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How to create an early American decor theme

By Catalogs Editorial Staff

To create an early American decor theme, pay attention to the details

Ever since our country was founded, colonial architecture and home decor has been popular choice. More recently, the 1950s and 1970s saw a huge growth in people looking for ways to create an early American home decor theme. 

Today’s decorating choices are more varied. However, colonial and primitive styles are still among the most popular themes for home design and decoration. Home restoration magazines and the push for “new old houses” are proof of its ongoing appeal to homeowners. 

So how do you get the look of early America in your home? 

The fastest way would be to buy a period home. In the Eastern U.S., there are still many houses and commercial buildings that date back to the time of our founders. Some are restored and ready to move in. Others, like the circa 1778 farmhouse I owned in Pennsylvania, come with the need for extensive restoration. Unfortunately, the cost of restoration is high (trust me on that!). Plus, fully renovated homes are often well beyond the average home buyer’s budget. 

The New Old House

american decor theme home
Thankfully, builders understand the appeal of colonial home design and are happy to provide houses with the look of the 18th century in less costly, lower maintenance new construction. 

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Even homeowners with newer homes that don’t match classic early American design are transforming their ranch houses, split levels, bungalows, and revival houses into something with a distinctly colonial feel. 

So what makes a home “feel” colonial? 

The key to creating an early American home decor theme actually involves several elements: colonial styles in lighting, furniture, and accessories; period architectural details; period colors for paint and furnishings; appropriate flooring and appropriate windows and doors. 

The things you bring inside

american decor theme you want to have
An early American feel to a house starts with the furniture, lighting, and accessories. Look for items with a handmade feel, in simple materials. The lighting, for example, would consist of simply punched tin pendants and sconces for a more primitive design, or polished and elegant fine brass chandeliers, lamps, and candleholders for a more formal early American setting.

Furnishings should be solidly made, often with little or no decoration. Pegged construction with wood stains or soft, chalk paint finishes is typical of all but the most extravagant households of the time. Even in the wealthiest homes, upholstered chairs and settles (a small couch of sorts) were far from overstuffed. 

Fabrics that work with colonial decor range from rough homespun and woven material to fine silks from the Orient. Fabric colors were seldom intense…dyes at the time came from plants, and the deeper hues were far too expensive for most householders. 

Wall art and other accessories were generally less common than in today’s homes. A family portrait over the fireplace, a tea set on the sideboard, or a fine set of candlesticks were typical choices. Many of the decor elements had practical uses. So the candlesticks were fitted with beeswax candles for lighting, the handcrafted spinning wheel was actually used to spin wool and the hand-painted platter was filled with food and used on the table at dinner. 

Underfoot, wide-plank wood floors were either oiled or painted. Area rugs added color and warmth, but the wall-to-wall carpet was virtually unknown except for in a few ceremonial rooms in larger cities. 

The walls, doors and windows

Large sheets of glass were all but impossible to create in colonial America, so multipaned windows were the norm. Doors were usually solid, as much for keeping in warmth during the cold of winter as for style. Adding windows to doors would have allowed the precious heat to escape…hardly a desirable situation. 

Walls were generally constructed of logs, brick, or stone with a coating of plaster as a finish. Paint colors ranged from the creamy look of whitewash to intense colors like turquoise and emerald green.  (Richly colored paint was extremely expensive, so it was limited to the homes of the landed gentry.)  

Re-creating the early American home today

Fortunately for fans of colonial style, there is an abundance of resources. Examples are reproduction furnishings, lighting, rugs, accessories and even paint colors. 

Before beginning your decor project, decide which type of colonial decor you would like. Will it be the primitives of the farmer? The simplicity of the average person? Or the luxury of the aristocrats? If you don’t make that choice upfront and create a home decor plan, the mix of styles may end up looking less colonial and more yard sale. 

Once you’ve made your choice, look for quality reproductions or actually period pieces that match your design theme. Especially in the more rural areas of the Northeast, many accessories and some furniture from the period are still available for a reasonable price. 

Avoid going overboard on accessories. Remember that even in the finest homes, nothing was cluttered and most accessories served a useful purpose. 

Pay attention to the details. A modern light fixture or an overstuffed recliner can spoil the whole period feel of a room. 

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But don’t forget comfort

The most authentic early American home decor theme may look wonderful. But if the chairs are uncomfortable and there is nowhere to sit to enjoy a conversation, a good book, or a favorite television show, the room design has failed.  Look for compromise pieces to make a room livable. A couch with homespun fabric. An armchair with a bit more cushioning. Opting to be a bit less authentic might just be the key to making your colonial-themed house into a home your family will love.


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