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Then & Now:The Victorian home: fussy or fabulous?

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Posted on: December 16, 2021

BY RANDY FLETCHER

If you’re preparing to sell your home, a real estate agent will almost certainly recommend that you declutter and depersonalize the space first. Realtors say that homebuyers like to envision how their furnishings could fit into the environment, and too much clutter gets in the way of that. 

The classic Victorian parlor.
Photo credit: S-F / Shutterstock.com

Recently, on a drive through historic Hyattsville, I wondered how our old painted ladies and Victorian ginger boxes would have been decorated at the peak of the Victorian era. Would a home seller back then declutter and depersonalize these beauties to improve their market value? Somehow, I doubt it.

Decorating your home during Victorian times meant bringing it on, bringing it in, and pumping up the volume all the way — not an inch of interior real estate was spared. The Victorians developed a taste for opulence, hungering for the exotic and unusual in their homes. Their world was fast expanding and, through trade, the far-flung corners of the globe were coming to them; it was a time of expansive creativity and innovation. 

During that time, newly burgeoning technology made mass production possible, and luxuries became affordable and accessible to almost everyone. No longer was having the latest and greatest just for the wealthy; now, average people could be on-trend too. In a show of their growing wealth and emerging social status, Victorians emulated the aristocracy by filling their homes — to the brim — with furnishings, textiles, accessories, and curiosities. 

A bare room seemed to show a lack of taste, and “more is more” became the motto of the times. Charles Eastlake, a leading British architect and interior designer, even implied that minimalism would lead to madness. His bestselling book Hints on Household Taste became the bible of correctness for everything from color scheme to wallpaper. 

While the Victorian era takes its name from Queen Victoria, who ruled the U.K. from 1837 to 1901, there’s no single Victorian look. With inspiration going as far back as the Greeks and Romans, Victorian interior design was a cacophony of styles, often combined to provide a romantic, richly layered look, dripping with ornament. Victorian furniture tended to be overstuffed, oversized, adorned with tassels and tufting, and placed close together. These plush pieces were often upholstered in sensuous fabrics like velvet and damask. Colorful rugs and tapestries, jewel-toned paint, richly textured wallpaper and layered window treatments accented rooms. It was a look of opulence and excess. You could say the Victorian home straddled a fine line between cozy and overcrowded.

Dead animals and insects intrigued Victorians, who — in high contrast to our modern tastes — displayed them proudly. Upon its demise, the family pet often visited the taxidermist and returned home, stuffed. In this way, the family memorialized a much loved pet, while practicing what was then an art form — another way to zhuzh up the parlor.

This trend even carried over into women’s fashion. Wearing fur was becoming popular, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a fashionable Victorian woman sporting around her neck a fox stole, legs and head intact, chomping down on its tail. It was also considered chic to dress up one’s hat with feathers — and why use just one feather when you could use an entire dead bird?

Today’s minimalists would probably suffer from a claustrophobic attack upon entering a richly decorated Victorian home. The lush textures and colors would be an assault on the senses. I personally like the dramatic décor of the period; I find it more interesting and cozy than the minimalist aesthetic. 

Modern-day hoarders would also feel quite at home in these overstuffed rooms with every available surface decorated with knick knacks, curios and tchotchkes. Maybe I verge on a hoarding mentality? I do wonder, however, how any cleaning got done in the Victorian home. It must have taken an army of housemaids to remove the dust. 

That said, if I had a Victorian home to put on the market today, I would probably take my realtor’s advice and hide the curio collections, tone down the paint color, and definitely remove any stuffed animals standing guard at the parlor entrance. 

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