Thursday, December 24, 2015

Maintenance Plans and Report for Historic Homes and Businesses

Is your paint peeling or plaster cracked? We can help!

Is your Victorian-era storefront or Queen Anne home looking a little worse for the wear?  You can take some comfort because help is one the way! Historic Design Consulting is very happy to announce a new  service for owners of historic homes and businesses: Maintenance plans and reports.  As historic buildings age they present special challenges to their owners.  Exposure to the elements and years of wear and tear not only affect the appearance of a building but can also compromise its structural integrity.  While some deterioration is inevitable over time, decay can accelerate if a building does not undergo regular maintenance.  Deferred maintenance can lead to substantial problems while emergency repairs made during a crisis or critical failure can alter or irreparably damage  historic materials.   Inappropriate repairs and replacement are especially important in designated historic districts and down towns because the integrity of an historic buildings is an important factor its eligibility for many tax credits and grants. Furthermore, regular maintenance is far more cost effective than the replacement of deteriorated, historic features.  

Historic Design offers two maintenance services: Maintenance plans and maintenance reports.  Maintenance plans are comprehensive documents describing the upkeep of an entire building and include care recommendations, a maintenance schedule and step-by-step instructions showing you what to do, how to do it and when.  A maintenance report focuses on a particular issue with precise instructions.  Typical issues include:

  • Care of windows and doors
  • Repair of cracking plaster on walls and ceilings
  • Deteriorated or dirty finishes on mill work and molding  
  • Recommendations for interior and exterior painting
  • Care of masonry, bricks and stonework
  • Refinishing front doors
For more information about Historic Design's maintenance plans and reports, please visit our website and  If you have questions about a particular maintenance issue on your historic home or business, click on the "Contact Us" link to send us a message.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


Special Offer on Color Consults!

Just $249 for a limited time only.

$50 discount on all exterior paint consults

for the 2016 painting season.

Vintage 1890s advertisement  for
C.T. Raynolds Paint

The 2016 painting season will soon begin!  Historic Design Consulting is offering a special promotion for House Color Consults to kick off the 2016 painting season.  If you are planning to paint your Victorian-era home or business this Spring or Summer this is a special opportunity to save extra money while restoring your property using authentic Victorian colors. If you book your color consult before April 1st, 2016, Historic Design Consulting will complete a custom color report for a discounted price of only $249.00 ($50 discount from regular price of $299).  When many consultants charge fees of $400 or even more for a color consultation, a custom report for only $249 is a real value.   If the clock is already ticking and you need your custom report in a hurry, Historic Design offers expedited consults for a modest upcharge of only $50.  To get started, please visit the Historic Design Webpage and click on the Paint Colors button today.  

Historic Design Consulting specializes in assisting home and business owners select color schemes that will  reflect the customer's tastes and be appropriate for the style, age and setting of their historic properties. We use period paint swatches, brochures and advertising to develop authentic, period color schemes that complement your home or business's surroundings and accent its special features.  Our reports include a custom color palette, color maps and specially prepared photos that show how your home will look when all the work is done. 

We hope to hear from you soon!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Few More Recipes for the Victorian Home

In a previous post I transcribed a few helpful recipes for housekeeping and home maintenance found in a 19th century receipt book.  I promised that some more recipes were soon to follow and here they are!  These recipes and hints come from an older publication, Mrs. Winslow's Domestic Receipt Book, published in 1869 by Jeremiah Curtis & Sons and John I. Brown & Sons of New York, NY.

  To Remove Mortar or Paint from Window Glass:
Rub mortar spots with a stiff brush dipped in sharp, hot vinegar and paint-spots with camphene and sand.

To Purify a Sink or Drain:  Dissolve one-half pound copperas in two gallons of water.  Pour in half this liquid one day, and the other half the next day.

To Extract Oil and Grease Spots from Carpets:  If oil is spilled on a carpet, put on plenty of white flour, and do it as soon as possible, to prevent the oil spreading.  If the oil is near a seam, but does not reach it, rip the seam, in order to stop it.  Put flour on the floor under the oil spot.  The next day brush up all the flour from the carpet and the floor with a stiff brush, and repeat the putting on of fresh flour.  It will not need it the third time.  To take the grease spots rub them with a bit of white flannel dipped in spirits of turpentine.  If they show again, repeat the process.  It is well to put paper under the carpet, when grease spots are on the floor, as no scouring will remove them entirely.   

