The Graduate Center - City University of New York

Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Chapter Six: Home Decoration," The American Woman’s Home; Or, Principles of Domestic Science (1869)

The rise of a northern middle class brought with it new ideals of family life and gender roles. While men worked outside the home, women were to preside over the domestic sphere, not only by performing household labor but also by setting a moral example for children and creating a haven that was protected from the outside world. The aesthetics of home decoration was seen as part of a family’s intellectual and moral development. The American Woman’s Home; Or, Principles of Domestic Science, by sisters Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe was dedicated to “the women of America, in whose hands rest the real destinies of the Republic.” Expanded and reprinted after its first publication in 1841, the book instructed young women on their proper role in the middle-class home. Its lessons about Domestic Science ranged from the correct way to raise children to the appropriate type of picture to hang in the parlor.

Creator: Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe

Date: 1869

Publisher: The American Woman’s Home; Or, Principles of Domestic Science; Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes (New York: J. B. Ford)

Source: American Social History Project

Having duly arranged for the physical necessities of a healthful and comfortable home, we next approach the important subject of _beauty_ in reference to the decoration of houses. For while the aesthetic element must be subordinate to the requirements of physical existence, and, as a matter of expense, should be held of inferior consequence to means of higher moral growth; it yet holds a place of great significance among the influences which make home happy and attractive, which give it a constant and wholesome power over the young, and contributes much to the education of the entire household in refinement, intellectual development, and moral sensibility.

Here we are met by those who tell us that of course they want their houses handsome, and that, when they get money enough, they intend to have them so, but at present they are too poor, and because they are poor they dismiss the subject altogether, and live without any regard to it.

We have often seen people who said that they could not afford to make their houses beautiful, who had spent upon them, outside or in, an amount of money which did not produce either beauty or comfort, and which, if judiciously applied, might have made the house quite charming.

For example, a man, in building his house, takes a plan of an architect. This plan includes, on the outside, a number of what Andrew Fairservice called "curlywurlies" and "whigmaliries," which make the house neither prettier nor more comfortable, and which take up a good deal of money. We would venture to say that we could buy the chromo of Bierstadt's "Sunset in the Yosemite Valley," and four others like it, for half the sum that we have sometimes seen laid out on a very ugly, narrow, awkward porch on the outside of a house. The only use of this porch was to cost money, and to cause every body who looked at it to exclaim asthey went by, "What ever induced that man to put a thing like that on the outside of his house?"

Then, again, in the inside of houses, we have seen a dwelling looking very bald and bare, when a sufficient sum of money had been expended on one article to have made the whole very pretty: and it has come about in this way.

We will suppose the couple who own the house to be in the condition in which people generally are after they have built a house--having spent more than they could afford on the building itself, and yet feeling themselves under the necessity of getting some furniture. "Now," says the housewife, "I must at least have a parlor-carpet. We must get that to begin with, and other things as we go on." She goes to a store to look at carpets. The clerks are smiling and obliging, and sweetly complacent. The storekeeper, perhaps, is a neighbor or a friend, and after exhibiting various patterns, he tells her of a Brussels carpet he is selling wonderfully cheap--actually a dollar and a quarter less a yard than the usual price of Brussels, and the reason is that it is an unfashionable pattern, and he has a good deal of it, and wishes to close it off.

She looks at it and thinks it is not at all the kind of carpet she meant to buy, but then it is Brussels, and so cheap! And as she hesitates, her friend tells her that she will find it "cheapest in the end--that one Brussels carpet will outlast three or four ingrains," etc., etc.

The result of all this is, that she buys the Brussels carpet, which, with all its reduction in price, is one third dearer than the ingrain would have been, and not half so pretty. When she comes home, she will find that she has spent, we will say eighty dollars, for a very homely carpet whose greatest merit it is an affliction to remember--namely, that it will outlast three ordinary carpets. And because she has bought this carpet she can not afford to paper the walls or put up any window-curtains, and can not even begin to think of buying any pictures.

Now let us see what eighty dollars could have done for that room. We will suppose, in the first place, she invests in thirteen rolls of wall-paper of a lovely shade of buff, which will make the room look sunshiny in the day-time, and light up brilliantly in the evening. Thirteen rolls of good satin paper, at thirty-seven cents a roll, expends four dollars and eighty-one cents. A maroon bordering, made in imitation of the choicest French style, which can not at a distance be told from it, can be bought for six cents a yard. This will bring the paper to about five dollars and a half; and our friends will give a day of their time to putting it on. The room already begins to look furnished.

