5 reasons why knotty pine was so popular

mod bettys dad at a party in a room with knotty pineI 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also say that knotty pine was most popular — massively popular — in the earlier years, slowly becoming less common or superseded by other materials as the years progressed.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? 

23 thoughts on “5 reasons why knotty pine was so popular

  1. Thanks so much for featuring this photo of my dad and his pals!

    We had knotty pine in the den of our house growing up, and in the cellar, but it has long since been replaced or repainted. Mum also says the kitchen was painted “Pepto Bismol Pink” when they first moved in in 1969, but she painted it over with “Mobil Yellow” – paint she inherited from one of my great-uncle’s Mobil gas stations!

    I’ve told all my Retro loving friends to check out the site, and am looking forward to learning more about the Knotty Revolution!

    • I love this. I am 54 years old and still living in my childhood home. my husband and I have done some renovations and actually added on to this house . The interior of the original part is all knotty pine. walls and ceilings. for sentimental reasons when we began to renovate all the ceilings were drywall , but we left two of the walls in the dining and living area in the knotty pine. I want to update to a paint color on the drywall area that will really compliment the wood

  2. I’m guessing knotty pine was popular because it was a fairly easy and inexpensive way to evoke the “Early American” look so trendy for much of the 20th century.

    When we bought our home, we had knotty pine in all of the main rooms of our humble 1887 Los Angeles Victorian. When we removed the pine from the walls, we found wild 1930s wallpaper underneath along with the “ghosts” of all of the wide trim that had been removed and tossed when the pine went in. Fortunately, one bedroom had retained its trim and the profiles matched what was missing. So, we milled and installed new baseboards and casing, though we did keep the pine kitchen and added even added new old-stock Gladding McBean tile counters.

    Not wanting to toss all of the knotty pine, I put an ad on Craigslist and was able to sell it to someone who wanted it for their cabin in the local mountains.

    Kevin

  3. Our ’63 ranch was decorated in Colonial style, and had 2 paneled accent walls. While they weren’t authentic, solid-wood pine, the effect was apparent: The warmth of a cabin was what my parents wanted.

    From what I can gather, 2 mid-mod styles — Provincial or Colonial — were the standards of the time. Am unsure which was more popular, but if knotty pine was the norm, then Colonial was surely the favorite. LOVE the stuff, and my grandparents’ late-’50s ranch dining room was covered in it. Grandpa covered it in ugly, fake paneling (ours was real wood), and I was sorry he did.

    Knotty pine is unpretentious. It’s warm. Its knots reveal the makeup of the wood just as the rays do in quartersawn oak. Pine reminds us of our country’s roots, which, to me, makes it all the more special.

