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A Guide to the Mystery and Allure of Victorian Homes

Why were Victorian homes so cramped, dark and creepy? Discover the style popularized during Queen Victoria’s reign, featuring dark interiors and extravagant detail. Join as we explore the story behind the style that inspired modernism and continues to impact design today.

What do you know about Victorian homes? If the Addams Family’s mansion springs to mind, you’re on the right track. Some other Victorian settings you might recognize from popular movies include homes used in Crimson Peak, The Others and The Haunting.

But just why is the Victorian style so dark and mysterious? (The Washington Post even described this interior design style as appearing “haunted”). It turns out that there are a number of reasons why the Victorian architectural and interior design style was so different to the styles that came before or after it, and why it endures as such a staple in dark fantasy shows. 

The main takeaways: The small size of compartmentalized rooms and crammed floor plans which let in very little light, a tendency to heavy decoration, and a love for the foreboding Gothic style of architecture.

Today we’ll take a behind-the-scenes look at the Victorian style. This was a design style so dark and cramped that it inspired a backlash. The result was a “social rebellion” led by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright who imagined more organic ways of designing homes, and led directly to the design movement that we know today as modernism. Let’s begin.

How to understand the Victorian style

Victorian homes became common during the 19th century (1837-1901) and they are named for then reining Queen Victoria, one of the most influential English monarchs of all time. This was the century when the technological advancements of the first industrial revolution first began to impact homes and interiors. 

In fact, it could be said that the industrial revolution significantly influenced the evolution and prominence of the Victorian style in architecture and interior design.

In the Victorian Age new manufacturing techniques and materials like cast iron and steel, enabled architects and builders to create larger, more intricate structures with ornate facades and elaborate detailing. Another important factor in the evolution of the Victorian style was the emergence of rapid urbanization. It makes sense: as the Industrial Revolution made way for more people to work in factories, these factory workers in turn needed housing in the city and close to their jobs.

The result of this change in society was a proliferation, or sheer increase in volume, of homes built in the Victorian architectural style. Some of the types of housing developed during this time include terraced houses, row houses, and multi-story buildings. Today we can find many examples of Victorian style homes in the U.S. and Canada, and as far afield as India, South Africa and Australia.

New money vibes

There’s no doubt that homes from the Victorian era were often tailored to accommodate the burgeoning middle class. The major shift in society that occurred at this time fundamentally reshaped the built environment and even the societal norms of the era.

For one thing, there was a big expansion of the middle class, at this time. This emerging wealthy class were what might have been considered “new money” at the time. Many of them had made their fortunes or garnered their disposable income on the heels of the Industrial Revolution’s economic transformations. This was a time of new opportunity, and it in turn fueled aspirations for domestic comfort, luxury, and social status. In essence, Victorian homes and interiors came about as the literal embodiment of these aspirations.

The early evolution of Victorian style

The Victorian style is almost by default dark, cramped and even cluttered. It’s easy to differentiate it from other traditional styles by its many separate and distinct rooms; most of which were very small, with some bedrooms no bigger than closets which fit a bed and nothing else. The Victorian style also features a lot of ornate detailing, which speaks to the desire for average people of the time to have “frills” and fancy things. Ornamentation and decoration is fine, but when done in excess in already cramped rooms, the result can be oppressive.

It’s important to understand the context here: Many people who had previously lived in rural settings were now moving to cities, and for the first time they could afford now-readily available and manufactured furniture and decor. It’s not always a cliche: you could say that some of these new wealthy had money, but didn’t always have the taste that comes with experience in decorating homes.

This situation lends itself to the ‘eclectic hoarder‘ vibe you get when looking at some Victorian interiors.

Another important thing to remember is that before the industrial revolution furniture was crafted by hand, but this also this also made it expensive and time-consuming to create. In the Victorian age factories began churning out great abundances of furniture and other home items, making them cheap and much more readily available. Not unlike today, while manufactured furniture was plentiful, it wasn’t always well made or of the highest quality.