Then, let us cover the floor with, say, thirty yards of good matting, at fifty cents a yard. This gives us a carpet for fifteen dollars. We are here stopped by the prejudice that matting is not good economy, because it wears out so soon. We humbly submit that it is precisely the thing for a parlor, which is reserved for the reception-room of friends, and for our own dressed leisure hours. Matting is not good economy in a dining-room or a hard-worn sitting-room; but such a parlor as we are describing is precisely the place where it answers to the very best advantage.

We have in mind one very attractive parlor which has been, both for summer and winter, the daily sitting-room for the leisure hours of a husband and wife, and family of children, where a plain straw matting has done service for seven years. That parlor is in a city, and these friends are in the habit of receiving visits from people who live upon velvet and Brussels; but they prefer to spend the money which such carpets would cost on other modes of embellishment; and this parlor has often been cited to us as a very attractive room.

And now our friends, having got thus far, are requested to select some one tint or color which shall be the prevailing one in the furniture of the room. Shall it be green? Shall it be blue? Shall it be crimson? To carry on our illustration, we will choose green, and we proceed with it to create furniture for our room. Let us imagine that on one side of the fireplace there be, as there is often, a recess about six feet long and three feet deep. Fill this recess with a rough frame with four stout legs, one foot high, and upon the top of the frame have an elastic rack of slats. Make a mattress for this, or, if you wish to avoid that trouble, you can get a nice mattress for the sum of two dollars, made of cane-shavings or husks. Cover this with a green English furniture print. The glazed English comes at about twenty-five cents a yard, the glazed French at seventy-five cents a yard, and a nice article of yard-wide French twill (very strong) is from seventy-five to eighty cents a yard.

With any of these cover your lounge. Make two large, square pillows of the same substance as the mattress, and set up at the back. If you happen to have one or two feather pillows that you can spare for the purpose, shake them down into a square shape and cover them with the same print, and you will then have for pillows for your lounge--one at each end, and two at the back, and you will find it answers for all the purposes of a sofa.

[Illustration: Fig. 38.]

It will be a very pretty thing, now, to cut out of the same material as your lounge, sets of lambrequins (or, as they are called, _lamberkins_,) a land of pendent curtain-top, as shown in the illustration, to put over the windows, which are to be embellished with white muslin curtains. The cornices to your windows can be simply strips of wood covered with paper to match the bordering of your room, and the lambrequins, made of chintz like the lounge, can be trimmed with fringe or gimp of the same color. The patterns of these can be varied according to fancy, but simple designs are usually the prettiest.

A tassel at the lowest point improves the appearance. The curtains can be made of plain white muslin, or some of the many styles that come for this purpose. If plain muslin is used, you can ornament them with hems an inch in width, in which insert a strip of gingham or chambray of the same color as your chintz. This will wash with the curtains without losing its color, or should it fade, it can easily be drawn out and replaced.

The influence of white-muslin curtains in giving an air of grace and elegance to a room is astonishing. White curtains really create a room out of nothing. No matter how coarse the muslin, so it be white and hang in graceful folds, there is a charm in it that supplies the want of multitudes of other things. Very pretty curtain-muslin can be bought at thirty-seven cents a yard.

It requires six yards for a window. Let your men-folk knock up for you, out of rough, unplaned boards, some ottoman frames, as described in Chapter II; stuff the tops with just the same material as the lounge, and cover them with the self-same chintz.

[Illustration: Fig. 39.]

Now you have, suppose your selected color to be green, a green lounge in the corner and two green ottomans; you have white muslin curtains, with green lambrequins and borders, and your room already looks furnished. If you have in the house any broken-down arm-chair, reposing in the oblivion of the garret, draw it out--drive a nail here and there to hold it firm--stuff and pad, and stitch the padding through with a long upholsterer's needle, and cover it with the chintz like your other furniture. Presto--you create an easy-chair.

Thus can broken and disgraced furniture reappear, and, being put into uniform with the general suit of your room, take a new lease of life.

