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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Know Your Terms

As a lover of all things Victorian and antique, I have also found it endlessly fascinating learning the correct terms for the various styles of furnishings and architectural details of buildings, especially those most often seen or used in historic homes. It is a passion not many share today. Few people have interest in learning correct spelling or grammar, much less learning the correct terms for old furniture and old buildings.

Like many people of the 18th and 19th century, who valued a person's accomplishments, even if only self-taught,  in such "polished" interests as art and architecture, I find a certain pride in the desire to learn and  knowing what I'm looking at and what it's called, enables me to have intelligent and delightful discussions with others "in the know" when visiting historic homes and antique stores, that gratifies my vanity as well as my appreciative eye.

So, I thought I'd share a few pictures of some examples right here at Le Beau Paon Victorien, with the correct term and brief explanation. I can only hope that you might find it as interesting as I do.

A staircase is often comprised of several parts, not counting the stair risers and stair treads. The handrail is obvious; the pieces that attach the handrail to the stair treads are called balusters. Often at the terminus of the handrail, is a newel post, often with a newel cap or newel finial. Here at Le Beau Paon, we have urn style finials. Other popular forms include simple round, egg, acorn, artichoke, or acanthus leaf styles.
All the newel posts on our staircase are finished off with urn style finials.
There is a myth that endures about the "mortgage button", usually made of ivory or mother-of-pearl, that was sometimes attached to a newel post or cap in 17th, 18th and some 19th century homes and was supposed to signify when the mortgage on the house was paid and the property had no liens on it. Many older homes do have them, but most historians agree that these buttons were just used to conceal the joinery. I have sometimes heard these buttons to be referred to as an "amity button" also and I have found several accounts say that it was to symbolize a state of harmony between the owner and builder, when the house was completed. I do recall an article in Victorian Homes magazine many years ago where a featured historic mansion had one, but they referred to it as a 'good luck button' and that it was to be rubbed with a finger as one descended the stairs each day to have good luck. I find these two latter explanations to be more fitting and possibly more accurate; 17th, 18th and 19th century homeowners didn't have mortgages and there weren't even really banks either during the 17th and 18th century. Mortgages as we known them, didn't even exist until 1934. However, if you find the idea of a "mortgage button" charming, to signify the mortgage of your home being paid in full, there are companies that make them today.
The trim that goes around door frames is referred to as the casing. At the top of a door casing, there may be more decorative trim, often called an architrave. We have fluted molding on our door casings, sometimes also called reeded molding, which are symmetrical casings that have lengthwise 'flutes'. At each corner, we also have rosettes, sometimes also called corner blocks. Rosettes are a decorative accessory and come in numerous sizes and styles. Our rosettes are quite large, and the style is often called a "bullet" or "bull's eye".
At the bottom of each door casing are plinth blocks. They are used where the door casing meets the baseboard, and are just another decorative element.
A small window like this located above a door is called a transom window. This one, though it was badly painted by the previous owners, is a three-paned transom and does not open. On the second floor, each of the bedroom doors has a single pane transom, with opening mechanisms to open them.
A chair rail has both a decorative and practical function. It is usually placed about 2 feet high on the wall, and is used to protect the wall from dents and scuffs from the backs of chairs. Sometimes wainscoting will be placed below the chair rail. A wainscot cap would be used to trim the top of the wainscoting; the wainscot cap would be very similar looking to a chair rail.
The baseboard, runs along the wall at the floor; it usually will be in harmony with the door and window casings to tie the room together. The baseboards at Le Beau Paon are pretty battered, but they have a strip of flutes or reeds in the center, to match the fluted molding of the door and window casings. The baseboard may also have a base cap and base shoe, as ours do. The base cap is mostly decorative, while the base shoe is used primarily in combination with a baseboard to conceal the variation between the flooring and the base.
The parlor at Le Beau Paon has crown molding. Other rooms probably had it too, but most of it was removed, unfortunately. Crown molding is placed along the wall at the ceiling, to provide a smooth transition from the wall to the ceiling. Crown molding build-ups, also known as 'stacking', combines one or more molding profiles for a distinctive look; our crown molding is very simple and painted white like the ceiling, so it doesn't stand out much. Underneath the crown molding, we have installed picture molding, which is also commonly  known as picture hanging rail; that is exactly what it's for. It's used to hang pictures from, instead of damaging fragile plaster by pounding nails into it.
Here you can see numerous elements together; the fluted molding on the door casing, rosette used as a corner block, picture hanging rail and crown molding.