  4. The boys could have their PBR and smoke cigarettes and not stain her walls.

  5. I grew up in the 1960’s, So, I have an up close and personal relationship with knotty pine. My parents moved from one small house on the main road through the city out to the country shortly before my birth because they didn’t want to raise another child on the highway like they’d had to raise my older sister. I don’t know much about their first home, except that is was small, and had probably been built before WWII. The house that I was born into was built by a gentlemen who became a wealthy man by dealing in real estate and building average, but well built frame houses through the 1940’s and 50’s. His not quite as prosperous nephew, wife, and their very large family were our immediate neighbors, and the man himself, and his family lived in a spacious split level home-complete with bomb shelter-behind his nephew. Though they were wealthy people, they were not snobs, and my parents actually invited them to dinner in our modest little house that the man built several times, and they came and enjoyed the fruits of my mom’s cooking and fantastic pastry skills.
    M earliest memories of my first home were of those icky green “woodworks” and some kind of flowered wall paper, which was apparently getting rather “aged.” It also was a haven for my mother’s biggest nemesis, the common cockroach. One afternoon, my mom had had enough. She stated that the roaches were “hiding” behind the paper, and declared that she’d rather live in a house with clean, bare walls than in one with the old, “roach hotel” wallpaper. So, she started tearing the wallpaper off of the walls. My sister and I soon joined in-its not often you get to indulge in acceptable mayhem as a kid. I remember that we got pretty dirty with all the dust from behind the paper. If my father had been a different man-and thank the Lord he wasn’t-when he walked in that afternoon after work, he would have just turned around and walked back out, never to be seen again. He didn’t, though, and he and my mom started trying to figure out how they could “remodel” our little abode. That resulted in a trip to the local Sherwin-Williams store-my sister and I had to stay in the car(this was 1960, in a small town, so it was more acceptable at the time)At some point, though, my parents talked to the man who built the house originally, and he offered to re-model it totally for about the same price as my parents were going to be able to paint and re-paper it-my dad and my uncle had re-papered my aunt’s house before I was born, and that is another family story straight out of a sitcom, but my dad did learn to apply the stuff in the process.
    The little house had just a plain and common layout. It was basically a box, with the small square porch and two steps. Inside it had the L-shaped living/dining area, and a postage stamp of a kitchen. There was a hall door little more than mid way through the living room wall, and right across that was the bathroom, and on either end of the hall were the two bedrooms, with closets that were, on reflection, still rather generous given the overall size of the house-though they were still small. Outside there actually was a separate garage, with a room on the back which served off and on as the “washhouse” when ever we had a washing machine, which we didn’t always have because the well didn’t have enough water to support one. In the remodel we got the latest “thing” in decor. We got the knotty pine paneling in the living/dining area, and as a wainscoting in the bath. The bath had the now famed “pink” tile bath tub surround, with the upper drywall walls painted a matching pastel pink-my mother was in heaven. The bedrooms were also done in drywall-“sheetrock” it was called, at the time.
    That Christmas we had the whole family there to celebrate-the only time that happened in the years where my family was still in the stages where everyone was still around to celebrate together.
    Flash forward 16 years, and my father had passed away from cancer, and we decided to move into the city. I was in college, and my sister-who was a professional musician-was gone a lot, so my mother was no longer comfortable out in the country. So, we started looking for a house in the “city,” and my friend and I found one that looked like a large cottage. My sister and I saw it first, and we were sold on it by the time we had walked back to its huge, knotty pine paneled den, complete with port holes. The house, which I have since determined was a Craftsman style that has been modified some, was built almost a hundred years ago now, but the den was added about 1946. So, even though the current house is not mid century one, it has the requisite pine den added that was the latest thing in fashionable houses at the time.
    I still struggle with trying to lighten the den. It actually has large windows, but the ceiling and wall are all covered in the pine paneling, and my mom bought a remnant at a bargain price for a new carpet, and it’s dark, so that doesn’t help. When we moved in his had this very seventies “green” indoor/outdoor carpet, but we replaced it with-again,what was stylish at the time-a very eighties carpet with a base beige color with a couple other tan/rust colors swirled in there. I can’t say it lightened it much. I have considered painting the ceiling white, but I am a person who values the historical integrity of the house, so I have never wanted to get rid of or paint the pine paneling. I have been glad to find like minded people here. Now, if only more people would stop buying these houses and ripping them up. :(
    Sorry this is so long, but I wanted to share my experiences with the paneling over the past fifty or so years.

  6. Hi Pam.

    I’m relatively new to your site. You “hooked” me with the post about the Chicken of the Sea bakers. Since then I have so enjoyed reading all of the fabulous content here. Regarding knotty pine, do you have “The Ladies Home Journal Book of Interior Decoration” in your library? The author is Elizabeth T. Halsey. I have the 1959 edition, and the chapter on interior wall decoration does discuss “pine sheathing” as a popular wall covering. The author links the use of this material at mid-century to the memory of 18th century interiors. If you don’t have the book, it’s really common and affordable on ebay and amazon. I purchased mine for the fabulous photos of colorware in use in kitchens and dining rooms. Hope this helps!

  7. We are lucky enough to be only the second owners of a great 1955 ranch, complete with the original knotty pine cabinets. (alas, they tore out red, steel trimmed Formica counter tops) My question is, what is the best method to clean these cabinets with further diminishing the original finish? The former owners neglected them in recent years and there is alot of kitchen grease build up on them. I have tried concentrated de-greasers in small areas, but it seems to dull the wood. Following up with an orange-oil based wood polish helps, temporarily, restore the beauty. Do I need to take the fronts off and have them re-finished?

