How To Decorate A Colonial Style Home

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Bring American history to life by incorporating the warmth, beauty and simplicity of colonial style design to your home.

Understanding Colonial Design

Colonial design describes the decorating styles during a period of about 300 years, from the 1600s through the 1800s. During this time, because our country was so young, most homes were built by local carpenters rather than trained architects. This resulted in the classic clean lines and uncluttered look that characterizes the colonial style.

Colonial style can be divided into two main sub-styles:

  • Georgian: This style reflects the decorating preferences of the early settlers during the Georgian period of the late 1600s. Georgian homes were simple and elegant. Features often found in Georgian style homes include built in closets, wooden floorboards, painted paneled walls with crown molding, windows with many small panes and paneled fireplaces.
  • Federal: Also known as neoclassical decorating, Federal style reflects the time from before the American Revolution to the mid 1800s. This style shows the influence of British Regency and French Empire styles due to the fact that classically trained architects were beginning to come to the country and design American homes. Federal style homes are known for ornate paneling, Corinthian columns, spiral staircases, detailed crown moldings, casing and mantelpieces.

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Popular Colonial Colors

The Colonial palate is based on the natural pigments available during that time period. These shades will help you achieve an authentic Colonial look in your home:

  • Cream
  • Deep green
  • Mustard yellow
  • Blue-gray
  • Soft muted blue
  • Barn red
  • Earthy browns
  • Taupe.

During the Federal period, bright clear shades were introduced to home decorating. To create a more Federal look in your home, add these colors to your colonial palate:

  • Vibrant greens
  • Medium blues with a green undertone
  • Spicy browns
  • Gold shades that leaned toward bright yellow.

Cream remained popular during the Federal period, as a background color and to paint woodwork.

Choosing Your Colonial Furniture

During the approximately 300 years of the Colonial decorating period, many different furniture styles appeared in homes. Some characteristics are common to most Colonial style furniture, however. These include:

  • Simple design
  • Fine craftsmanship
  • Rich fabrics for upholstery including brocade and velvet
  • Button tufting
  • Fringes
  • Inlays
  • Carvings
  • Curved design
  • Mahogany wood construction.

If you're looking to purchase authentic pieces, here are some styles of furniture that were popular during the colonial period:

  • Queen Anne
  • Chippendale
  • Hepplewhite
  • Sheraton.

Walls, Floors And Windows For A Colonial Style Home

Colonial painted walls were most often cream colored with accents of other colors from the colonial palate such as deep green or mustard yellow. Warm, mahogany wood paneling was also popular during this time period.

Colonial floors were usually waxed, wood planks or brick floors, accented with area and oriental rugs. Fancier colonial homes sometimes had a room or hall with a marble or stone floor.

To get an authentic Colonial look for your windows, wooden shutters on the inside of windows are an excellent choice. Other colonial window treatments include traditional tieback drapes with tassels or small curtains in solids or floral patterns.

Colonial Accessories

To complete the look of your colonial home, include some vintage or period-accurate accents and accessories in your design. Some accents and accessories commonly used in colonial homes inclulde:

  • Embroidery and needlepoint pillows and samplers
  • Pewter items
  • Family portraits
  • Ivory carvings
  • Asian ginger jars
  • Eagle motifs
  • Homemade quilts
  • Mahogany paneling and/or molding
  • Silver hardware for furniture
  • Wrought iron for towel holders, chandeliers or other accessories.

Colonial Home Decorating Tips

Here are a few tips for achieving an authentic Colonial look for your home:

  • Colonial homes were clean and comfortable. Keep clutter to a minimum by storing unnecessary items out of sight, and don't crowd rooms with too much furniture. Choose a few, well placed Colonial accents to display.
  • Stick with neutral and muted colonial colors for walls, accessories and furniture.
  • When selecting furniture, accents and accessories, stick to the period. This decorating style doesn't allow for mixing elements from different time periods, styles or geographic locations. If you have items that clash with the Colonial style, store them out of sight.
  • Shop around to find your Colonial furniture and accessories. You may be able to find reasonably priced authentic pieces at garage sales, thrift stores or even antique stores. Accurate reproductions are available in modern furniture stores, decorating shops and department stores.
  • For added ideas and inspiration, visit historic Colonial restorations in your area, or find some books with paintings of homes from this time period.
  • Because this style is so specific, redoing your entire home at once can feel overwhelming. You may want to do your Colonial style decorating one room at a time.

With a little imagination and planning, you'll have a home that Martha Washington would have been happy to visit.

Last Updated: December 19, 2011
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About Roberta Pescow Roberta Pescow holds a bachelor's degree in communications from City University of New York, Queens College and is a freelance writer and editor in the NJ area. The author of "A Life In The Service" and "A Monster's Tears," she enjoys writing informative articles, personal essays, fiction and music.  Roberta is a proud mother of two. Her other interests include fitness, photography, sculpture and meditation. She is a voracious reader and holds a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do. Roberta enjoys decorating her hectic, but happy home and garden in original and affordable ways.  

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