If you want a centre-table, consider this--that any kind of table, well concealed beneath the folds of _handsome drapery of a color corresponding to the general hue of the room,_ will look well. Instead of going to the cabinet-maker and paying from thirty to forty dollars upon a little, narrow, cold, marble-topped stand, that gives just room enough to hold a lamp and a book or two, reflect within yourself what a centre-table is made for. If you have in your house a good, broad, generous-topped table, take it, cover it with an ample cloth of green broadcloth. Such a cover, two and a half yards square, of fine green broadcloth, figured with black and with a pattern-border of grape-leaves, has been bought for ten dollars. In a room we wot of, it covers a cheap pine table, such as you may buy for four or five dollars any day; but you will be astonished to see how handsome an object this table makes under its green drapery. Probably you could make the cover more cheaply by getting the cloth and trimming its edge with a handsome border, selected for the purpose; but either way, it will be an economical and useful ornament. We set down our centre-table, therefore, as consisting mainly of a nice broadcloth cover, matching our curtains and lounge.

We are sure that any one with "a heart that is humble" may command such a centre-table and cloth for fifteen dollars or less, and a family of five or six may all sit and work, or read, or write around it, and it is capable of entertaining a generous allowance of books and knick-knacks.

You have now for your parlor the following figures:


Wall-paper and border,.................................... $5.50

Thirty yards matting,..................................... 15.00

Centre-table and cloth,................................... 15.00

Muslin for three windows,.................................. 6.75

Thirty yards green English chintz, at 25 cents,............ 7.50

Six chairs, at $2 each,................................... 12.00



Subtracted from eighty dollars, which we set down as the price of the cheap, ugly Brussels carpet, we have our whole room papered, carpeted, curtained, and furnished, and we have nearly twenty dollars remaining for pictures.

As a little suggestion in regard to the selection, you can got Miss Oakley's charming little cabinet picture of


"The Little Scrap-Book Maker" for........................ $7 50

Eastman Johnson's "Barefoot Boy,"................. (Prang) 5 00

Newman's "Blue-fringed Gentians,"..................(Prang) 6 00

Bierstadt's "Sunset in the Yo Semite Valley,"......(Prang)12 00


Here are thirty dollars' worth of really admirable pictures of some of our best American artists, from which you can choose at your leisure. By sending to any leading picture-dealer, lists of pictures and prices will be forwarded to you. These chromos, being all varnished, can wait for frames until you can afford them. Or, what is better, because it is at once cheaper and a means of educating the ingenuity and the taste, you can make for yourselves pretty rustic frames in various modes. Take a very thin board, of the right size and shape, for the foundation or "mat;" saw out the inner oval or rectangular form to suit the picture. Nail on the edge a rustic frame made of branches of hard, seasoned wood, and garnish the corners with some pretty device; such, for instance, as a cluster of acorns; or, in place of the branches of trees, fasten on with glue small pine cones, with larger ones for corner ornaments. Or use the mosses of the wood or ocean shells for this purpose. It may be more convenient to get the mat or inner moulding from a framer, or have it made by your carpenter, with a groove behind to hold a glass. Here are also picture-frames of pretty effect, and very simply made. The one in Fig. 42 is made of either light or dark wood, neat, thin, and not very wide, with the ends simply broken, off, or cut so as to resoluble a rough break. The other is white pine, sawn into simple form, well smoothed, and marked with a delicate black tracery, as suggested in Fig. 43. This should also be varnished, then it will take a rich, yellow tinge, which harmonizes admirably with chromos, and lightens up engravings to singular advantage. Besides the American and the higher range of German and English chromos, there are very many pretty little French chromos, which can be had at prices from $1 to $5, including black walnut frames.

[Illustration: Fig. 40] [Illustration: Fig. 41] [Illustration: Fig. 42] [Illustration: Fig. 43]

We have been through this calculation merely to show our readers how much beautiful effect may be produced by a wise disposition of color and skill in arrangement. If any of our friends should ever carry it out, they will find that the buff paper, with its dark, narrow border; the green chintz repeated in the lounge, the ottomans, and lambrequins; the flowing, white curtains; the broad, generous centre-table, draped with its ample green cloth, will, when arranged together, produce an effect of grace and beauty far beyond what any one piece or even half a dozen pieces of expensive cabinet furniture could. The great, simple principle of beauty illustrated in this room is _harmony of color_.