When it comes to the aesthetics of Victorian home goods manufacturers looked for inspiration from ever-new and eclectic design sources to keep consumers happy. This added to the mix-and-match variety of home decor styles available at the time.

Exposure to the culture of other countries was yet another factor that contributed to the Victorian style . Trade was at a height at this time (this period, under Queen Victoria, is often referred to as the “Age of Exploration“), and these trade networks and the subsequent exposure to diverse cultures fostered a fascination with exotic motifs and materials. This influence from other cultures is seen in oriental rugs, Middle Eastern patterns, and other eclectic design features in Victorian architecture and interiors.

How to recognize a Victorian home

Recognizing a Victorian home and its interior typically involves identifying specific architectural and design characteristics associated with the Victorian era, which spanned from 1837 to 1901.

Externally, Victorian homes often feature elaborate and asymmetrical facades, with intricate woodwork, decorative trim, and ornate detailing such as gingerbread trim, brackets, and carved embellishments. The roofs may display varied pitches, with turrets, gables, and dormer windows adding verticality and complexity to the structure. Other important architectural features were bay windows, stained glass panels, and multi-textured exteriors using materials like brick, stone, and wood; all common features.

Internally, Victorian interiors tended to have a rich palette of colors, including deep reds, greens, and blues, often showcased in wallpapers, fabrics, and paint. Ornate moldings, ceiling medallions, and plasterwork adorn ceilings and walls, reflecting a sense of opulence and craftsmanship. Fireplaces with decorative mantels, intricate woodwork, and stained glass windows further enhance the period charm. The presence of distinct rooms, such as parlors, dining rooms, and libraries, each with specific functions and adorned with period-appropriate furnishings and decor, further accentuates the Victorian aesthetic.

To sum that up, recognizing a Victorian home and interior involves appreciating its ornate details, eclectic influences, and the historical context that shaped this iconic architectural and design style. 

In terms of the Big 5 style spectrum that we teach on this site the Victorian style was ‘Pure Traditional‘, and on the 8×2 Style Personality index it was usually TSOP, which stands for Traditional, Saturated, Ornate and Patterned, although TSOS (not patterned, but solid) was also possible.

Why Victorian architecture looks so Gothic

If Victorian architecture gives off Gothic vibes, that’s because it was heavily influenced by the Gothic style. Victorian architecture often incorporated elements of Gothic architecture, which added to its dark and mysterious presence. During the Victorian era (1837-1901), architects drew inspiration from various historical styles, and the Gothic Revival was a prominent influence. To spot these features look for characteristics like pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and decorative tracery. These features commonly seen in Gothic architecture influenced many Victorian buildings, and they reflected a romanticized interest in medieval design.

Nothing spooky about the Dark Ages, right?

Victorian homes: Mixed architectural influences

Since Victorian architecture drew inspiration from a mix of styles and incorporated diverse influences we thought it might be interesting to look at some of them to gain a deeper understanding of how Victorian style came about. Obviously Gothic Revival was one important stylistic influence. Apart from Gothic, some other notable influences on the style include:

Queen Anne Style: This style was characterized by asymmetry, varied rooflines, and decorative details. It often embraced eclectic elements from different historical styles.

Romanesque Revival: Borrowing from medieval Romanesque architecture, it emphasized sturdy masonry, arches, and a fortress-like appearance.

Tudor Revival: Reflecting elements of Tudor and Elizabethan architecture, with half-timbering, steep gables, and mullioned windows.

Italianate Style: Inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture, featuring elaborate cornices, balconies, and tall windows.

Second Empire Style: Influenced by French architecture of the Second French Empire, featuring mansard roofs and ornate detailing.

The eclectic nature of Victorian architecture resulted in a rich blend of styles, showcasing the era’s fascination with historical and global design elements.

Key features of Victorian homes

Victorian architectural elements

Asymmetry: Victorian homes often exhibited asymmetrical designs, both externally and internally. This asymmetry contributed to a sense of eclecticism and visual interest.

