Arts and Leisure

Edith Wharton Offers Decorating Tips For the Rich and Famous

Before she won acclaim as a novelist, Edith Wharton advised wealthy people about how to beautify their mansions. She wrote a book called the Decoration of Houses with architect Ogden Codman, Jr.

Edith Wharton

Wharton came from an old-money family, the Joneses of New York. Their lavish lifestyle supposedly inspired the expression, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

Young Edith Jones frequented the grand homes in Newport, R.I. and palaces in Europe, crossing the Atlantic 60 times. That sharpened her eye for interior decoration. Then in 1897 she wrote her decorating guide with Codman.

Though the book spawned the profession of interior design, not everyone found it useful. Wharton aimed Decoration of Houses at people who could afford to build bookcases like Louis XIV’s at Versailles. Or people who wanted to decorate their bathrooms like the one in the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy.

Today Wharton’s book offers a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the 1890s, the Gilded Age.

No wallpaper on these walls  at the Mount.

Decoration of Houses then hit the bookstores in 1897, the year Edith Wharton bought a mansion called Land’s End in Newport from a future governor of Rhode Island. But she thought it incredibly ugly and completely redesigned it.

Then in 1902, she designed and landscaped The Mount, a country estate in Lenox, Mass. She called it her first real home. Today it functions as a house museum, open in the summer.

edith-wharton-mount

The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Berkshires home

Edith Wharton, Decorator

Edith Wharton had strong opinions about fin-de-siecle decorating. She complained that architects of the day treated interior design as a branch of dressmaking. They filled homes with curtains, lambrequins, wobbly tables covered with velvet and festoons of lace.

Decoration of Houses rejected fussy Victorian interior design. It advocated simple, balanced rooms with good antique furniture and solid architectural detail.

edith-wharton-lands-end

Land’s End, not really good enough for Edith Wharton.

Well, maybe not that simple. She did advise decorating a ballroom in the manner of the Borghese Palace in Florence. And she had fairly strict rules about appropriate levels of grandiosity. The vestibule in a country house, for example, can be less formal than in a town house, Wharton said. But a villa in a waterfront resort should have a vestibule more like a town house.

Comfort was a consideration, even for the little people. She advised putting an inner glass door a few feet from the entrance of a vestibule to keep the house warm and to shelter the servants who have to wait outside during a party.

Wharton also hated wallpaper, and even called it unsanitary. She viewed sliding doors as an abuse in house planning. And muslin curtains – never! Instead, people should use old handmade New England blinds with wide fixed slats, and NOT the frail machine-made substitute!

Here, then, are a dozen decorating tips from Edith Wharton.

Gilt, Stucco, Marble

  1. Oriental rugs are always appropriate, but they must be antique since their quality deteriorated when the rug makers started using aniline dyes.

    An Oriental rug at the Louvre, presumably without those nasty aniline dyes.

  2. If andirons are gilt, they should be of ormolu. Fire screens should use French designs, but the wood box should be Italian.

    edith wharton-cassoni

    A recommended wood box

  3. Hardwood floors are a necessity in a ballroom, but marble floors are preferable in the vestibule, dining room and staircase. And, after all, marble is easy to clean!

    The easy-to-clean Great Hall at The Breakers in Newport

  4. Renaissance stucco designs are appropriate for ceilings. But for smaller rooms, use designs in arabesques from the reign of Louis XIV.

    Arabesques from the appropriate era at Wharton’s The Mount

  5. The design of shovel and tongs should accord with that of the andirons. In France such details are never disregarded.

    Matching fireplace utensils? Check. Madame Pompadour’s apartment at Versailles.

  6. Spiral staircases are a no-no unless used for secret communication or servants.

    Oh, the horror! Spiral staircase at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, former home of James Deering in Cocoanut Grove, Fla.

    Bedrooms and Ballrooms

  7. Bedrooms should be suites that include boudoir, dressing room and bathroom. Walls should be plain and paneled with chintz or cotton hangings. Furniture should be 18th century antique, with slipcovers that match the curtains.

    Gertrude Vanderbilt’s bedroom at the Breakers with appropriate chintz.

  8. Framed prints look well in small entranceways if hung on plain walls; Mantegna’s “Triumph of Julius Caesar” is recommended, but NOT Durer’s etchings.
  9. An 18th-century bergere is appropriate for the family drawing room, and 18th-century English furniture is not out of place, despite its poverty of ornament.

    Wharton would have been OK with this Queen Anne-style furniture in the Governor’s Chambers at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

  10. Ballrooms should have mirrored walls like the Borghese Palace in Rome, with pilasters of marble separated by marble niches containing statues. The ceiling should be domed and frescoed in bright colors. The floor should be inlaid marble and the room should ALWAYS be lit from the ceiling and NEVER from the walls, for no ballroom is complete without its chandeliers.

    Make sure your ballroom looks something like this.

    Lustrous Color and Imposing Vases

  11. In the library, built-in bookcases are preferable to movable ones, and all books should have ordinary bindings of half morocco or vellum. The goal: “to form an expanse of warm lustrous color.”

    edith-wharton-mount-library

    Edith Wharton’s library at The Mount.

  12. The guest parlor should have a light wall, handsome cabinets and imposing vases and candelabra. The room should also be lit with wax candles to flatter the antique furniture.

    daughters-edward-darley-boit

    The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent. Are those vases imposing enough?

Images: The Mount CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3620748; Land’s End By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57308528. Living room at the Mount By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57310953. Dining room at the Mount, By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57310954. Breakers Great Hall By xiquinhosilva – https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/30030488037/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90108254. Gertrude Vanderbilt’s bedroom By xiquinhosilva – https://www.flickr.com/photos/xiquinho/44054854215/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97218694. Spiral staircase at Vizcaya By Mary Mark Ockerbloom – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82466488. Borghese Palace By I, Sailko, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3920148. Independence Hall By Artico2 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12700887. Madame Pompadour’s apartment By Trizek – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15866304.

This story was updated in 2022.

To Top

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!