Dollhouse Decorating

Miniature Decorating Ideas |Articles on decorating dollhouses and the history of this artform


I have had a life-long love affair with dollhouse miniatures, and careers in art education and interior design. I hope to combine these life experiences to help other miniature enthusiasts get more out of this wonderful hobby we enjoy, a hobby that often reaches the level of an art form. Susan Downing

Posted on 23 July, 2016


Orange Victorian, source unknown

Victorian Painted Ladies

I had always thought the Victorian Painted Lady originated in San Francisco, and that is partially true. That’s where the term was coined after the second world war. The gingerbread on a Victorian house has always inspired outrageous color schemes, and that goes back to nineteen century England. What wonderful dollhouses they make!

It’s All About The Gingerbread

If new technology drove innovation in Victorian architecture, nostalgia was the inspiration for plundering past designs. By the mid-nineteenth century, handcrafted decorations were not the only choice. Mass production allowed anyone that could afford to build a house to tack on any sort of corbel, bracket or gable they wanted. Painting these appendages a different color helped each to stand out in the crowd of decoration.

The desire to have a Victorian home spread throughout the British Empire and its former colonies. Clusters were built wherever cities were expanding or being rebuilt after disasters, natural and manmade. Think San Francisco after the earthquake or Atlanta after the Civil War.

The Colorist Movement

Jump forward to 1963. San Francisco artist Butch Kardum combined intense blues and greens on the exterior of his Italianate-style Victorian house on Steiner Street. Neighbors began to copy the bright colors on their own houses. By the 1970s the colorist movement, as it was called, had changed entire streets and neighborhoods.

The term “painted ladies” was first used for San Francisco Victorian houses by writers Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen in their 1978 book Painted Ladies – San Francisco’s Resplendent Victorians

Not Everybody Loved “Colorful”

During World Wars I and II, many of these houses were painted battleship gray with war-surplus Navy paint.

victorian-painted-ladies-San Francisco-Steiner Street

San Francisco Steiner Street Painted Ladies, found on Tony Hoffarth Flickr stream.

Another sixteen thousand were demolished, and many others had the Victorian decor stripped off or covered with tarpaper, brick, stucco, or aluminum siding.


San Francisco Painted Lady Dollhouse #12, exterior

Dollhouse Style Choice

One architectural tome states the following: “A Victorian house is any house that was built during the reign of Queen Victoria of England, which lasted from June 20th, 1837 to January 22, 1901. The style extends through the Edwardian era, ending about 1915.”

Here is a partial list of the major headings:

British Arts and Crafts Movement
Gothic Revival
Painted Ladies
Queen Anne

Renaissance Revival
Romanesque Revival
Second Empire
Industrial has a good gallery of the major categories of Victorian houses.


San Francisco Painted Lady Dollhouse #12, interior

Best Panted Lady Style For A Dollhouse


DuraCraft Dollhouse Kit found on Kymberli Mitchell Pinterest board

Which is the best Victorian style for your painted lady dollhouse? This is truly a matter of taste. Romanesque may not be a good choice. They are mostly stone, with very little wood besides the trim. The same can be true of brick Queen Annes. Better choices might be Italianate, Second Empire or Eastlake styles. My personal preference goes more to line, than a particular style. I like verticals, giving the feeling that all this color is reaching to the heavens. Horizontal bands of color can make the dollhouse look squat to me.

San Francisco Is Not Alone

Other cities in the United States have large collections of colorful Victorians. The rebuilding of Atlanta after Civil War coincided with the development of synthetic pigments being added to paint, providing more vibrant colors than natural pigments could. Los Angeles has scattered sections of Victorians, as does New Orleans.


Haitian architecture in Bois-Verna, found on a Pinterest architecture board

Haitian Architecture

The style of multi-colored exteriors with complicated decorations seems to have been codified in Haiti. Haitian architecture students studying in Paris in the late Victorian era modified French resort architecture to the Haitian climate, keeping the vibrant patterns and flamboyant colors they found on the Mediterranean coast.


It’s hard to be wrong when choosing the color pallet for a Painted Lady dollhouse. Some schemes may be more aesthetically appealing than others. But if accused of making a mistake, you can always say, “I meant it to be that way.”


Posted by Susan Downing

Categories: Victorian

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