Historic Trim & Moldings

By Scott Sidler May 16, 2012

Molding and Trimwork
Image Copyright: 123RF photos

The trim installed in your home has gone through a lot of changes over the last couple of centuries. On the simple frontier homes of early colonial America, there wasn’t much need for the fanciful trim and moldings present in European homes at the time. It was a wild country and the focus was on survival. But, as the country matured, so did its stylistic tastes in molding.

Moldings came about because they both simplify the process of assembling a house and also beautify it. Form follows function, right? Transitions from one type of material to another in a house can be very difficult to perfect. Doorjambs meet walls, walls meet floors, and ceilings meet walls. These are all places where it saves time and material if you have a little leeway with the perfection of your cuts. Slight imperfections can be hidden by moldings, which ultimately make the transition look even nicer than a clean transition could.

A good baseboard hides the ugly transition between plaster/drywall and your floor. It gives a perfectly straight line and a finished feel to the space.

Doorways are another element that need room to fit just right and in this situation, casings hide the imperfect joints and shims used to level the door. And, let’s not forget the thousands of hands that will handle the doorway over its lifetime. A semi-gloss casing is much more resistant to marking than the flat paint on your walls. Even crown molding helps to dress up the transition from wall to ceiling. Done properly, it can make a room seem taller or shorter depending on what the designer wants.

Period Trim

There are hundreds of trim styles and patterns available at mills and home stores today. Going into detail about each individual architectural style is well beyond the scope of this article, but we would like to give a few details about some of the more common house styles across America and the moldings typically found within. Unless noted otherwise, the trim was typically painted a semi-gloss bright white color.

Greek Revival (1825-1860)– Typically, wide bandings of trim both inside and out were common with significant door casings reminiscent of classical Greek and Roman styles. Dentils are a detail used almost to excess in this style. Large crown molding is also typical

Gothic Revival (1840-1870) – A simpler version than the ornate Queen Anne, except for very detailed vergeboards on the steep exterior gable ends.

Queen Anne/Victorian (1880-1910) – Tall baseboards and ornate, highly detailed moldings were common in this style.

American Craftsman (1905-1930) – This style took a decidedly earthy turn from its predecessors. The trim patterns became greatly simplified and more geometric with fewer rounded designs. Baseboards and casings were often finished natural or stained and varnished to reveal the natural wood’s color.

Moderne (1930-1959) – The modern age brought about a massive desire for simplicity and minimalism. Smooth patterns with minimal or no pattern on short, thin casings and baseboards ruled the day.

Another great source for for finding the right style moldings for your historic home is the Kuiken Brothers Design Guide that has molding sets for specific historic house styles. Here you can find molding choices for many of the styles listed above.

Matching the appropriate moldings to your historic home will add value and character. If you feel your home has had its period trim replaced by contractor grade products, you can easily bring the character back by restoring this valuable element back to your home. Next time, we’ll talk a bit more about how to properly install these elements. From how to cope joints to where to start your installation, we’ll cover the important points you need to know.

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9 thoughts on “Historic Trim & Moldings”

  1. Scott, I have a 1936 home in WI, that I believe to be in the “traditional minimalist” style. Would you recommend going with a craftsman type trim, or a “lighter/simpler” mission/moderne style trim? The previous owner replaced the baseboards in the living room with a 1×8 with a shoe base, sometimes installed”flat” rather than “tall” 🙁 overall, it looks very bulky and blocky. Thanks, Tim.

  2. Marble door knobs and fireplace staircase and picks and moulding and trim from a 1930’s house I have for sale where do I get started

  3. When I was little, I had to scrub the baseboards, but my mother called them servayces, not sure of the spelling but that’s how it is said. Other people refer to them as surbases. Can you tell me if there is such a word or have I been saying it incorrectly for 50 years ? Thanks for your help with this dispute.

  4. Scott – great article, and thank you for referencing our Moulding Design Guide! That has become a very popular resource! ~Your Friends at Kuiken Brothers Company

  5. Scott – Thanks again as usual for all of your insight. Our first house was an 1848 Charleston row house with wonderful trim. When we moved into our 2002 house two years ago, changing the trim on the first floor was one of my husband’s first priorities. A “combination” of the Moderne and the historic the original trim was narrow with a shallow profile – basically a cheap mimic of good trim. Having good solid, appropriate trim makes ALL the difference for the house’s general spirit. Thanks for the reminder of trim’s importance.

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