Ask Historic New England | April 2017

Expert home advice from Historic New England, the largest heritage organization in the country.

By Yankee Magazine

Apr 04 2017


My wife says our windows are old, but I don’t think so because the glass doesn’t have that wavy, bubbly texture. Who’s right? Dave Z., Newmarket, New Hampshire

You’ll probably have to concede to your wife on this one. The glass in old windows often has distinctive ripples and small bubbles, which can give character to an old house, adding a note of imperfection that a blank sheet of modern glass doesn’t have. But that’s not to say that old glass, or other building material in old houses, was deliberately made to look less than perfect.

The goal in producing window glass—either in the hand-blown process of the 18th century or in the mechanized processes of the 19th century—was always to make it as smooth, even, and imperfection-free as possible. The oldest form of window glass, hand-blown crown glass, highly prized for its exceptional brilliance up into the mid-1800s, is less even across the pane as a result of having been spun “flat.” While semi-mechanized and mechanized glass manufacturing would later produce flatter, more even glass, it also created some less-than-perfect bulges and air bubbles. Really flat, imperfection-free window glass didn’t develop until the 1950s, when modern “float” glass production replaced the earlier methods.

So if your house was built before the 1950s, chances are good that your windows are old and that the glass in them is too, even if it’s not full of bubbles and wrinkles!

Sally Zimmerman, Senior Preservation Services Manager

I am in the process of decorating my late-18th-century home and want stay true to the stylistic choices that the builders might have employed. How were plaster walls generally finished at that time? Joe B., Portland, Maine

Eighteenth-century houses offer up an array of possible plaster wall finishes. The most popular was whitewash. Unfortunately, the classic lime-based whitewash has a penchant to become powdery and rub off, dampening some modern enthusiasm for the technique. To get the look of whitewash today, use a flat-finish paint in a cool, off-white shade.

By the end of the 19th century, wallpaper (or “painted paper,” as it was then known) was the fashionable option for plaster walls, especially in more formal rooms. Wallpaper first became popular in Europe, where it was produced by artisans and imported to the colonies to cover the walls of the most modern, upper-class members of society. One of the first wallpaper manufacturers in America was Plunket Fleeson, who started producing his own paper in Philadelphia as early as 1739.

But even with local manufacturing, wallpaper was an expensive option. More cost-conscious homeowners turned to local artisans who made a business of hand-painting walls to mimic the patterned paper. This would have been done with a paint called “distemper,” composed of water and glue with the addition of a coloring agent. Occasionally oil paint was used, but this was less common because it was harder to apply. Both distemper and oil paints were sometimes used to paint rooms a single solid color.

Gillian Lang, Preservation Services Manager

We just bought our first old house and can’t wait to start restoring it. What should we do first?William P., Williamstown, Massachusetts

There are three steps to consider before starting on a restoration: documenting existing conditions, identifying and prioritizing repairs, and seeking expert advice and knowledge.

Documenting existing conditions creates a record of the house as it was when you began. This will be helpful for you, as well as future owners, in identifying when work was completed and what changes were made. It can also give you a great sense of satisfaction, as you look back at the progress you’ve made over time.

Next, make a plan and prioritize the order of work. While it’s tempting to jump into cosmetic repairs to realize your vision for the house as soon as possible, repainting a peeling wall without addressing the leaking gutter or missing shingles that may be the underlying cause can be a waste of time and money. Do critical structural work—such as roofing, framing, and foundation repairs—first.

Finally, do your homework and take time to consider what you are trying to achieve and how it may affect the house. As the new owner of an old house, you will want to look for the most appropriate methods of restoration. What steps can you take to achieve your goals while still preserving as much of the house’s historic character and material as possible? Where can you learn more about the history of the house and its historic appearance? There are many great resources to help you answer these questions, including the National Park Service’s Preservation Briefs website, your local historical society or public library history room, and specialized support services like Historic New England’s Historic Homeowner program.

Dylan Peacock, Preservation Services Manager

I want to install a porch light on my old house. What’s the right style?Lynn N., Madison, Connecticut

A quick tour of the exterior lighting section in your local big box store can give you the impression that wrought iron or hammered copper hanging lanterns and baronial sconces graced the front porches of old. But given that many houses, and especially those in rural areas, lacked electrical service until the 20th century, it’s unlikely that a house of the 1880s or earlier would have had much in the way of original porch lighting, even though interior lighting spilling through transoms and sidelights would have provided some illumination.

When porch lighting was added to these houses, the type of fixture used was most often a simple, neutral ceiling-mounted fixture with an opaque white globe. It can be difficult to find exterior-grade fixtures without embellishments of some sort, but often the less expensive fixtures will be more appropriate. A flush-mounted fixture with a circular black base and a white globe will add the light you want without the distraction of superfluous “style” features that call attention to themselves rather than to your great old porch. If the storm door is too tall to clear a ceiling-mounted fixture, similar wall-mounted globe lights on a circular black base are available.

Sally Zimmerman, Senior Preservation Services Manager

Got a question about an old house you need answered? Submit your questions to Historic New England at:

Historic New England is the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation. Historic New England shares the region’s history through vast collections, publications, programs, museum properties, archives, and stories that document more than 400 years of life in New England. For more information visit: