When you visit the John Dickinson Plantation over the next three Thursdays, you'll have a chance to find out how people in Colonial times decorated their homes using some very simple techniques.
And you will be using your hands, as each Thursday in June has been designated "Hands-On History" day at the historic plantation, south of Dover.
Informal demonstrations of stenciling will take place June 13, paper quilling will be shown on June 20, and plaster casting will be demonstrated June 27. Visitors will be allowed to take their creations with them, said site supervisor Gloria Henry.
These techniques were all bona fide ways of embellishing homes in America in the 18th and 19th centuries.
These hands-on decorating ideas will be shown by historic interpreter Barbara Carrow, who for the past nine years has guided visitors by the hundreds throughout Dickinson's home and grounds.
Dickinson (1732-1808) was one of the wealthiest men in Colonial America, and served in numerous political and military posts as the United States established its independence from Great Britain.
Today, many associate stenciling with creating signs or notices on walls using spray paint, but it's actually a decorative form that can trace its roots to Chinese artists.
Stenciling is the art of creating designs or scenery on walls or floors using paper cut-outs or stencils. This type of art has been found on baseboards, chair rails and carpeting.
Because wallpaper was expensive, people often decorated bare plaster walls using stencils and different colors of paint. Stencil artists traveled the colonies serving people who wanted to make their homes more pleasing without spending enormous amounts of money.
There are walls in the Dickinson home that bear examples of stencil art, although it isn't known if they were there in Dickinson's time or if they were created afterward.
The process still is used today and artists can buy necessary supplies at craft stores nationwide. Books containing reproductions of Colonial-era stencils also allow today's homeowners to embellish their homes in the same way as Dickinson and other early Americans.
Quilling involves taking thin tendrils of paper, curling them around a quill to turn them into spirals, and then gluing them together into forms representing flowers, animals or a myriad of other shapes.
Nuns developed quilling in the 15th century to decorate Bibles and other religious books, Carrow said.
Quills were writing instruments usually created from wing or tail feathers whose tips were sharpened to create pen points. If people did not have a quill pen, they could substitute dowels or similar instruments.
Different spirals were pinched at the top to make teardrop shapes or at two sides to create diamonds. Curled spirals could be pulled out lengthwise to simulate plant stalks. Because the spirals were three dimensional and could be damaged with repeated use, displays often were made with recesses to hold the quillings.
Page 2 of 2 - Plaster casting
Walls in early homes were built in several stages, with frameworks holding strips of wood that were slathered with plaster mixed in varying degrees with horsehair, used as a binding agent.
In colonial times horsehair had many uses, including being used in clothing, shaving brushes and as stuffing for upholstery. For building walls, an initial layer of horsehair-infused plaster was covered with a second layer containing less horsehair, and then a final, pure plaster topcoat to ensure a smooth surface.
Plaster also was used to create decorative features in Colonial homes. Records indicate Dickinson's home had these ornamental touches, although many were lost during an 1804 fire that destroyed part of the home.
Dickinson rebuilt the burned-out sections of the plantation house, but with a much simpler motif, generally devoid of the extra decorations.
Visitors to the Dickinson plantation on June 27 will get the chance to create their own works of art in plaster, using molds based on 18th century decorations.
"We think people will enjoy creating their own versions of Colonial decorations," Site Supervisor Gloria Henry said. "It helps give insight into how people lived and the trades and crafts of that period."
The Dickinson Plantation is on Kitts Hummock Road, south of Dover Air Force Base and is open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission and parking are free.
For more information about Hands-On History or the Dickinson Plantation, call (302) 739-3277.