houses (1902)

On my continuing quest to find good early 1900s sources for furnishing middle class bungalows, I ran across Successful Houses by Oliver Coleman. This is another opinionated, and vastly entertaining book dating from 1902. It can be downloaded for free from Internet Archive here. And while it does mostly seem to give at least equal treatment to painted Victorian-type decor, it does still have some fun and useful bits for us craftsman style enthusiasts.

Once I read the beginning of the Introduction, I knew I wanted to continue reading:

"There are comparatively few people at one time or another do not have to face the problem of household furniture and decoration, and who do not as such times experience a sensation of comparative helplessness. To assist them there have been published two classes of books only, one in which the information is of the most shocking character, utterly devoid of taste, judgment or good sense; the other in which the laws are of a learned and technical character, but difficult by private persons in their own homes. Many of the latter class of publications are great authority, and could their intent be thoroughly absorbed would lead to radical improvements in the popular idea of household decoration; but unfortunately, besides the ponderous text, the illustrations are usually chosen from views of palaces and other great houses, and convey no suggestions to the discouraged housewife with a few hundred dollars to expend at most." (emphasis added)

This book is a little difficult to pull the relevant parts down into a reasonable size blog post. There are literally so many hilarious comments about their current practices that I'm tempted to over-quote the book because the humor would be lost in a summary, but, I obviously cannot do that. I can include some of my favorite quotes and recommend this book to those of you who get a kick out of decorating books like this. It's really too bad modern books aren't written in this style anymore. They're all written so as not to offend anyone so they seem so bland and uninteresting.

For instance, when talking about art, he says, "The need of [pictures] is never half as great as most of us suppose and here, they never should be hung simply to fill walls, regardless of their worth. What weak, insipid things, what base and ill-made copies, what plate-worn etchings and process colored plates are here often flaunted in the face of every stranger who may enter, and on the very threshold cry out to him how little taste and judgment there is within the house!"

And later he adds: "ornaments for the sake of ornament should find no place. The vases should be of a character to hold flowers, the candlesticks to give light and the fireplace to hold a fire." You should design and furnish your drawing room to put guests at ease, not to "astonish with a lavish display."

His book seemed to have the opinion that paint was the poor man's solution to decorating, "Those who have but little wealth should as a last resort turn . . . to paint." "It is painted furniture to which I would now refer as the third class of possibilities. One may often by diligent search among the marts of commerce discover chairs and tables and even sideboards of simple, good design. These pieces when so found are usually lacquered over with some species of yellow shellac and varnish which makes them unfit for any ornamental purpose. But paint will cover all."

Then there follow quite a few chapters on general decorating schemes. Mr. Coleman gives quite a lot of advice about finishing in colors, papers, and fabrics; advice for finishing the cheaper woods; artificial illumination and finishing with small ornaments. There are really too many suggestions to be copied here; if you're interested, go download the book and read it. But here I share a few of my favorite parts:

". . . in the treatment of walls and ceilings lies much of the success or failure in the outcome of a room. If it be warm and bright, the room will surely be so also; while if, upon the other hand, the coloring be in neutral tints, afraid to say its say, the room will have a dingy, faded look, which nothing in the furniture can recompense. . . I would have color in every room, bright, strong, cheering color, that should make sunshine on the darkest day, warmth on the coldest, and cheer on the saddest."

"The excellence of wooden walls and ceilings cannot be overstate. They have a solidity and dignity which otherwise came with the use of stone only, yet have much more of the qualities of home. Finished in natural colors, if the quality allows, age and the passing years can only add new beauties and bring out new charms."

"The bric-à-brac must be subservient to the general decorative scheme of the house, and must not fasten itself in every corner and on every wall until the house shall look like a curiosity shop or an auction room."

There is a chapter on using portieres, which I quoted in its entirety in  this blog post.
And there is a chapter on using soft woods, which were a cheaper option for most folks. (Our house is finished in a soft wood, douglas fir.) "The simplest way to finish stained wood is to cover the stain with one or two coats of raw linseed oil; while the best way is to give it three coats of thin-spirit white shellac, and rub with pumice-stone and oil to give it a dead, even finish."

I think many of his ideas are still valid today, though obviously only one opinion among many different opinions of his time.
Living room
Mahogany dining room
Library - I find it interesting that none of the chairs match


  1. Certainly a more elegant style of living, more like my grandparents' house than my parents'. That is odd that he emphasizes elegance so much but has mismatched chairs. But they do seem to blend together.

  2. Those photos look dark and dreary and not at all inviting places.

    1. I agree, the black & white photos in this book were not the best. I suspect there was some darkening with age of the image and they probably weren't not all that light to begin with. Craftsman homes tended to be more dim than other styles of house interiors and the old camera technology didn't always do a good job capturing their beauty.

  3. Thank you for sharing these pics. I really like the one that has the privacy curtains between the wood threashold. I have seen similar configurations from back in the day. Often times the curtain was green. Awesome!!