We also have two sets of French doors. There used to be three sets, but one of the families that lived here either in the 1920s or 1940s removed one set and made an archway opening. French doors are sometimes called French windows. French doors are actually composed of a pair of full-height casement windows. A casement window is a window attached to it's frame by one or more hinges, on the side, and generally were opened inward, often with interor shutters. They were the most common style of window until the sash window was introduced.
The windows in our home also have casings of fluted molding. At the bottom of the windows is a decorative, horizontal trim piece (that sticks out like a little ledge) which is attached to the sill, which is called a stool. Most people refer to the stool as a window sill, but the correct term is stool. The sill is the horizontal member forming the bottom of the window frame and is most often in reference to an exterior piece; sometimes an exterior sill will be slightly slanted or tilted down, for rainwater to run off. In a brick or stone home, the exterior sill might be a row of decorative bricks, which is called a soldier's course. The interior portion of the sill is most often not visible if there is a stool and an apron. The apron is the flat trim piece placed horizontally just beneath the stool.
The windows in the downstairs of our home are sliding sash windows, which were operated by sash counter weights; heavy cast iron weights attached to a cotton cord and pulley system concealed within a groove alongside the window casing called  the weight port. These were used to counterbalance the weight of the sliding sash and thus hold the window in position at any height. Most of ours still work beautifully, although when previous owners painted the windows, they also painted over the cotton cord and pulleys, so a couple of them get sort of stuck and we have one upstairs which the cotton cord rotted and broke. Sash counterweights can still be purchased today, although many people with historic homes remove the cotton cords and replace with chains, which do not rot.  Our windows also have muntins which are what those thin strips of wood that make that pretty cross-hatch pattern on the window are called. Today, most people have a large single pane of  window glass and purchase muntins to go over the large single pane, if they want to duplicate that historic look. In the days when our home was built, the muntins held in individual panes of glass. When discussing windows like ours, they are usually referred to by their number of panes, as in '12 over 12' or in our case, we have 6 over 9 windows. This of course, refers to the number of panes on the top (6 ) and the number on the bottom (9).
Moving on to furniture, in our dining room we have this large china cabinet. Another word for a china cabinet is a vitrine. Some people call their china or curio cabinets a 'hutch'. A hutch is a similar piece of furniture, in that it typically holds dishes, glassware or other decorative items, but technically a hutch does not have doors and instead has open shelves, with usually some drawers beneath the open shelves. Another old word that is sometimes used for a china or curio cabinet is breakfront. This term was once used specifically to describe a type of Chippendale bookcase/curio cabinet with glass doors on the front that opened; but has since sometimes been used in reference to a china cabinet also, as a general term.
At the top of our cabinet is a decorative piece that could be described as a broken-arch pediment.  A pediment is a classical architectural element consisting of a triangular section found above a horizontal structure. The broken-arch pediment has a gap in the center, or apex, of the pediment. It is a very popular  design element used in both buildings and furniture design. The curvilinear shape of this pediment is a variant of the broken-arch pediment, called a swan's neck pediment, being that it's curvy rather than straight.
The sideboard in our dining room (and also a table in the parlor) has ball and claw feet. This was an extremely popular design for furniture legs throughout the 18th century and 19th century revivals. A ball and claw foot motif depicts a bird's foot gripping a ball or egg shape.  Most ball and claw feet are seen on curvy, S-shaped legs called a cabriole leg, with a carved knee. A lion or shell motif was a very popular motif for the knee. The cabriole leg resembles the leg shape of a 4-footed hoofed animal, such as a goat. The etymology of this term specifically derives from the French word "cabrioler" which means to "leap, cavort,caper or prance", which goats do quite often.
The cabriole leg has a practical function as well; the balance it achieves makes it possible to support heavy case furniture on spindly legs.
Our dining room chairs have a cabriole leg, with carved knees. The feet on these are called pad feet, with a ball shaped foot on top of a flattened disk. There are many types of feet; scroll, bun, pad, club, trifid, oinion, splay, spade, arrow, slipper,cuffed....the list is endless!
Our dining room table has these two large pedestal style legs, with scrolled feet. They are decorated with acanthus; decorative wood carving based on the acanthus leaf, a thistle-like plant from the Mediterranean which, stylized, was used in many classical designs, including furniture. It was especially popular during the Empire period, on Chippendale furniture, as well as other revival style periods, like Greek Revival and Renaissance Revival.
This wooden carved panel on our settee' that connects the surface and legs of a table or chair is called the apron.
An ornamental motif, either of rounded oval or spherical shape is called a medallion. Both of my parlor chairs have a medallion on the oval backs.

