House history: 11 tips to research a home’s interior

Our last house history post examined the “Top 12 House History Research Supplies” for house historians, or “houstorians,” as we like to refer them. This week, we will take a peek inside at what it takes to learn about a home’s interior history. 

Facelifts: Try to notice alterations, such as mixed materials or material scarring that may indicate structural deletions. Finding this evidence can be challenging for Houstorians – especially considering modern construction practices that make telling the difference between an original material and a substitute difficult.

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Notice the subtleties: Aside from more obvious modifications – such as new room additions – focus on more minor clues, such as signs of wallpaper replacement. This kind of detail may help indicate a room’s previous use.

Get familiar with interior design trends relating to your home’s beginnings: Houstorians should try to research interior design, using books and older publications, such as magazines and newspaper advertisements, if applicable. For example, advertisements may provide insight into a variety of interior-design issues, ranging from costs of materials and goods to appliances, heating and cooling systems.

Line things up: To get a full picture of a houstory, take a bird’s eye view of how your home’s rooms are laid out. Are the dominant line features curving, horizontal, or are they vertical? For example, many 18th- and 19th-century rooms emphasize vertical design by utilizing high ceilings, towering windows and oversized doors, whereas other styles may have more rounded features.

House plan books: These types of books have been around since the mid 1800s. They contain sketches or photos of homes, complete with floor plans – which can be invaluable from a Houstory perspective. Homeowners would simply send away for blueprints, and give them to their builders to construct. Libraries and some larger bookstores may have copies of the original books. Newspapers — and perhaps even some lumber companies, who produced the wood needed for homes — may also have the information. For example, from 1908 to 1940, Sears, Roebuck & Company marketed and sold approximately 100,000 homes by catalog.

Get in there and get dirty: Get up close and personal with your walls – which may give clues to the timeframes of the building. Houstorians may have differing moldings in the same room for example, which may help to indicate modifications. Clues can be everywhere. For example, holes in walls may lead to observations about locations of paintings or lighting; unusual window shapes and sizes may help to clarify the locations of decorative windows.

Look at things in a different light: Original paint colors and wallpaper can be difficult to ascertain for Houstorians, as rooms can transform shades on a fairly regular basis. Often, outer fabrics – and sometimes even the wall itself – must be removed or disturbed to make these discoveries. However, sometimes – when walls are examined during various times of day in differing lighting conditions — different clues can become apparent.

Look to the pros: While you may be able to discover a lot on your own, paint chip removal should be done with extreme caution by Houstorians – not only in terms of home damage, but also information accuracy. Light, aging, pollution, glazes – all can alter the look of the paint. In many cases, professional conservators are needed for final evaluation.

Clues at your feet: Floors and floor coverings are often pages in the life story of your home. Details about furniture locations and room uses can be revealed to Houstorians by carefully examining floors for things like marks, burns, scars, and water damage. However, sanding, polishing and waxing floors – or replacing older carpet – can destroy or greatly compromise the accuracy of this information.

Apply your knowledge of appliances: Appliance styles – particularly in bathrooms, utility rooms and kitchens – can really help Houstorians gather valuable insight. These rooms are nearly always the first locations in a house to receive the latest and greatest in technology. Leftover clues, such as capped gas lines, electrical outlets, switches and lighting fixtures can also tell a tale.

Using public utilities: If permits are not available or accessible for some reason, public utility connection dates can help Houstorians to verify construction dates and potential improvements that may have occurred. Utility companies may have access to records and maps showing approximate times of when gas lines were laid, or electrical lines were put in place, for example.

For more on how to research your home’s history, and effective ways to make sure these stories are saved for the future, please visit www.homehistorybook.com.