To Keep Steel Knives from Rust:  Have them rubbed bright, and perfectly dry; have a soft rag, and rub each blade with dry wood ashes.  Wrap them in thick brown paper, and place them in a dry closet.  If taken care of in this way, they may be kept years free from rust.  

And, for the hungry reader:

Tomato Catsup:  Slice the tomatoes, and sprinkle with salt.  Boil one hour, and strain through a course sieve.  For every gallon, slice two large onions, add one-half spoonful of ginger, two spoonful cloves, two spoonful allspice, one teaspoon black pepper.  Boil twenty minutes after these are added, and keep it in a covered jar.

Tripe Curry:  Boil two pounds of tripe and cut it into strips; peel two large onions and cut them into square pieces, and put the onions into a stew pan with three tablespoons butter. Let it stew till brown, stirring well and mixing a tablespoon curry powder.  Now add one pint of milk and cut up the tripe.  Let all stew for an hour, skimming it well.  Serve in a deep dish with boiled rice also to eat it with.  An East India curry powder is made thus: -- Pound very fine in a mortar six ounces of coriander seed, three-fourths of an ounce of cayenne, one and one-half ounces of foenugreek seed, one ounce cummium seed, and three ounces tumeric.  These articles can be bought at a druggists.  Pound fine, sift through fine muslin, spread on a dish and dry before the fire for three hours , stirring frequently.  Keep this in a bottle with a glass stopper.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Michigan House Detective

A recent book by Fred Peterson Homes in the Heartland describes the evolution of the balloon-frame farmhouse in the upper Midwest.  Peterson identifies one characteristic of many, first generation  farmhouses: an eclectic nature where they were built in stages with several additions.  

When immigrants settled in the Midwest one of their first priorities was shelter.  This might be a log cabin or a small, hastily built frame house.  As the family became established in their new home, earned some money and had more children, their original home no longer was sufficient.  Some abandoned their old log house and used it as a barn or shed.  Others built additions onto their simple home and added fashionable Greek Revival or Victorian ornament to display the family's growing prosperity.  Indeed, many Midwestern log cabins and first generation claim shacks survive to this day cocooned in siding and surrounded by later additions.

This presents us with many opportunities to play "house detective" and attempt to determine the history of a particular building.  Consider this example: A Greek Revival farmhouse built somewhere in Michigan.  Take a look at the photo below and try to be a house detective yourself.  How many additions do you see?  Which section is the oldest?  In what order were they built?   See what you can figure out and then continue reading to see if you agree with me

A ca. 1905 photograph showing a proud Michigan family and their Greek Revival farmhouse.
    I can identify three different sections: 1) the story-and-a-half, Greek Revival house on the right 2) A middle section with wide siding 3) The section to the left with narrow clapboard siding. 

Which section is the oldest?  It it impossible to say with absolute certainty, but I believe the section to the right is the oldest.  The Greek Revival was an early building style popular towards the middle of the 19th century, suggesting it was likely built first around the time of the Civil War.  The multi-paned, nine-over-six window glazing is characteristic of the style as are the the fancy gable returns and frieze boards.  This section likely had a hall-and-parlor layout with two rooms on the first floor with an entrance situated at the center of one of the sides.  

Nine-over-six window
Typically, the first addition to a simple farmhouse was a kitchen.   This is the middle section. I believe it is likely a kitchen due to the brick chimney built on the left wall.  Many Midwestern farmhouses are configured this way and are called an upright-and-wing or gable-and-wing. Some were built this way at the beginning while others, like this example, were built this way in stages.  

How do I know that the house wasn't built this way originally?  Because of the kitchen's wide siding. Although the builder added some Greek style molding along the eaves along with decorative posts on the wash porch, the wide siding suggests it was built at a different time.  Furthermore, since there is some wide siding on the story-and-a-half section, this suggests that original, narrow clapboards were removed when the kitchen addition was built.   When the new entrance door was added at the right corner they used the new kitchen siding on the older section of the house. The original, centrally located entrance door became the interior door leading to the kitchen addition.  Since the kitchen window is also a multi-paned, this time six-over-six, I suspect the kitchen was added fairly early in the house's history. 