Multiple Stories: Victorian houses were typically two or more stories high. The ground floor typically housed common areas like the living room and dining room, while bedrooms were situated on the upper floors.

Towers and Turrets: Some Victorian homes featured towers or turrets, which not only added to the aesthetic appeal but also provided panoramic views. These elements were more common in larger homes but could be found in smaller ones as well.

Verandas and Porches: Many Victorian homes had front or wrap-around verandas and porches, providing additional outdoor living space.

Victorian interior space planning features

Distinctive Rooms: Victorian homes had separate, distinct rooms with specific functions. Common rooms included the parlor (used for formal entertaining), the dining room, and the kitchen.

Small Rooms: Compared to modern open floor plans, Victorian homes often had smaller, compartmentalized rooms. This was partly due to the available construction techniques and the desire for a more intimate, cozy atmosphere.

Hallways and Vestibules: Victorian homes typically had central hallways that ran from the front to the back of the house, connecting various rooms. Vestibules were common near the entrance to provide a buffer between the outside and inside.

Servant Quarters: In larger Victorian homes, there might be designated areas for servants, including bedrooms and service corridors. In smaller households, these features might be less pronounced.

Victorian stylistic features

Ornate Details: Victorian architecture was known for its ornate details, including elaborate woodwork, decorative moldings, and stained glass windows. These details were often found in the interior as well, enhancing the visual richness of the living spaces.

Fireplaces: Victorian homes commonly had multiple fireplaces, often with decorative mantels, in various rooms. These fireplaces served both functional and aesthetic purposes.

How Victorian homes reflected the lifestyle of that time

Depending on your tolerance for spooky homes and closed floor plans, Victorian homes may or may not be your thing. But how was life in the Victorian era, and how did the homes of the time reflect the Victorians’ now-archaic lifestyle?

To understand the Victorian style properly it’s important to know that the Victorian era embodied a host of societal norms and values that starkly contrast with our modern and contemporary perspectives and practices. Central to this era was the adherence to rigid gender roles, where women were confined to ideals of domesticity, modesty, and motherhood, with limited avenues for education, employment, and public engagement.

Reading Bill Bryson’s book “At Home” uncovers multiple stories that must be heard to be believed regarding the practices and excesses of the time. It also sheds disturbing light on the plight of the common people in a society where servitude was so commonplace that even servants had servants. Among the working class in Britain two out of every three girls and women between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five were servants, and the third was a prostitute.

Concurrently, men were expected to serve as primary breadwinners, maintain authoritative roles within the household, and navigate the public and professional realms, reflecting a stark division of labor and expectations between genders.

Victorian society was characterized by a strict moral code, underscored by Christian values and principles, which permeated all aspects of daily life. This religious influence not only shaped individual behaviors and beliefs but also extended to broader societal norms, legislation, and cultural practices. Alongside these religious underpinnings, the era was marked by a rigid class structure, where distinctions among social classes dictated opportunities, privileges, and experiences.

As you can imagine, life in the Victorian age was no bed of roses. People at this time were forced to adhere to a lot of strict formal etiquette and decorum. Social rituals governed interpersonal relationships, public behavior, and societal interactions, reinforcing a culture of politeness, respectability, and conformity. The societal norms of the Victorian age give us insight into our own time, as profound shifts and transformations in attitudes, values, and practices have evolved over subsequent generations. 

Victorian interior design

Victorian homes were characterized by a compartmentalized and highly functional approach to interior design, with separate rooms designated for specific functions. As you’ve learned, this design philosophy reflected the social norms and lifestyle of the 19th century.

Here are some insights into the distinct rooms found in Victorian homes that we might find strange and interesting to us today:

The parlor

  • Function: The parlor, also known as the sitting room or drawing room, was a formal space designed for entertaining guests. It was often the showcase of the home, featuring fine furniture, elegant decor, and precious objects.
  • Interesting Note: The parlor was a space where families displayed their social status and refinement. It was a room used for hosting guests on special occasions and was meticulously decorated.