    • You may want to try Murphy’s wood soap on the cabinets. Oils actually can work as a way of dissolving other oils. Wash it on and dry it off pretty fast.
      Do they have the original varnish? In my house, some one revarnished ( with poly we fear) OVER the dirt on the doors. So the years of blackened hand prints are there for ever. UGH.

      • I have had excellent results cleaning knotty pine paneling, with a very simple solution I stumbled across in an old magazine found in an antique store. One half olive oil mixed with one half apple cider vinegar, shaken vigorously and applied with a dry cloth produces amazing results. Yep… it smells like salad dressing but the smell soon dissipates. Apparently, the vinegar cuts through the grime while the oil penetrates and shines the wood. When I first tried this solution, I worried that the oil might develop a rancid smell over time but I’ve been using it for over a year and this has not been a problem. I’m working on a large restoration project at a long neglected lake camp that includes several knotty pine cabins built in the 30’s and 40’s. They are real treasures and it’s wonderful to see them come back to life. Best of luck to you!

  8. A lot of the knotty pine today is darkened from when it was first installed. I think it is because of the varnishes used and maybe even smoking and the usual dust and cooking issues in a house. You may want to think about stripping the ceiling and refinishing it. The boards were most likely light piney colored when installed. It would not have the aged look we value in antiques, but it would then have an original look.

  9. In our ’62 ranch, my parents (strike that; my MOTHER) was CRAZY about colonial mid century modern, so much so that both the living room and kitchen featured knotty pine paneling on one wall each. Have to admit, I liked it, too, as it most definitely warmed the room.

    Our kitchen cabinets were not knotty pine, but birch or something, featuring colonial-style hinges and fittings–just like our front storm door, complete with a latch handle and mechanism.

    Let’s face it: pine is everywhere, and the markup for it just isn’t there for manufacturers to promote it. But as for why it was (and remains, to some degree) so popular is due to the colonial “DNA” in many of us. As a wood, pine is just so honest, so unassuming, and so unpredictable in the way knots vary from board to board, that makes it so appealing–at least to me.

    Personally, I feel that if finished with today’s water-based, clear acrylic finishes, and not oil-based polyurethanes which yellow over time, knotty pine paneling could enjoy a huge resurgence in the home-improvement market. If I was building a home, I would consider it as an option over oak, walnut, or cherry.

  10. My husband and I have a Streamline Moderne house under contract and will, if all goes well, be the new owners in 3 weeks. The house has a curved glass block wall in the living room (by the front entrance) but it also has–believe it or not–a knotty pine paneled den! So when you say that knotty pine is found in all types of mid-century homes, you are right on. The den wasn’t an addition either. The house is yellow brick and if the den had been added later it would be obvious.

    The house is a high end house and it is hard to imagine anything less “streamline moderne” than knotty pine. Guess the builder or original owners weren’t too hung up with being stylistically congruent!

  11. I live in a home built in the 1900’s possiby earlier. …there are 2 rooms upstairs with this type of knotty pine tongue and groove …..it makes the room look so dark. Is there some way I could brighten it up?
    I’ve wanted to paint it many times but after 16 years I still haven’t tried it.
    There’s just no way to make it light & bright any suggestions?
    Thanks

  12. if you paint it, you will need to use a coat of BIN or Kilz on the pine. the knots will ‘bleed’ through and there will still be the rays showing. So A lot of filling out need to be done.
    You may look into bleaching and pickling it. That would let you lighten it up and still keep the knotty look.

    • Well, Valentina, I agree with the advice to use Murphy’s oil soap on your cabinets–not the spray kind but a mild solution in water, followed by a rinse with clear water. I live in a 1959 ranch that has gorgeous cabinets made by the homeowner that were well cared for and refinished several times but had gotten dirty because the elderly couple could no longer clean and refinish as they used to. You may have to wash them three or more times to get all the grease off. Use one of those mildly abrasive scrubber sponges, and don’t worry about dulling the finish. Then when you are sure everything is clean, rub with a good quality furniture wax (not the spray kind). If that doesn’t do the trick, it’s time to think about a light sanding and refinishing with water-based polyurethane gel. We’re not snobby about using authentic finishes on the cabinets, because even the builder/owner used the most cutting edge materials and finishes of his day from the beginning of his project. He even used one of the first lead-free latex exterior paints, which came in handy when we added on to the house.

