With its complex structures and ornate embellishments, high-style British Victorian architecture conveys a distinct sense of luxury. To enjoy the beauty of this style for themselves, middle-class Americans of the era were inspired to find a more practical alternative. Enter the folk Victorian style. Built with a more inventive, eclectic approach, folk Victorian homes display many of the decorative elements associated with high-style Victorian homes, but with a few fundamental differences.
Affordable Embellishments for the Masses
Folk Victorian architecture thrived between 1880 and 1910, putting it slightly behind the Victorian architectural period in Britain. It emerged as a more practical and affordable alternative to the opulent Italianate and Queen Anne styles popular during the Victorian period.
Homes in this style are found throughout the United States. Once the look caught on in the east, it spread rapidly westward, thanks in large part to innovations in woodworking tools, mass production, and the railroad system. Pre-fabricated millwork such as posts, molding, and trim became widely available and could be transported efficiently by rail to lumberyards around the country, giving more people access to it. Homeowners were no longer limited to whatever local craftspeople produced with traditional tools.
The folk Victorian style became particularly popular among the newly settled population in the west. These homeowners were looking for flexible, budget-friendly ways to embellish their existing houses.
In fact, many homes classified as folk Victorian today started out as simple folk houses built in the style typical of their region. When the Victorian style took hold, owners of these houses updated them with the new Victorian-style trim that was on offer at nearly every lumber mill.
The same railroad system that carried millwork to homeowners also benefited from the trend, with new depots, stations, and related buildings popping up in folk Victorian style as the rail lines expanded.
By 1910, the popularity of the folk Victorian look faded as the Craftsman style began to take over.
Folk Victorian Features: Simplicity with Flair
In Britain, the grand Victorian homes in the prevailing Queen Anne, Italianate, and Gothic Revival styles were the domain of the wealthier classes. These houses are known by their asymmetric designs with complex, multi-room floor plan and their abundance of towers, bay windows, multiple gables, and second-story porches.
American folk Victorian, on the other hand, was something within reach of the average citizen. With folk houses as their basis, folk Victorians are typically smaller and simpler in design with plain rooflines. Their profiles are symmetrical with only one front-facing gable. Victorian-style embellishments were added to this basic form, and it’s these embellishments that
sets a house apart as a folk Victorian.
The embellishments used are most often inspired by the Queen Anne and Italianate styles, with occasional appearances by Gothic Revival details. The ground-floor front porch is quintessential to the design, and it’s often the most heavily decorated part of the house. This was the era when the classic American front porch really took root.
The most common porch posts are turned spindles (balusters) or posts with simple chamfered (beveled) edges as well as posts embellished with carvings and added details. These supports are enhanced with friezes above, balustrades between the posts, and intricately cut spandrels in the upper corners.
The cornice lines, overhanging eaves, and gable-ends are trimmed with bands of decorative millwork. Window and door moldings, when used at all, are usually limited to one simple header pediment. This streamlined approach to molding is another aspect that sets folk Victorian architecture apart from its British counterpart, which features elaborate molding.
The exterior of a folk Victorian home is usually clad in clapboard or board-and-batten style cladding, although scalloped shingles or shakes are also popular. In their prime, folk Victorian homes often boasted the exuberant polychrome color schemes typical of any Victorian-era home. Today, many have been re-painted in polychrome schemes using more subdued Victorian colors such as dark green, butter yellow, and gray.
Homes as Varied as Their Owners
While all folk Victorian homes have certain aspects in common, such as their elaborate trim, they were also influenced by design trends that varied from region to region. Beyond these similarities, though, no two are exactly alike, and their individuality is part of their charm.
Some include floor plan differences such as second-story balconies or bay windows, but it’s the variety of details that really sets each house apart. Folk Victorians were built based on designs in the plan books or pattern books architectural companies and lumber mills at the time produced to help homeowners and builders gather ideas. Each book offered anywhere from a handful of plans to more than one hundred.
As thorough as they were, they didn’t always classify millwork in terms of styles, such as Queen Anne or Gothic Revival. This made it harder for those choosing parts to get a look consistent with a high-style Victorian appearance.
When builders and homeowners added millwork to existing folk houses, they had a wide range of trim, molding, and other detailing options to draw from. While some followed the plan books’ suggestions precisely, others mixed and matched from several books or worked from their own ideas. In the hands of highly skilled craftspeople, the results were often strikingly unique. Neighborly competition for the most elaborate house further drove creativity.
Mills also sold complete packages of porch parts, but the millwork included wasn’t always true to one particular style. Do-it-yourselfers and less skilled professional builders who relied on these packages often ended up with an eclectic Victorian look.
More than just decorative buildings, folk Victorian homes are symbols of adaptability and self-expression born of growing industrial development. Learning to recognize the creative combination of simple structures and ornate detailing in these homes will give you a little more insight into a flourishing period in America’s past.