The dining room

  • Function: The dining room was specifically designated for meals. It housed a large dining table, chairs, and often featured elaborate china cabinets or sideboards for displaying fine tableware.
  • Interesting Note: The Victorian dining room reflected the importance placed on formal dining and social rituals. Meals were typically structured events with multiple courses, and the dining room was designed to accommodate these formalities.

The library or study

  • Function: The library or study was a private space for reading, study, and intellectual pursuits. It often contained bookshelves, a writing desk, and comfortable seating.
  • Interesting Note: The Victorian era saw a rise in literacy and education, and having a designated space for intellectual activities was a symbol of cultural refinement. It was a room for personal growth and reflection.

The morning room

  • Function: The morning room was a more casual space, often used for family activities during the day. It might be a place for reading newspapers, playing games, or enjoying informal meals.
  • Interesting Note: The morning room represented a shift toward a more relaxed and family-oriented lifestyle compared to the formality of the parlor. It was a space where the family could gather for everyday activities.


  • Function: Bedrooms were private spaces for rest and personal retreat. Victorian bedrooms featured large, ornate beds, and the decor often reflected the tastes of the occupants.
  • Interesting Note: Victorian bedrooms were often personalized with the occupant’s preferences in mind. The bed was a focal point, and canopy beds with elaborate draperies were common.


  • Function: The kitchen was the domain of the servants and was primarily a workspace for preparing meals. It was often located at the back of the house to minimize interaction with the more formal living areas.
  • Interesting Note: Victorian kitchens were not designed for socializing but were practical spaces equipped with large stoves, worktables, and storage for utensils. The separation of the kitchen from the main living areas reflected the hierarchical structure of Victorian households.

Drawing (or withdrawing) room

  • Function: Similar to the parlor, the drawing room or withdrawing room was a space for intimate conversations and relaxation. It was often a more private setting within the home.
  • Interesting Note: The term “withdrawing room” reflects its function as a space where individuals could withdraw for more private and personal interactions. It was a precursor to the modern living room.

Why were Victorian rooms so small?

Now to answer the one persistently perplexing mystery about Victorian rooms: why they were often so tiny. The perception that Victorian rooms were small, even as small as closets, can be attributed to several factors related to the architectural and societal norms of the time.

First, during the Victorian era, there was a widespread emphasis on compartmentalization and clearly defined functional spaces within a home. This led to the creation of numerous smaller rooms, each serving a specific purpose, as opposed to the more open floor plans common in contemporary design.

Second, practical considerations, such as the limitations of available building materials and construction techniques, influenced the size of rooms. Additionally, the size of rooms varied based on factors like social class, regional differences, and individual preferences. While some Victorian rooms were indeed small, others in larger homes could be more spacious.

Finally, societal norms of privacy and the role of separate spaces for different activities also contributed to the creation of smaller, specialized rooms within Victorian homes.

    Understanding the specific functions of each room in a Victorian home provides insight into the social norms, rituals, and values of the time. It’s interesting for contemporary readers to compare these designated spaces with the more open and flexible floor plans of modern homes, observing how societal changes have influenced the design of living spaces over the years.

    Why were Victorian homes so asymmetrical?

    Our second line of investigation is why Victorians wanted homes that were asymmetrical, since symmetry is usually a defining feature of classical and traditional design. Asymmetry was in fact a defining characteristic of Victorian architecture, and this principle was evident in the interiors of Victorian homes as well. The asymmetrical nature of these homes contributed to their picturesque and eclectic appearance.