This leaves us with the section to the left.  It is distinct from the kitchen addition due to the narrow, clapboard siding.  Although the builder again continued the band of molding across the front and added gable returns, the plain, one-over-one window glazing suggests this was a much later addition.  In fact, I suspect this addition was rather late since six-over-six sashes were long out of style and one-over-one sashes common in the 1880s or later.  Although it is possible that the window is a replacement of an original, the very simple casing around it suggests a later date.
One-over-one window sashes with
simple casing.
There are other ways to date additions, although they are difficult with photographs such as this.  Square nails were commonly used until 1880s when wire nails (also called French nails) became prevalent.  Another easy way is to look at the foundation.  Early foundations were often made out of rubble stone picked out of the fields.  By examining the type of stones, blocks, brick and mortar you can often identify the order in which additions were built.

So, how did I do?  Do you agree with me?  If not, post a comment and let me know!

The next time you are driving about in the country, look around and see if you can identify an early farmhouse.  Then try your hand at house detective and discover a bit of a family's history.  

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Ca. 1879 Prepared Paint Colors

Special Offer on Color Consults!

Just $249 for a limited time only.

$50 discount on all exterior paint consults

for the 2015 painting season.

Graphic from a ca. 1879 Van Duzer catalog. 
In a previous post I described the importance of the paint can in the history of house painting.  Rather than having to mix white lead, oil, pigments and driers in a bucket at the job site, painters and homeowners alike were able to buy cans of prepared and tinted paint. This not only made painting easier but it ensured the uniformity of color and quality.

This makes us wonder what colors of prepared paint were available.  A ca. 1879 catalog of the wholesaler S. R. Van Duzer  of New York City has a comprehensive list of colors which could be purchased in one gallon cans.  The list includes:

Inside White                                       Green Gray                                               

Outside White                                    Flesh Color
Yellow Stone                                      Light Brown
Free stone                                           Flaxen Gray
Stone Color                                        French Gray
Buff Color                                          Light Drab
Light Gray                                          Dark Drab
Lavender                                             Light Lead
Silver Gray                                          Dark Lead
Pearl Color                                          Fawn
Yellow Gray                                       French Ochre
Flaxen Yellow                                    Venetian Red 
Azure Blue                                         Brown
Pure Gray                                           Peach Color
Subdued Green                                   Vermillion
Red Gray                                            Chrome Yellow
Permanent Green                                Pea Green
Lilac                                                    Black
Light Blue                                           Dark Blue

This list of colors is actually quite large and varied.  It includes the natural stone, buff, gray and brown colors advocated by Andrew Jackson Downing and popular in 1840s through the 1860s.  It also has many of the greens, reds and other tertiary colors which were starting to becoming popular during the 1870s.   

Although it is nice to have a list of paint colors, the real trick is determining what each actually looked like.  We can do this by looking at contemporary paint recipes, sample paint chips, advertising and even artistic representations such as paintings.  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A few ideas for keeping your Victorian home tidy

During the last half of the 19th century popular literature often focused on proper housekeeping and home maintenance. Pamphlets, magazines, almanacs and advertising emphasized the necessity of maintaining a neat and clean home where the family could thrive in an orderly environment.  This sort of literature was particularly popular for rural families as it provided a link to trends in "scientific housekeeping" and household management current in large cities back East.

One example of this sort of literature is this 1890 receipt book distributed by the D. Ransom, Son & Co. of Buffalo, NY. These receipt books were a common sort of advertising that included both useful household recipes (the 19th century term for a recipe was receipt) as well as testimonials for the sponsor's products. The Ransom company produced a number of medicinal products, including the King of Blood, which they claimed cured cancers and tumors, and various "magnetic" balms and ointments for treating whooping cough, dysentery and bowel complaints. 

Although the medical advice found in this pamphlet is certainly quite suspect, there are a few recipes and tips that might interest someone studying Victorian architecture.    

Painting, Etc.

