I am intensely interested in understanding exactly why knotty pine was so popular in mid-20th-century homes. Alas, I have not been able to find a definitive history of knotty pine interiors — I think that website is going to be where it’s created.
Several years ago, an editor for a magazine about vintage home interiors emailed me asking what I knew about the subject. She said that among literally hundreds of reference materials in the magazine library, they could not find a single article that talked about the historical use of knotty pine. She underscored: Not a whit about the knottiness in hundreds of references scanned. I can only surmise: Knotty pine was so popular… so common… so understood… so assumed… that no one felt the need to discuss or debate it. A contemporary analogy might be: Today we don’t write a lot (or ever) about drywall; in 60 years will researchers look back and scratch their head trying to understand why it was so common?
The folks in the photo above certainly had a good time in their knotty pine living room. This photo comes from Mod Betty of Retro Roadmap who explains:
Most of the people in this photo are a mystery, except for the gent in the middle – that’s My Dad – John E. Lennon 3rd. This was taken from a collection of his slides circa 1958-62.
With the launch of this website, I am launching bona-fide research to try to get to the bottom of why there was so much knotty throughout mid-20th-century American homes… Where did the popularity stem from? Some thoughts and hypotheses to start:
- Knotty pine shows up in all varieties of midcentury homes: Over the past half-dozen years, since I started my main blog, RetroRenovation.com, I have seen hundreds of midcentury houses — and I’d estimate that… 40%… of them incorporated the use of knotty pine. The material was super common in what I call “midcentury modest” houses, but I also see it in atomic midcentury modern houses. Focusing on the “midcentury” years 1946-1963, I’d also say that knotty pine was most popular — massively popular — in the earlier years, slowly becoming less common or superseded by other materials as the years progressed.
- It was inexpensive and durable, and survivors of the Great Depressions understood value: Our grandparents and/or parents installed wood paneling because they were extremely cautious with their money. They grew up during hard times, and they learned to fear debt and unnecessary overspending. They saved for a rainy day *clue phone*. Now that we have suffered the Great Recession and are living in the New Normal, this all seems to make a lot more sense to people *clue phone*.
- It was an easy, attractive DIY material, at a time when millions of families did their own room expansions: When Dad and Mom or Grandma and Grandpa excitedly and gratefully bought their 9oo- or 1,000-square-foot house after 1945, the basement and attic and maybe even the second floor were unfinished. This is part of what made the house a “starter home”, and couples without children or with just a few children were100% fine with just having the space they really needed. As money and time permitted and as the family grew, the family — on their own — could start finishing off the basement or attic or second floor themselves. They would frame interior walls, add electric and maybe some insulation. Then, they would Cover the Walls with Wood Paneling. Knotty pine and cherry were particularly beloved, I think, but I suspect there were also regional preferences. (For example, I am love with an old skool paneling called pecky cypress, which we see now and then in vintage homes.) Installing wood paneling was way easier than taping and finishing drywall — Dad could do the paneling all his own, no problem. I’m thinking it was cheaper, too. Mom and Dad or Grandpa and Grandma were proud of the new room(s) they had built, and deserved to be.
- It was a respected material used since colonial times and suited Early American decor: Pine is a wood native to North America. It has been abundant ever since Colonial days, and has been commonly used on walls since America’s earliest days. I don’t really think that wood paneled walls ever went out of style throughout American history, until, say, the 1980s, after the deluge of paneling-gone-crazy in the 1970s. In mid-20th-century America, so-called Early American decor was very popular — more popular, even, thatn Midcentury Modern furnishings and decor, I think.
- Knotty pine is nice: I’ve spent more than a few years now looking at knotty pine interiors, and: They can be really pretty! They are cozy, warm, glowy, fun to decorate. Mom and Dad and Grandpa and Grandma did not feel at all oppressed by the paneling. They liked it — a bunch of them surely even loved it.
Why is it so hard to find information about why knotty pine was so popular back in midcentury America? I will also hypothesize that: Shelter media ignored knotty pine as a topic because their advertisers weren’t knotty pine marketeers. I will also guess that knotty pine received little attention in the popular press of the day because the material was so abundant — available at local lumber stores in every town in America — so popular, so inexpensive, that the sellers of knotty pine didn’t need to do much public relations promote its use. I need to confirm this, but I think that when large national companies like Georgia-Pacific started making decorator paneling — when? in the 60s? — I then start seeing ads in magazines; now they had something new and more expensive to convince America it needed. There is one notable exception to the marketing blitz: In my vintage magazines, I do see ads from manufacturers of Western Pine — yes, they were promoting their product. But, my recollection is that most of this marketing is in builders’ magazines (rather than consumer publications) — Western Pine was spending most of its promotional dollars targeting builders and lumber stores, not consumers directly, I tend to believe.
What do you know about knotty pine?
Why was there so much of it in midcentury American homes?
Where did the trend come from?