Why Are Old Houses So Dark?

Why Are Old Houses So Dark

Have you ever spotted one of those older homes that looks like The Addams Family’s mansion? You might be surprised why they have that dark, gloomy appearance! Let’s explain.

The Reason Old American Houses Are Dark

Believe it or not, there are valid reasons why those old American homes always look so dark, sometimes in both the interior and the exterior of the residence.

Much of this gloominess has to do with the time frame in which people built the homes and the number of resources that builders had available to them way back then. 

Agencies specializing in the preservation and restoration of older pieces of property, such as aged, darker homes, have the most pertinent information regarding why these places look the way they do. 

For example, one company with almost half a century of experience in the trade, John Canning & Co., notes a limited amount of materials as one of the causes of the lack of luster many older homes have. 

They report that before the 1940s, painters had to use nature’s colors, and that’s all they really had to work with.

This fact resulted in the dark appearance we see today in older American homes. It wasn’t until the 1940s and 50s that more colorful, synthetic pigments added the rest of the colors of the rainbow to more and more residences. 

Further Reading: Why Were Ceilings So High in Old Homes?

The Darker Exterior of Older Homes

Antique Homes Magazine, a premiere directory of antique homes with multiple categories and knowledgeable preservation consultants, points out how so much wood went unpainted, which widely contributes to the dull, dark look of older homes today. 

They note how things like shingle walls and clapboards were left plain on many homes, especially those structures that had a more medieval influence. 

Many of these houses were built in rural areas and were made mainly of natural materials (due to the lack of paint supply at that time). The magazine also informs us that most upgraded paint jobs didn’t begin until the 18th century.

Another famous historic preservationist and owner of the Secret Knowledge of Spaces website, Susie Trexler, also breaks down why the lack of livelier paint and materials significantly contributed to the darker old homes we see lining the streets of many U.S. neighborhoods today. 

She explains to her audience that supplies were so scarce that some of even the most well-constructed homes were simply left unpainted, and no one ever went back to finish the job! 

What ended up happening was what we see today, with the wood on the exterior of many older homes turning into a gloomy, eroded, worn-looking dark brown color. 

But, what’s ironic is that the wood protector that we paint our wood with today (to shield it from the weather) is almost exactly the same color as the original worn-out wood. It’s become an elegant look to some people!

Further Reading: Why Do Old Houses Have Small Rooms?

The Darker Interior of Older Homes

There is also an explanation for why so many older houses were dark on the inside. Experts have the details.

For example, Bindley Hardware, a construction company that breaks down hard-to-understand subjects within the trade, explains that the fact that there were no energy codes back in those days contributed majorly to how they built many of these homes. 

Constructors erected a large majority of these structures by using basic materials, notably wood, metal, and glass. The builders back then knew the art of improvisation and built homes from the ground up by simply layering these random materials on top of one another. 

The simplicity of the construction process is why so many houses have dark exteriors. But the fact that a lot of them didn’t even have windows built into the frames made the interior just as gloomy.

Many residents of these darker-looking structures purposely made the interior darker. Why? Well, they were trying to protect their investment from the sun! 

A well-known tactic that homeowners would use back then (according to one Fast Company article about older Victorian homes) would be using large, weighty curtains to shield their furniture from the sun.

The constant sunlight on their couches, loveseats and other antique pieces would often get bleached by the continuous rays, so they would opt to shut out the light. The darkness would protect their furniture and keep it somewhat cooler inside the house. 

This effect is the same that the sun may have had on your patio furniture if there is no shade for it.

ColorGlo International points out that soft furniture and wood tables and chairs can also be greatly damaged by the sun and become badly faded and discolored over time. 

Further Reading: What Is Considered An Antique House?

Extending the Lifespan of Housing Components and Systems

In order to reach and maybe exceed the expected lifespan of paint and other related materials (caulk, adhesives, etc.), it will require maintenance, especially in areas where there is extreme weather much of the year. 

For example, Home Inspect Alaska rounds off the expected life span of the materials mentioned above to about 15 years. That’s if a homeowner doesn’t keep repainting as the years go by.

Other experts agree, such as Quality Check Home Inspection, a New England-based company that also has to deal with extremely cold temperatures in the latter part of the year almost every year. 

They estimate caulking on homes in their area of the country to last 5 to 10 years, whether it’s inside or outside the home. But, when it comes to painting, they expect the interior to last 3 to 5 years longer than the colors on a home’s exterior. 

Additional Reading: How Long Will A 100-Year-Old House Last?


In towns and cities with a historical feel, you’ll more than likely spot several homes with that dark look to them. But, remember that those structures are precious antiques and are important culturewise to the many American communities they are located in. 

If you have an old home, consider adding ambient lighting, dark paint colors, and darker exterior features to pay homage to the history of your home. 

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