  13. As to why knotty pine is so popular, there are two reasons that I learned in my research. In New England’s Colonial and Federal America shipbuilding communities, paneling was used for the interior of ship’s cabins, and sea captains incorporated many of the features of ships (paneled walls with built in shelving, etc) into their grand houses. Fisherman’s and workers cottages were lined with the wood left over from shipbuilding–including the pine boards with too many knots. Plastering was expensive and required skilled workers. Paneling, painted or natural, never went out of style, and when the settlers moved West, they brought their knowledge of that material with them.

    The second reason, according to several books I’ve read on the mid-century ranch, is that there were three popular styles among the mass built family homes put up after the war–the ranch, the Cape Cod, and the two-story colonial. The cape and the colonial both featured romanticized colonial style architectural features, and the knotty pine cabinets were mass produced in factories and bought by the builders in large quantities. They were a stock item. Although knotty pine cabinets and colonial style wrought-iron hardware didn’t seem to go with the modern house, people got used to seeing it in their tours of new developments, and when buying a house that was not yet completed, they asked for knotty pine cabinets because of all the reasons everyone has mentioned–they were warm and homey looking. When looking for a new home, I walked into the knotty-pine kitchen in what is now my house, and I said to my husband, “I could bake bread here.” I’m not surprised that our fore-mothers had the same feeling.

  14. Hi all ……..I inherited the family home and plan to renovate. The house (colonial at the beach
    built in 1965) is telling me to keep the knotty pine kitchen. It’s in good shape as my folks cleaned the cabinets, kept up w/ the stain and re varnished the doors. I plan to add glass to a few doors to update. Right now, the counter tops are white standard tile. Shall
    I update w/ newer white tile or use soapstone ??? any opinions or experiences would
    be most helpful. Thanks :)

    • I like the idea of soapstone, especially if you have black wrought iron style cabinet hardware. Otherwise: Laminate is the authentic vintage choice. If you want the Soapstone look in laminate, take a look at Wilsonart’s Oiled Soapstone 4882-38.

      • Thank you the replies. I was leaning towards soapstone. I think it will look great
        in the kitchen and yes, go with the wrought iron hardware. I agree with the comment
        that knotty pine is warm and brings back childhood memories !

  15. I think part of the answer is due to the cultural infatuation with the American west that was so prevalent in the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s. They called them “ranch houses” afterall, and knotty pine definitely had that “home on range” vibe.

    The following is borrowed from a wikipedia entry on television westerns:

    When the popularity of television exploded in the late 1940s and 1950s, westerns quickly became a staple of small-screen entertainment. The first, on June 24, 1949, was the Hopalong Cassidy show, at first edited from the 66 films made by William Boyd. Many B-movie Westerns were aired on TV as time fillers,[1] while a number of long-running TV Westerns became classics in their own right. Notable TV Westerns include Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Laramie, Have Gun, Will Travel, Bonanza, The Virginian, Wagon Train, The Big Valley, Maverick, The High Chaparral, The Gene Autry Show, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, and many others.

    The peak year for television westerns was 1959, with 26 such shows airing during prime-time. In one week in March 1959, eight of the top ten shows were westerns.[1] Increasing costs of production (a horse cost up to $100 a day)[1] led to most action half hour series vanishing in the early 1960s to be replaced by hour long television shows, increasingly in color.

    Traditional Westerns began to disappear from television in the late 1960s and early 1970s as color television became ubiquitous. 1968 was the last season any new traditional Westerns debuted on television; by 1969, after pressure from parental advocacy groups who claimed Westerns were too violent for television, all three of the major networks ceased airing new Western series.[3] The two last traditional Westerns, Death Valley Days and Gunsmoke, ended their runs in 1975. This may have been the result of an ongoing trend toward more urban-oriented programming that occurred in the early 1970s known as the “rural purge”, though only two Westerns (NBC’s The Virginian and The High Chaparral) were canceled in the peak season of the purge in 1971. Bonanza ended its run in 1973.

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