You can, in the same way, make a red room by using Turkey red for your draperies; or a blue room by using blue chintz. Let your chintz be of a small pattern, and one that is decided in color.

We have given the plan of a room with matting on the floor because that is absolutely the cheapest cover. The price of thirty yards plain, good ingrain carpet, at $1.50 per yard, would be forty-five dollars; the difference between forty-five and fifteen dollars would _furnish_ a room with pictures such as we have instanced. However, the same programme can be even better carried out with a green ingrain carpet as the foundation of the color of the room.

Our friends, who lived seven years upon matting, contrived to give their parlor in winter an effect of warmth and color by laying down, in front of the fire, a large square of carpeting, say three breadths, four yards long. This covered the gathering-place around the fire where the winter circle generally sits, and gave an appearance of warmth to the room.

If we add this piece of carpeting to the estimates for our room, we still leave a margin for a picture, and make the programme equally adapted to summer and winter.

Besides the chromos, which, when well selected and of the best class, give the charm of color which belongs to expensive paintings, there are engravings which finely reproduce much of the real spirit and beauty of the celebrated pictures of the world. And even this does not exhaust the resources of economical art; for there are few of the renowned statues, whether of antiquity or of modern times, that have not been accurately copied in plaster casts; and a few statuettes, costing perhaps five or six dollars each, will give a really elegant finish to your rooms-providing always that they are selected with discrimination and taste.

The educating influence of these works of art can hardly be over- estimated. Surrounded by such suggestions of the beautiful, and such reminders of history and art, children are constantly trained to correctness of tote and refinement of thought, and stimulated--sometimes to efforts at artistic imitation, always to the eager and intelligent inquiry about the scenes, the places, the incidents represented. Just here, perhaps, we are met by some who grant all that we say on the subject of decoration by works of art, and who yet impatiently exclaim, "But I have _no_ money to spare for any thing of this sort. I am condemned to an absolute bareness, and beauty in my case is not to be thought of."

Are you sure, my friend? If you live in the country, or can get into the country, and have your eyes opened and your wits about you, your house need not be condemned to an absolute bareness. Not so long as the woods are full of beautiful ferns and mosses, while every swamp shakes and nods with tremulous grasses, need you feel yourself an utterly disinherited child of nature, and deprived of its artistic use.

For example: Take an old tin pan condemned to the retired list by reason of holes in the bottom, get twenty-five cents' worth of green paint for this and other purposes, and paint it. The holes in the bottom are a recommendation for its new service. If there are no holes, you must drill two or three, as drainage is essential. Now put a layer one inch deep of broken charcoal and potsherds over the bottom, and then soil, in the following proportions:

Two fourths wood-soil, such as you find in forests, under trees. One fourth clean sand.

One fourth meadow-soil, taken from under fresh turf. Mix with this some charcoal dust.

In this soil plant all sorts of ferns, together with some few swamp-grasses; and around the edge put a border of money-plant or periwinkle to hang over. This will need to be watered once or twice a week, and it will grow and thrive all summer long in a corner of your room. Should you prefer, you can suspend it by wires and make a hanging-basket.--Ferns and wood-grasses need not have sunshine--they grow well in shadowy places.

On this same principle you can convert a salt-box or an old drum of figs into a hanging-basket. Tack bark and pine-cones and moss upon the outside of it, drill holes and pass wires through it, and you have a woodland hanging-basket, which will hang and grow in any corner of your house.

We have been into rooms which, by the simple disposition of articles of this kind, have been made to have an air so poetical and attractive that they seemed more like a nymph's cave than any thing in the real world.

[Illustration: Fig. 44.]

Another mode of disposing of ferns is this: Take a flat piece of board sawed out something like a shield, with a hole at the top for hanging it up. Upon the board nail a wire pocket made of an ox-muzzle flattened on one side; or make something of the kind with stiff wire. Line this with a sheet of close moss, which appears green behind the wire net-work. Then you fill it with loose, spongy moss, such as you find in swamps, and plant therein great plumes of fern and various swamp-grasses; they will continue to grow there, and hang gracefully over. When watering, set a pail under for it to drip into. It needs only to keep this moss always damp, and to sprinkle these ferns occasionally with a whisk-broom, to have a most lovely ornament for your room or hall.

