The Colonial Revival Home: A Short Overview

by Sarah E. Mitchell

The Beginnings

The Colonial Revival in the United States really began around the 1870's, when the United States celebrated its First Centennial. For quite a few years, however, the Colonial themes would be married to Victorian fussiness. In the early days, "Colonial" house plans and interior designs often were primarily Victorian in form, with a few bits of trim or pieces of furniture meant to remind one of the Colonial. (Some call these early architectural attempts Neo-Colonial.)

As the Victorian period closed, people were ready for a change from the prevailing styles, which had often become complicated and overburdened both inside and out.

Documenting History

By the early 1900's, printing techniques allowed the affordable publication of photographs of the interiors (and exteriors) of actual Colonial Homes, and historians, such as Edith Tunis Sale, Frances Clary Morse, Chas. Edw. Hooper, Elise Lathrop, Wallace Nutting, and others, began to research and write about Colonial furniture, Colonial interiors, and Colonial life. The publication of these books led to a more realistic understanding of the Colonial period, though some of the Colonial homes featured in books had undergone changes that Victorianized them -- for instance, Kenmore had acquired Gothic arches in its drawing room (I believe the arches have now been removed).

Also in the early 1900's, the Metropolitan Museum of Art began acquiring whole rooms and other artifacts from Colonial homes, moving them to New York City, and showing the rooms in the museum (for example, portions of Marmion, circa 1720, were moved from Virginia). Those who could not visit could acquire a book on the exhibits.

The 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington in 1932 also drew attention to the Colonial period; Colonial Gardens; The Landscape Architecture of George Washington's Time was prepared by the American Society of Landscape Architects and published by the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission in honor of the event, and, at least in Virginia, schools were encouraged to celebrate the birth.

The Library of Congress launched its' Historic American Buildings Survey in 1933; the HABS program would document many Colonial homes. During the Great Depression, many states had WPA writer's programs; some writers were assigned to document and photograph historic homes and buildings in their localities.

Colonial Homes become a Vacation Destination

Travel became easier in the early 20th century, and pilgrimages to historic homes became more common. Visitors could visit Mount Vernon, Monticello, and, eventually, Colonial Williamsburg (as well as many other historic homes and places) to be educated and entertained. These visits could foster an appreciation for Colonial homes in the visitor's own communities, as well as a desire to decorate their homes in a Colonial manner (Colonial Williamsburg introduced their own lines of furniture, dinnerware, and household goods; and other musuems have similar commercial enterprises).

Restoring the Old

Some people became interested in restoring Colonial homes in their communities. In 1913, Charles Edward Hooper wrote Reclaiming the Old House. The book focused on evaluating whether a Colonial home was worth saving, how to restore the house if it was possible, and how to sensitively add additions.

Another fad was to take Victorian homes and buildings and put Colonial or Federal-style porches or porticoes on the front.

Of course, much of the United States had no examples of Colonial architecture -- which brings us to "building new to look like old."

Building Recreations

In 1903, Harry Desmond and Herbert Croly would write in Stately Homes in America: "[The Colonial] remains . . . one of the best sources from which to derive the forms of a modest and inexpensive modern dwelling, for its designs are simple, its materials cheap, and the character of its expression adapted to the houses of quiet people of good taste. . . . ." In the following years, the market would be flooded with design books that contained Colonial-inspired house plans: Colonial bungalows, Dutch Colonial Revival houses with Gambrel roofs, Foursquare homes with Colonial touches, Colonial Revival homes for town, city, or country. The interiors of the homes were expected to conform to some extent with the exterior of the houses.

Part of the appeal, as Croly and Desmond stated, was that Colonial Revival designs were simple and cheap. Less expensive homes meant that more Americans could fulfill the "American Dream" of home ownership.

Another factor may have been a desire to celebrate America's history. In a world that was facing wars around the globe, people may have wanted to emphasize their uniquely American heritage, rather than borrowing so much from European models.

Decorating the Colonial Revival Home

In 1924, an article entitled The Charming Dutch Colonial Type suggested: "[I]n the Colonial home, old-fashioned furniture will give a charming atmosphere. Large four-poster beds, higher than the usual bed, fresh dotted Swiss curtains, brightly colored rag rugs, either round or oval shape, will go far towards fitting up an ideal but simple bedroom. Small legged tables or chairs, a little desk, painted or lacquered, may be placed in odd corners of a room of Colonial type, to brighten it up perceptibly. Every piece of furniture which is brought for the house should be appropriate, not only in being Colonial, but also by being well proprotioned to the size of each room. Many homes are utterly ruined, when furnished improperly. If the owner would bear in mind that a good idea is to try to make the furnishings eclipse the architecture and even the grounds, he would never fail in having a beautiful and picturesque dwelling. Simplicity, but good judgment is the keynote." More elaborate Colonial Revival homes could feature brocade curtains and fancier styles of furniture.

