Historic Holiday Decor

Borrow ideas from history for a time-tested holiday look 

Hearthstone Historic House Museum

From Christmas trees to cornucopias, many holiday decorations trending today are variations on styles from decades gone by. 

“People today have simply built on the traditions of the past,” says Ann Sager, a volunteer at Hearthstone Historic House Museum in Appleton. 

Debra Daubert, curator at the Oshkosh Public Museum, says the museum staff consults historical documents when decorating the Sawyer home, an English Tudor Revival residence built in 1908, which houses the museum. 

“We get inspiration by going to primary sources,” she says. “You can look at old magazines online, like Ladies’ Home Journal, which can tell you all sorts of things.” 

This year, try taking a few tips from bygone eras to inspire your holiday decor.  

Tabletop Christmas Trees

In 1837, Charles A. Grignon built an elegant mansion in Kaukauna as a wedding gift for his wife, Mary Elizabeth Meade. Today the historic mansion hosts tours and events year round, including during the holidays. Patty DeGoey, president of the Friends of the Gignon Mansion, says holiday decorations in the late 1830s and early 1840s were minimal. 

“At that time, especially around 1837 to the early 1840s, people didn’t really decorate. Christmas trees weren’t introduced to America until the mid-1840s,” DeGoey says.

Charles A. Grignon Mansion

The majority of the decor is on the mansion’s exterior and utilizes natural elements. Wreaths adorn doors and pine boughs drape the balconies. Interior decor is understated with simple touches like pine boughs on the mantle.

“Kaukauna’s first tree was in 1888. That was brought by an immigrant German couple who had a tabletop Christmas tree and that kind of caught on,” DeGoey says. 

Prior to electricity, Christmas trees were lit with real candles. This made tabletop trees a practical choice. “You saw tabletop trees because they were a lot easier to control in case of fire, so for the average person that was enough,” Daubert says. 

Christmas dinner at the Van Every House in 1911. Courtesy of Oshkosh Public Museum.

For minimalists looking to streamline decor, this is a great time period to mimic. Tabletop trees are usually only a couple feet tall and sit easily on a table or stand, as the name implies. They work wonderfully in small spaces like apartments or in less trafficked rooms, like a bedroom, where you want just a touch of festivity. 

Opulent Elegance 

By the late 19th century, Christmas decorations had become more lavish. Imagine the grand decor that would have been displayed at the historic Charles R. Smith house on Forest Avenue in Neenah. The Queen Anne and Eastlake-style home was built in 1891 and includes Italianate and Colonial revival features. The current owners of the Smith house honor the home’s original opulence by displaying five Christmas trees, in addition to the rest of the decorations. 

Charles R. Smith house

Leslie Wilson, owner of Bellwether Interior Design in Neenah, handled the holiday decorating and says it took two people six hours to trim the home last year. Even if you are only decorating one tree, Wilson says you can achieve a rich look by adding texture with flocked boughs, sticks and ribbons throughout the branches.

Victorians liked to go over-the-top when decorating the dining room. Daubert says it’s simple to achieve a similar look with a show-stopping table centerpiece. 

“Early Victorians loved to put things on mirrors, this isn’t a new trick,” she says. “I like to layer thrift store bowls and vases on a mirror to make a centerpiece.” 

Daubert recommends stacking bowls and vases to create a tiered centerpiece and filling the vessels with cotton batting, real or artificial evergreens, holly branches, poinsettias and, of course, a touch of sparkle. 

“Anything glitter or painted gold was perfect for a Victorian,” Daubert says. 

Edible Decor 

Throughout the 19th century, food doubled as decor during Christmastime. “For early German families in the 1830s and ‘40s, anything on their tree was most likely consumable,” Daubert says.

Even later in the century, Sager says trees were often decorated with foods such as fruits and nuts. 

“Everything was handmade and a lot of times presents were put on the actual tree,” she says “People would make little cornucopias that they could fill with candy and hang on the tree.” 

Trees were also decorated with edible cookies. A reusable version of these decorative cookies can be made from a mixture of cinnamon, applesauce and glue. Bonus: the ornaments will release the cozy aroma of cinnamon for years to come.

Edible elements are a cost effective way to add both beautiful color and fragrance to your decor. Try incorporating seasonal fruits like citrus, pears and pomegranates to a table arrangement or on a wreath. Of course, there’s no going wrong with a classic popcorn and cranberry garland draped on a mantle or tree.  

Old World Ornaments


These embossed, hand-painted cardboard ornaments were popular from about 1880 until World War II. They were often painted with metallic silver or gold paint and decorated with scraps (Victorian-style paper ephemera) that can be purchased today at most craft stores.


Meaning “ball” or “sphere” in German, kugels are ornaments made of handblown glass. “The first Christmas trees being used would grow sparse and had lots of open spots. They weren’t groomed trees like we’re used to,” Daubert says. Large kugels helped fill in the open spaces and created beautiful reflective surfaces for the tree’s candles.

Paper Flowers

An 1880s edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book suggests adorning the top part of your tree, where ornaments should be lightweight, with handmade paper flowers. “Stars, hearts and other shapes cut from bright [colored] paper and threaded on long stands of yellow or red wool can be festooned among the branches,” it says.

Holiday Swag  

Find vintage decor inspiration at these decked out historic home displays 

Deck the Halls

November 17-December 30

This year the Oshkosh Public Museum’s holiday exhibit is inspired by hygge, a Danish concept of savoring life’s simple pleasures. Experience the museum set aglow with a nostalgic display of holiday décor, combining ambient interiors, cozy settings and conviviality – all the makings of a happier hygge holiday. 10am-4:30pm. Oshkosh Public Museum. 236-5799.

Hearthstone Victorian Christmas

November 23-January 13

Fill your senses with the sights, sounds, smells and textures of Christmas in a beautifully restored 1880s mansion. Special nighttime lighted tours with music and costumed characters on Friday evenings in December from 6-8pm. Th-Sa, 10am-3pm. Su, 1-3:30pm. Hearthstone Historic House Museum, Appleton. 730-8204.

Grignon Mansion Christmas Tours

November 30-December 2 & December 7-9

On Saturdays, Lamers Trolley will provide Christmas light tours from 4:30-7:30 p.m. On Sundays, guests can take horse drawn wagon rides from 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. There will also be crafts and cookie decorating for children. Sample Grignon family recipes, wassail (hot spiced cider) and milk punch (eggnog). Fridays 5-8pm; Saturdays 11am-7pm; Sundays 11am-5pm. Charles A. Grignon Mansion, Kaukauna. 766-6106.


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