House painting.  This should be done early in winter or spring when it cold and no dust flying.  To mix paint for different coats: Outside, 1st, 2d and 3d coats, mix the lead to proper consistency with boiled oil, allowing time between to dry hard.  Inside: 1st coat coat, mix lead and paint in mixture one-half  boiled oil, one-half turpentine.  2d, one fourth oil, three fourths turpentine.  3d, mostly turpentine with a little oil to hold color.  No dryer required.  Inside paint must have light.

Best Painter's Size: Heat raw oil in a pan till it emits a black smoke; set it on fire and, after burning a few minutes, cover the pan over to put out the blaze; pour the oil while warm into a bottle in which some pulverized read lead and litharge have been introduced.  Stand the bottle in a warm place for two weeks, shaking often, It will then be ready to decant and bottle.

Black and Green Paint: - Durable and Cheap - Black - Grind powdered charcoal in linseed oil with sufficient litharge as dryer; thin for use with well-boiled linseed oil.  Green - Add yellow ochre to above and an excellent green is obtained, preferable to the bright green, for garden work, as it will not fade.

Red Wash for Bricks: To remove the green that gathers on bricks, pour over them boiling water in which any vegetables, not greasy, have been boiled.  Repeat for a few days, and green will disappear. For the red wash melt one ounce of glue in one gallon water, while hot add alum, size of egg, one-half pound Venetian red, one pound Spanish brown.  Try it; if too light, add more red and brown.  If too dark, water.  

Common Oil Varnish: Three pounds resin, one-half gallon drying oil, melt together and add, when removed from fire, two quarts warm oil of turpentine.

One of the challenging parts of reading these old receipts is the vocabulary.  Here are some definitions of a few words:

Litharge: Lead carbonate, also commonly called white lead.  Used in paint to make it opaque and works as a drier.

Alum:  Aluminum and potassium sulfate.  The same stuff we have in our spice cupboards today.

Size: Any substance such as glue used as a filler or glaze to help paint adhere to a surface.

Drier: A substance used to accelerate the hardening of oils used in paint.

Red Lead: A lead oxide used in paints intended for metal.  Also has some drying qualities when mixed in oil.  

Here are a couple of other recipes I found in the pamphlet that I thought you might find rather tasty or convenient for someone not feeling well:

Pickled Oysters: Scald the oysters in their own liquor, boil one pint of vinegar; season with salt and pepper; pour over the oysters.  Serve with celery.

Chicken Jelly: Half a raw chicken, pounded with a mallet, bones and meat together, plenty of cold water to cover it well, about a quart.  Heat slowly in a covered vessel, and let it simmer until the meat is white rags and the liquid reduced one-half.  Strain and press, first through a colander, then through coarse cloth.  Salt to taste, and pepper, if you think best;  return to the fire, and simmer five minutes longer.  Skim when cool. Give to the patient cold - just from the ice - with unleavened wafers. Keep on the ice.  You can make into sandwiches by putting the jelly between thin slices of bread spread lightly with butter.

For Lye Poisoning:  Give freely of oil or warm lard and white of egg, followed by warm water and mustard, or ipecac.

Check back again soon.  More recipes to follow!!!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Victorian Trades: The Carpenter, House Joiner and Cabinet Maker.

I enjoy doing demonstrations for local historical organizations and civic groups where I show people how furniture and millwork were made during the 1800s.  Visitors who watch my demonstrations usually use several different words to describe me, including carpenter, wood carver, wood worker or wood wright.  Since I never want to sound argumentative, I usually don’t correct them or suggest an alternative.  However, in the 19th century there were many specialized craftsmen working with wood who made particular things with their own special tools.  Each craftsman and craft had a name that identified them and their trade.

Three trades which were particularly important are carpenter, joiner and cabinet maker. Depending on the event and what I’m making, I usually describe myself as a cabinet maker or joiner.  I’m never a carpenter.  So, what is the difference?

The Carpenter:  In his 1837 book The panorama of professions and trades Edward Hazen wrote: 

“It is the business of the carpenter to cut out and frame large pieces of timber, and then join them together, or fit them to brick or stone walls, to constitute them the outlines or skeleton of buildings or parts of buildings.”

In short, a carpenter builds buildings.  He frames the walls and roof using heavy timbers and mortise and tenon joints or dimensioned lumber and nails.  He shingles, builds scaffolds and trusses and sheaths the frame.  He works on the jobsite using heavy tools such as large augers, saws, wooden sledges and chisels.    In Hazen's time this did mean timber framing, but later in the century this could have meant balloon framing or platform framing too. 

