Do you have Portieres in your house? Do you know what Portieres are? If your house is older than 1950 I can bet your house had them.
Portieres – otherwise known as an archway drape or curtain, were first used in castles. With the high ceilings and large rooms of Victorian homes, they made their comeback. They then became so popular they were used in all architectural styles from mansions to apartments through the 1940’s.
Portieres were great for closing off unheated rooms, keeping out drafts, and keeping heat from a fireplace or stove confined to a room for extra warmth and out of the halls where it was less needed.
During this time heavy elaborate draperies were also used for window treatments, which provided an extra layer of insulation over a cold window. Together the two contributed to the highly decorative style of Victorian interior decoration.
Elaborate Portieres – not much heavier than the woman’s dress. Note the tie-backs are in different locations. Actually I believe the woman is wearing a portiere.
Edith Wharton in her book “The Decoration of Houses” (1897), states that pocket doors were somewhat heavy and difficult to operate and portieres solved that problem. Portieres became one of the highest expenses in decorating a room when the money could have been used for something seemingly more important like repairing a cracked ceiling. Wharton also stated that portieres covered up the architecture of doorways. (this is when hung by a rod attached to the wood above the doorway, not set within the opening).
Did your house have portieres? Look for ghost marks close to the top on the inside of your archways.
You will probably see a circular mark of a holder for a 1 ½ inch pole which held the portieres.
You may even find smaller ghost marks where you currently have other doors.
The fashion of portieres became so popular that sometimes a door was removed or a portiere installed in front of the door and drawn to the side for appearance only.
Heavy velvet was the most popular material. They were usually made with a different color on each side to match the room you were facing.
Lighter weight portieres would be used during the warmer months. Some actually incorporated the use of an elaborate cord and pulley system for opening and closing.
The purpose of keeping out drafts during the winter soon became a lesser priority as the fashion of using portieres exploded.
After a while your archway would be considered naked if it did not have some sort of decoration such as a portiere on each side, on one side, a rope portiere, wood fretwork spandrels, etc.
Portieres also separate the parlor from the rear parlor. There is one panel on each side of the archway.
The left doorway shows a portiere hung in the center to one side.
More photos of my restoration and portiers here.
Leather portieres or just a valance were options listed in the 1927 Sears catalog
Fabric color and fringe details were listed in the 1897 Sears catalog.
Other Uses for Portiere’s
Portiere’s also make great dresses during times of war!
For more detailed information on Portieres click here to refer to the Old House Journal article from September 1977. Scroll to page 103.