The use of ivy in decorating a room is beginning to be generally acknowledged. It needs to be planted in the kind of soil we have described, in a well-drained pot or box, and to have its leaves thoroughly washed once or twice a year in strong suds made with soft-soap, to free it from dust and scale-bug; and an ivy will live and thrive and wind about in a room, year in and year out, will grow around pictures, and do almost any thing to oblige you that you can suggest to it. For instance, in a March number of _Hearth and Home_, [Footnote: A beautifully illustrated agricultural and family weekly paper, edited by Donald G. Mitchell(Ik Marvel) and Mrs. H. B. Stowe,] there is a picture of the most delightful library-window imaginable, whose chief charm consists in the running vines that start from a longitudinal box at the bottom of the window, and thence clamber up and about the casing and across the rustic frame-work erected for its convenience. On the opposite page we present another plain kind of window, ornamented with a variety of these rural economical adornings.

[Illustration: Fig. 45.]

In the centre is a Ward's case. On one side is a pot of _Fuchsia_. On the other side is a Calla Lily. In the hanging-baskets and on the brackets are the ferns and flowers that flourish in the deep woods, and around the window is the ivy, running from two boxes; and, in case the window has some sun, a _Nasturtium_ may spread its bright blossoms among the leaves. Then, in the winter, when there is less sun, the _Striped Spider-wort_, the _Smilax_ and the _Saxifraga_. _Samantosa_ (or _Wandering Jew_) may be substituted. Pretty brackets can be made of common pine, ornamented with odd-growing twigs or mosses or roots, scraped and varnished, or in their native state.

A beautiful ornament for a room with pictures is German ivy. Slips of this will start without roots in bottles of water. Slide the bottle behind the picture, and the ivy will seem to come from fairyland, and hang its verdure in all manner of pretty curves around the picture.

It may then be trained to travel toward other ivy, and thus aid in forming green cornice along the ceiling. We have seen some rooms that had an ivy cornice around the whole, giving the air of a leafy bower.

There are some other odd devices to ornament a room. For example, a sponge, kept wet by daily immersion, can be filled with flax-seed and suspended by a cord, when it will ere long be covered with verdure and afterward with flowers.

A sweet potato, laid in a bowl of water on a bracket, or still better, suspended by a knitting-needle, run through or laid across the bowl half in the water, will, in due time, make a beautiful verdant ornament. A large carrot, with the smallest half cut off, scooped out to hold water and then suspended with cords, will send out graceful shoots in rich profusion.

Half a cocoa-nut shell, suspended, will hold earth or water for plants and make a pretty hanging-garden.

It may be a very proper thing to direct the ingenuity and activity of children into the making of hanging-baskets and vases of rustic work. The best foundations are the cheap wooden bowls, which are quite easy to get, and the walks of children in the woods can be made interesting by their bringing home material for this rustic work. Different colored twigs and sprays of trees, such as the bright scarlet of the dog-wood, the yellow of the willow, the black of the birch, and the silvery gray of the poplar, may be combined in fanciful net-work. For this sort of work, no other investment is needed than a hammer and an assortment of different-sized tacks, and beautiful results will be produced.

Fig. 46 is a stand for flowers, made of roots, scraped and varnished. But the greatest and cheapest and most delightful fountain of beauty is a "Ward case."

[Illustration: Fig 46.]

Now, immediately all our economical friends give up in despair. Ward's cases sell all the way along from eighteen to fifty dollars, and are, like every thing else in this lower world, regarded as the sole perquisites of the rich.

Let us not be too sure. Plate-glass, and hot-house plants, and rare patterns, _are_ the especial inheritance of the rich; but any family may command all the requisites of a Ward case for a very small sum. Such a case is a small glass closet over a well-drained box of soil. You make a Ward case on a small scale when you turn a tumbler over a plant. The glass keeps the temperature moist and equable, and preserves the plants from dust, and the soil being well drained, they live and thrive accordingly. The requisites of these are the glass top and the bed of well-drained soil.

Suppose you have a common cheap table, four feet long and two wide. Take off the top boards of your table, and with them board the bottom across tight and firm; then line it with zinc, and you will have a sort of box or sink on legs. Now make a top of common window-glass such as you would get for a cucumber-frame; let it be two and a half feet high, with a ridge-pole like a house, and a slanting roof of glass resting on this ridge-pole; on one end let there be a door two feet square.

[Illustration: Fig. 47.]

We have seen a Ward case made in this way, in which the capabilities for producing ornamental effect were greatly beyond many of the most elaborate ones of the shops. It was large, and roomy, and cheap. Common window-sash and glass are not dear, and any man with moderate ingenuity could fashion such a glass closet for his wife; or a woman, not having such a husband, can do it herself.

The sink or box part must have in the middle of it a hole of good size

for drainage. In preparing for the reception of plants, first turn a plant-saucer over this hole, which may otherwise become stopped. Then, as directed for the other basket, proceed with a layer of broken charcoal and pot-sherds for drainage, two inches deep, and prepare the soil as directed above, and add to it some pounded charcoal, or the scrapings of the charcoal-bin. In short, more or less charcoal and charcoal-dust is always in order in the treatment of these moist subjects, as it keeps them from fermenting and growing sour.

Now for filling the case.

Our own native forest-ferns have a period in the winter months when they cease to grow. They are very particular in asserting their right to this yearly nap, and will not, on any consideration, grow for you out of their appointed season.

Nevertheless, we shall tell you what we have tried ourselves, because greenhouse ferns are expensive, and often great cheats when you have bought them, and die on your hands in the most reckless and shameless manner. If you make a Ward case in the spring, your ferns will grow beautifully in it all summer; and in the autumn, though they stop growing, and cease to throw out leaves, yet the old leaves will remain fresh and green till the time for starting the new ones in the spring.

But, supposing you wish to start your case in the fall, out of such things as you can find in the forest; by searching carefully the rocks and clefts and recesses of the forest, you can find a quantity of beautiful ferns whose leaves the frost has not yet assailed. Gather them carefully, remembering that the time of the plant's sleep has come, and that you must make the most of the leaves it now has, as you will not have a leaf more from it till its waking-up time in February or March. But we have succeeded, and you will succeed, in making a very charming and picturesque collection. You can make in your Ward case lovely little grottoes with any bits of shells, and minerals, and rocks you may have; you can lay down, here and there, fragments of broken looking-glass for the floor of your grottoes, and the effect of them will be magical. A square of looking-glass introduced into the back side of your case will produce charming effects.

The trailing arbutus or May-flower, if cut up carefully in sods, and put into this Ward case, will come into bloom there a month sooner than it otherwise would, and gladden your eyes and heart.

In the fall, if you can find the tufts of eye-bright or houstonia cerulia, and mingle them in with your mosses, you will find them blooming before winter is well over.

But among the most beautiful things for such a case is the partridge-berry, with its red plums. The berries swell and increase in the moist atmosphere, and become intense in color, forming an admirable ornament.

Then the ground pine, the princess pine, and various nameless pretty things of the woods, all flourish in these little conservatories. In getting your sod of trailing arbutus, remember that this plant forms its buds in the fall. You must, therefore, examine your sod carefully, and see if the buds are there; otherwise you will find no blossoms in the spring.

There are one or two species of violets, also, that form their buds in the fall, and these too, will blossom early for you.

We have never tried the wild anemones, the crowfoot, etc.; but as they all do well in moist, shady places, we recommend hopefully the experiment of putting some of them in.

A Ward case has this recommendation over common house-plants, that it takes so little time and care. If well made in the outset, and thoroughly drenched with water when the plants are first put in, it will after that need only to be watered about once a month, and to be ventilated by occasionally leaving open the door for a half-hour or hour when the moisture obscures the glass and seems in excess.

To women embarrassed with the care of little children, yet longing for the refreshment of something growing and beautiful, this indoor garden will be an untold treasure. The glass defends the plant from the inexpedient intermeddling of little fingers; while the little eyes,

just on a level with the panes of glass, can look through and learn to enjoy the beautiful, silent miracles of nature.

For an invalid's chamber, such a case would be an indescribable comfort. It is, in fact, a fragment of the green woods brought in and silently growing; it will refresh many a weary hour to watch it.