Hanging Pictures in Old Houses

The technology of hanging pictures has changed greatly over the years. Depending on when your home was built, the method of hanging pictures will vary.

Hanging pictures from a picture moulding in a c1910 house

Homeowners were always wary about damaging plaster, with the attendant cost and mess of effecting repairs to walls that may also have wallpaper applied on them. So, methods of hanging pictures were used to prevent wall damage.

Picture spikes were sold through mail order catalogues such as the Russell and Irwin catalogue of 1865

Homes of the 1860’s and 1870’s used picture spikes to hang their paintings. These were rather clever bits of hardware. Made like a large nail – sometimes round and sometimes square-cut – the tops of the spike had a threaded top. The spike was pounded into place with a hammer, and after it was safely positioned, a decorative, and usually fragile, ‘head’ was screwed on to the threaded top of the spike.

A porcelain-headed picture spike. This spike is small. Picture spikes varied in size from 2 1/2” to 4” in length, depending on the weight of the item being supported. The brass-collared porcelain head unscrews from the spike itself, and is put back on after the spike is hammered into position.

These heads could vary widely in design. They could be a brass button, or made of silver, or glass. White porcelain – like many doorknobs in period houses – was another popular choice for a decorative ‘head’ of a picture spike.

Decorative heads of picture spikes. The ‘heads’ on the spikes range from plain white porcelain to fancy glass and brass concoctions. Available from specialist antique dealers online.

The position on a wall for a picture spike was usually unvarying. They were almost always placed at the top of a wall, so the spike would go into the solid wood top plate of the wall framing behind the plaster, to ensure a solid support for a painting. As well, the spikes were almost always positioned in the centre of short walls – on either side of, or over a mantelpiece – for example. On long walls, there could be three or more picture spikes hung along the length of a wall, but evenly spaced.

The pictures were then hung on wires from the painting to the spike in an inverted “V” shape.

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