And last, but certainly not least, we have the tester and half-tester; we aren't fortunate enough to have one here at Le Beau Paon, so I found some gorgeous photos online of an example of each. A tester is basically the same thing as a canopy.
In this beautiful bedroom, the bed at the left has a tester (which I believe the correct pronunciation
is TEE-ster, with a long eeee sound).  A tester is a canopy, which is most often over a bed, but can also be over a throne, tomb, or pulpit and is normally of carved  or cloth-draped wood.
And the half-tester, is half of a canopy. This gorgeous bed with half-tester and beautiful hangings is in one of the bedrooms of Villa Louis, a historic mansion in Prairie du Chien, WI. I visited there as a child with my parents, when I was 10 or 11, but I don't remember much about it. I would like to visit there again soon! This photo was taken by the Wisconsin Historical Soceity , who own and maintain the home, the grounds, outbuildings and the museums. You can take a peek at their website HERE to see more!

Thanks for stopping by!
I hope you enjoyed learning some new things along with me!


marty (A Stroll Thru Life) said...

Wow great post. All of those terms have always confused me. Now I have a better understanding of them. We have a builder basic, so naturally I don't have any of them. Very interesting though and now I am much more informed. Thanks. Hugs, Marty

Anita said...

What a beautiful and informative post!! I see some beautiful pieces of furniture that I would love to see more of:-) "Vitrine" was new for me. I don't think I've seen that anywhere.

Mariette said...

Dearest Katie,

You really do stand out for your age! That's a compliment and you found the secret to living graceful and for admiring the true craftsmanship of older days. One can just sit and admire the beauty of the woodwork. Sip a cup of tea and ponder, going back in that time when romance was still high and very present in a home like yours. Now people rush and move on, passing by all that beauty and sadly most of them not ever noticing it...

Greetings from Georgia/USA


Debbie@Debbie-Dabble said...

Katie, What a great post!!
So informative!!
If you get Victorian Homes magazine, my friend Joe Matteo, owner of the Stegmaier Mansion, made the cover!!
There is the unheard of second article on the Stegmaier mansion in it!This one shows the wallpaper and ceilings!
If you scroll back a few posts, I did a post on it!!


Yellow Rose Arbor said...

What an interesting post you have here! I really like all those additions, but don't have any in our house :-(


Amanda@The Hand Me Down House said...

Look at all the details and character elements! This is a fabulous post - it clears a lot of terms up for me :). Thanks so much for stopping by, Katie - and your sweet comments! :)

Pam said...

I love this post and don't know how I missed it until now. I am going to bookmark this because I am always trying to find the correct word for things. I end up calling it the thingie or something like that and no one knows what I am talking about. My BIL is in the building industry and will be impressed that I know what a plinth block is now.

Eastlake Victorian said...


I just love this post! You have done great research and have a wonderful knowledge about the architectural and furniture details of the Victorian era. I grew up in an old house, so I knew most of these terms, and I love to read about fine woodworking and house-building! And your house is so beautiful. You really have enhanced its value by your tasteful decorating and stenciling.

I always look forward to reading your beautiful blog! :-)


jeanette said...

This is exactly what I was scouring the Internet for! What a great post. I would like to link my post to your blog...see
http://antiquefarmhouse.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/selecting-door…window-casings/ for details. Thanks!!!!