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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Interiors & Decor » How To Hang Pictures in an Old House

How To Hang Pictures in an Old House

Bang a nail into the drywall? Maybe not, if yours is a period house. Here’s a rundown of picture-hanging conventions from 1840–1940. By Brian D. Coleman

    Two ribbon-covered wires attach to hooks in a picture rail placed immediately under the cornice in an “Elizabethan” Arts & Crafts house. (Photo: Gross & Daley)

    Portraits and tapestries may have hung on the walls of castles, but for most householders, “picture hanging” became popular during the Victorian period of the 19th century. The newly affluent, and even the middle classes, demonstrated their buying power and good taste by covering the walls with paintings and other works of framed art—not to mention mirrors, shelves, plates, and so on.

    Around the 1840s, picture rails or picture molding became common. The idea had been around since the 15th century: hanging pictures from a moveable hook that can hold substantial weight and that doesn’t mar the wall surface. The modern picture rail was simply a horizontal molding of wood or composition material, often decorative, mounted high on the wall.

    Picture rails were mounted in one of three positions. In formal rooms, the rail was mounted ¼” to ½” (for the hooks) beneath crown and cove moldings. A simpler treatment had the rail tacked to the wall at about the height of window and door heads—which left a frieze area between the rail and the ceiling. During much of the Victorian era, the frieze would get decorative embellishment. A more streamlined approach came along with the lowered ceiling heights and minimal moldings of the 1920s and ’30s. Now the picture rail was mounted just a half-inch or so from the ceiling. The old brass hooks no longer fit, but hooks with a rolled profile and wires were used. The gap was often lost in subsequent ceiling repairs—or even caulked over—making the molding useless.

    Today you can buy hooks with different thicknesses and shapes, so test one for fit before buying multiples. A hook not made of cast brass may be re-bent or modified to fit.

    Heavy items should hang from two hooks to distribute the weight. Picture cord, picture wire, or chain may be used to hang the artwork from the hook. Picture cord is a colorful twisted cording on wire; it passes through eyelets (screw eyes) or D-rings mounted on the back of the frame. The wire is tied together at the top, creating a triangle. A medallion or a tassel or both (with a hook built into its back) fancies up the hanging treatment. It was the vogue in some years to make the crisscrossing cords themselves into a decorative treatment.

    Art hung near eye level was kept flat against the wall by attaching the cord or wire high on the back of the frame. Art hung high on the wall, as in a gallery treatment or over a high wainscot, had the cord attached lower so that the piece would tilt forward for easier viewing. (Too low and the painting will flip over! Use eyelet pairs low and also at mid-frame or higher, if necessary.) Most picture cords support about 60 pounds individually. If the item is heavier, you might use heavy-gauge wire or fine-gauge chain. Victorian-era picture hanging—with stacked art, multiple cords, braiding in inverted Vs, tassels, and rosettes—is well documented.

    A pleasing and changeable arrangement of fine art hangs from plain hooks and wire. (Photo: Peter Sorantin)

    Things got simpler in Craftsman and Colonial Revival homes. Still, it wasn’t until after the 1920s that the standard became pictures nailed directly into the wall. Old Craftsman magazine illustrations show framed art hung from a pair of straight-line chains at each side of the picture, going to plain metal hooks hung on a picture rail. Generally, small-gauge wire or chain was the hanger of choice in the post-Victorian period, when cording and tassels fell out of favor. Brass-plated steel and copper hooks are ideal for Craftsman rooms and bungalows. Plain brass, nickel, or white hooks may be appropriate for Colonial Revival and modern interiors. (And, even in period photos, paintings simply rest on a plate rail.)

    By the 1940s the picture rail was passé, and the invisible wall hook standard. Today you might consider picture rails and hooks against wallpaper and in public rooms, along with modern hangers in halls, bathrooms, even bedrooms.

    Published in: Old-House Interiors September/October 2012


    Carolyn Barley October 23, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    How may I buy the cord picture hanging item……..????

    Elissa December 12, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    How do you attach them when they are hanging one above the other? I found that the lower frame brings the cord away from the wall and then the top frame won’t hang right. Carolyn- you can order hooks and cords from Rejuvenation and other online sources.

    Rachel S January 19, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    How do you install a picture rail in a stairwell? The ceilings are very high, and we are not sure where to place the rail. Also, since there is about 18 feet in the highest part of the well, should we do 2 rails (one a few feet above the other) to keep the cords from being so long? Thanks!

    Hope March 13, 2013 at 6:00 am

    @Rachel – They didnt use them in stairwells. Instead, they used nail covers or rosettes. If you google ‘Victorian Picture Hangers’ you will find many examples.

    Michael June 6, 2013 at 12:46 am

    No matter where I look online I cannot find any help on how to hand a large mirror so that it tilts as much as 12 degrees into the room to feature the room instead of the opposing wall. Any help? One article talked about a ledge and the other about piano hinges at the bottom. There must be a simpler way.

    Ginger June 14, 2014 at 11:02 pm

    Michael, you place the eye-hooks more than halfway down the back of the frame on each side and have the wire long enough that the center reaches a few inches below the top of the frame.

    Cecilia August 31, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Hi, where would I find the hardware to use the picture ledge I have? Thank you!

    Teddie October 3, 2014 at 10:29 pm

    Where to buy picture rail molding?

    Dawn November 2, 2015 at 8:00 am

    Being in a historic district, half our retail store has a brick and plaster wall with picture rail. Thanks for the help in working with the historic elements of this store to use this wall for displays!

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