Decorated Interior Surfaces

Robert Wood


Most of the colonial era emigrants who settled in New Hanover and the surrounding townships during the colonial era (1720-1775) were Germanic, and with them they brought the Germans’ love of color and decoration. Their  potters, weavers, and joiners decorated common house wares with bright patterns and colors, while blacksmiths often embellished the humblest iron farm tools for no other purpose that to make them “shaa”—beautiful.

This love of decoration and color extended to their houses. Although there are  few examples left, it seems that many local 18th century houses had some interior painted decoration. The eighteenth century Germans were coming from a European culture that architectural historian call the Baroque and toward the end of the century the Rococo. Both of these styles employed lavish decoration. Although the vast majority of the emigrants were poor, they would have been aware of the European culture at large and would naturally have striven to make their “homemade” houses conform to their heritage.

During that time, upwards of ninety percent of the houses in this area were log; the other ten percent stone. Our log houses were not “log cabins” with round logs; rather the logs were hewn more or less square. The height of a building log could vary with the diameter of the tree, but the thickness was made uniform providing a flat exterior left exposed or suitable for covering with siding and an interior wall surface suitable for plastering.

The interior log walls might have been left with the logs exposed, but more commonly the walls were covered with lath and then plastered. Plaster in the eighteenth century was not today’s plaster of Paris made from gypsum, but rather lime plaster, a mixture of lime putty, creek sand, water, and animal hair.

Lime, the main ingredient, was first made by burning the mountains of oyster shells left by Indians along the banks of the Delaware Bay. Later the abundant local limestone was quarried and burned in lime kilns to yield quick lime. Quick lime was mixed with water to hydrate or “slake” it. As the lime absorbed the water, heat was generated so that the mixture boiled. When the heat diminished the creek sand and perhaps animal hair for binding were mixed in and the mixture was applied in one or two coats to build up the wall thickness. Often a very thin finish coat containing just lime putty without animal hair or sand was applied giving a smooth white surface finish.

Lime plaster was used until the 1900s. This type of plaster took more than a year to cure or set, but could be applied over stone, brick, or logs and could be applied to flat or curved walls and ceilings.

“Plaster in a historic building is like a family album. The handwriting of the artisans, the tastes of the original occupants, and the evolving styles of decoration are embodied in the fabric of the building.” Careful examination of early plastered walls in the local area often reveals evidence of stenciled and stamped decoration. Sometimes stamped decorations cover the whole wall; often there were stenciled ornamental border friezes around the wall’s top.  Often the decoration is on the initial plaster coat and has been covered with a dozen or more layers of whitewash. When plaster became dingy, whitewash, a thin “paint” of lime and water, restored a new appearance, but covered the decorations.

Paint to be applied to plaster was usually water based made of water, pigment and a binder, usually hide glue. This gave a flat, non-glossy finish; the preferred color was red. Other common colors were a sort of mustard yellow and, of course, blue.

Woodwork was also painted and decorated with variety of bright colors. This was usually a milk paint made of casein (milk), hydrated lime, and pigment. These decorations were usually vernacular paintings done by the homeowner and  reflected his Germanic culture. Color rather than technical skill was the main string in the painter’s bow.

The finest example of painted interior woodwork in this area is the Falkner Swamp Reformed Church parsonage on Cross Road. This house, built in 1771 by master builder John Cunius,  retains remarkable, decoratively painted woodwork. The house, now a private dwelling, retains much of the original woodwork.


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