A crew of carpenters building a barn about 1895 using the timber
framing technique.  Note the heavy, sawn timbers.
Three men and a helper around 1910.  They have been framing a house using
dimensioned lumber and nails.  By this date they are likely using platform framing rather than balloon framing. 
 The House Joiner:  Hazen wrote:

“The joiner executes the more minute parts of the wood-work of edifices, comprehending, among many things, the floors, window-frames, sashes, doors, mantles &c.”

It was the joiner who made all the special, wooden bits built into a building.  He made the decorative molding, window sash and trim, doors and casing, mantelpieces, built-ins such as shelves and cabinets and all sorts of ornament like corbels and crests.  He worked at a bench either on the jobsite or in a shop using smaller tools like molding planes and carving gouges. Unlike the carpenter, the house joiner was also skilled at finishing his work with stains and varnish.  

An engraving from A panorama of professions and trades by Edward Hazen (Philadelphia, 1837).  Although purporting to show carpenters, this looks to be three house joiners working in their shop. 
There was overlap between the carpenter and house joiner as some of their work was quite similar.  Indeed, many men did both jobs.  

Hazen noted that: 

"Carpentry and joinery, however, are so clearly allied to each other, that they are commonly practised by the same individual."

There were more opportunities for tradesmen to specialize in house joinery and develop their skills to the highest degree in larger cities with many high-style homes. Furthermore, the trades were regulated according to English guild traditions in large cities like Philadelphia or Boston during the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. These inherited guild regulations required specialization and adhering to one's practiced trade, meaning joiners joined, carvers carved, turners turned (that is. used a lathe to make spindles) and carpenters built buildings.  Later, as the demand for buildings grew and the country was flooded by trained immigrants, many of these regulations were ignored and tradesman worked wherever doing whatever they could to earn a living. 

The Cabinet Maker:  Hazen tell us:

"It is the business of the cabinet-maker to manufacture particular kinds of household furniture, such as tables, stands, bureaus, sideboards, desks, bookcases, sofas, bedsteads, &c., as well as a certain description of chairs made of mahogany and maple.  Many of the operations of this business are similar to those of the carpenter and joiner, although they require to be conducted with greater nicety and exactness."

The cabinet maker makes furniture (sometimes called movables, or things that can be moved from room to room or house to house).  The cabinet maker works at a bench in a shop and makes the finest work using smaller saws, chisels and gouges, moulding planes and other special tools.  He often finishes and sometimes upholsters his work,  although in larger cities these operations were frequently done by other tradesmen specializing in these crafts.  

Three cabinet makers working in their shop.  Note the figured veneer
on the wardrobe's doors.  The man standing next to the wardrobe appears
 to be polishing the finish with sharkskin or glasspaper.  
Although the distinctions between these trades might seem clear, it can be a bit muddled depending upon when we are speaking.  During the settlement period in North America there weren't cabinet makers, but only joiners.  During the 1600s furniture was simpler and made using mortise and tenon joints. The joiner was the craftsman who made things using these basic techniques.  To see the work of a modern-day joiner working at the Plimoth Plantation historic site using these ancient methods, take a look at Peter Follansbee's blog.

During the 18th century craftsmen began making stylish furniture using exotic woods such as mahogany, rosewood and satinwood along with figured veneers.  They also began building casework (or furniture such as sideboards made from various box-like components ) using new joinery techniques such as dovetails. This distinguished the work of the new cabinet maker from the common joiner. In fact, the French work for cabinet maker is  ébéniste, or a worker making high-style furniture using exotic ebony. 

Thereafter, the craftsman who made basic furniture and other pieces from pine and common wood species was called a joiner, the craftsman who made decorative pieces for buildings as well as doors and windows was called the house joiner, and the elite craftsman who made high-style furniture from mahogany and veneer was the cabinet maker.  These distinctions were somewhat blurred in the United States (especially for the common joiner) where the absence of a strict guild system prevented craftsmen from protecting their distinct trades from encroachment of other wood workers. However, these distinctions are illustrative of some of the different types of wood workers and how their trades were practiced in the 19th century.