Wallpaper designs used varied from large "picture" papers to small floral patterns. Plain plaster walls or painted plaster walls were other options for wall treatments. Portraits, silhouettes, and old-fashioned looking prints were all favored to enhance the walls of the home.

Furnishing the Colonial Revival Home

Many people became dedicated antique hunters, though not all "antiques" were as old as purported. (Charles Edward Hooper humorously commented in 1913, "There is enough of household furniture and utensils purported to have come over in the Mayflower, to have sunk several modern navies, while they who have pinned their ancestry to this little band would make it imperative to have adopted all the foundlings in England in bearing out such facts.") But since it would be very hard to furnish entirely with antiques, reproductions became very popular, as well. Sheraton, Hepplewhite, and Chippendale pieces (styles all common in the Colonial era) were commonly used in the Colonial Revival home. Four-poster beds with canopies and the Windsor chair were immensely popular pieces of furniture for the Colonial Revival home.

Gustav Stickley, though primarily known for his Mission and Arts & Crafts pieces, offered a few Colonial and Chinese Chippendale pieces for sale in the early 1900's. In the 1930's, the Century Furniture Company sold furniture that was described as Georgian, Colonial, Federal, and American Empire, as well as Sheraton, Hepplewhite, Chippendale, etc. Also in the 1930's, Wallace Nutting sold an extensive line of Colonial pieces. My own grandmother favored pieces from the Craftique line of reproductions.


"A Colonial [Revival] home might just as well lack a kitchen as a garden," stated the 1924 The Charming Dutch Colonial Type article (already cited). Colonial Revival gardens were often formal and precisely laid out. Boxwood, privet hedges, and other shrubs were used to border the garden and the various plots in the garden. Flower gardens could contain irises, tulips, roses, and many other varieties.

Kitchen herb gardens, vegetable gardens, and orchards were practical additions to the garden.

Garden structures used included pergolas (immensely popular 1900-1930) and small arbors. Sundials were encouraged, but some felt that fountains were out of place in a Colonial Revival garden.

Illustrations of Colonial Revival Interiors

1900 Colonial Revival Bedroom

Colonial Revival circa 1900.

This room was depicted in as being Colonial, but it has glaring errors. The small table beside the bed is actually American Empire in style, and is probably from 1820 or later. Unless the occupant was ill or bedridden, it would be unlikely to find dishes in a Colonial bedroom. The silhouettes could be appropriate, but the grouping may be a Victorian invention.

1913 Colonial Revival Bedroom

Colonial Revival Bedroom 1913.

This room still has some Victorian touches, but is moving toward later interpretations of the Colonial Revival. A Windsor-style chair is seen at the left.

1924 Colonial Revival Room

Colonial Revival Room 1924.

Note how very, very different this room is from the earlier interpretations. The room is much plainer, and a Windsor chair gets central billing. The colors and rugs are still not necessarily accurate to the actual Colonial period.

Illustrations: Top photograph from Chandler R. Clifford, Period Decoration,Clifford & Lawton, New York, 1901. Digital editing by David L. Mitchell and Sarah E. Mitchell. Second photograph from Charles Edward Hooper, Reclaiming The Old House: Its Modern Problems and Their Solutions as Governed by The Methods of Its Builders, McBride, Nast & Company, New York, 1913. Digital editing by Sarah E. Mitchell. Third illustation from The Home: 1924, a supplement to Woman's Weekly, Magazine Circulation Company, Inc. Digital editing by Sarah E. Mitchell.

Resources used: Charles Edward Hooper, Reclaiming The Old House: Its Modern Problems and Their Solutions as Governed by The Methods of Its Builders, McBride, Nast & Company, New York, 1913; The Home: 1924, a supplement to Woman's Weekly, Magazine Circulation Company, Inc., in particular the The Charming Dutch Colonial Type article contained therein; Harry W. Desmond and Herbert Croly, Stately Homes in America: From Colonial Times to the Present Day, D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1903; various furniture catalogs of the time; etc.

Note: I have not discussed Spanish Colonial Revival design, which is a different genre.

Copyright © 2004 Sarah E. Mitchell