    Here are several ways in which asymmetry manifested in the design of Victorian houses:

    1. Varied Rooflines:
      • Victorian homes often featured complex and varied rooflines with multiple gables, turrets, and dormer windows. These elements were arranged in an asymmetrical fashion, creating visual interest and a sense of irregularity.
    2. Off-Center Entries:
      • The main entrance of a Victorian home was frequently placed off-center, contributing to the overall asymmetry. This design choice often allowed for more dynamic and visually appealing facades.
    3. Different Window Sizes and Shapes:
      • Victorian homes embraced a variety of window sizes, shapes, and styles. Asymmetrical window placement and different types of windows, such as bay windows, oriel windows, and stained glass windows, added complexity to the facade.
    4. Projecting Bays and Turrets:
      • Projecting bays and turrets were common features in Victorian architecture. These elements extended outward from the main structure in asymmetrical arrangements, creating a sense of depth and dimension.
    5. Decorative Trim and Detailing:
      • Elaborate decorative trim, such as intricate woodwork and ornate moldings, often adorned the exteriors of Victorian homes. The placement of these details contributed to the asymmetry of the facade.
    6. Different Materials and Colors:
      • Victorian homes frequently used a mix of materials, including brick, stone, wood, and decorative shingles. The asymmetrical use of these materials, along with contrasting colors, enhanced the visual complexity of the exterior.
    7. Wrap-Around Porches and Verandas:
      • Victorian homes often featured expansive wrap-around porches or verandas that extended unevenly across the front facade. These outdoor spaces contributed to the asymmetry while providing additional functional and aesthetic value.
    8. Irregular Floor Plans:
      • The layout of rooms and the overall floor plan of Victorian homes could be irregular and asymmetrical. This was a departure from the more formal and symmetrical floor plans of previous architectural styles.
    9. Eccentric Architectural Styles:
      • Victorian architecture encompassed a variety of styles, such as Italianate, Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, and Second Empire, each with its own unique features. The incorporation of these eclectic styles often resulted in asymmetrical designs.
    10. Landscaping and Gardens:
      • Victorian homes were often complemented by asymmetrical landscaping, with carefully designed gardens that followed the natural contours of the land. The placement of paths, plantings, and ornamental features contributed to the overall asymmetry of the property.

    The answer to why asymmetry was favored in Victorian design is that is represented a departure from the more formal and symmetrical styles that preceded it. In other words, it was a new craze; a way of being creative and trying to stand out. The intention was to create visually interesting and picturesque compositions that reflected the individuality and eclecticism of the era. The result was a diverse range of homes with unique and captivating exteriors.

    The legacy of the Victorian age

    As we come to the end of this exploration into the Victorian style it is clear that Victorian architecture played an important role in the legacy of both interior design and architecture. Whether influencing new styles or creating the backlash that sparked modernism, this dynamic era has left an indelible mark on the built environment. It’s remarkable diversity of styles, ranging from the Gothic Revival to Italianate and Queen Anne, Victorian architecture provided architects and designers with a vast and eclectic palette.

    This diversity fostered a spirit of innovation and experimentation in both interior and exterior design. Victorian architecture also ushered in advancements in construction materials and technology, embracing the use of iron, steel, and new manufacturing techniques, influencing the scale and ornateness of structures.

    The revival of historical styles within Victorian architecture sparked a renewed interest in architectural history, setting the stage for later revivals in the 20th century. The meticulous emphasis on ornamentation, intricate woodwork, decorative moldings, and stained glass windows became synonymous with the Victorian style, representing a commitment to craftsmanship and artistic expression which is evident in the modern Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles which followed.

    Beyond the aesthetic aspects, we’ve also seen that Victorian architecture played a pivotal role in shaping societal norms, as seen in the compartmentalized and specialized rooms within Victorian homes. This separation of public and private spaces influenced domestic living and continues to offer valuable insights into the cultural values and lifestyles of the 19th century.

    Finally, the cultural and social significance of Victorian architecture is evident in ongoing efforts to preserve and restore historical structures, maintaining a tangible link to the past and contributing to the appreciation of Victorian design in the present day. The influence of Victorian architecture extends beyond its era, impacting subsequent architectural movements and leaving an enduring legacy in the world of design.

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