Plain & Fancy Painting


The first American style was Fancy.

"Would you like that plain or fancy?" This was a question often asked by artisans of all kinds in the 1800s. "Fancy" was a style in early America. Artisans were considered to be in touch with a natural vital creative energy, similar to the electricity Ben Franklin had discovered in lightning. Busy stylized wall murals and geometric floor cloths were popular, along with tole painted tin ware, patterned quilts, wood grained doors and chests. Living with lively patterns was thought to increase one's personal health and vigor. Living with lively patterns was thought to spark creative thinking and wonder in a person. It was a time of incredible change, invention and optimism. Art was celebrating the new nation and the fire service was a new institution in this new land. There is a joy present and preserved in the fine line decoration on the early fire engines.




Furniture in the colonies was getting painted fancy many years before the trend came to fire engines. Tin ware with tole painted designs livened up many kitchens. Americans in 1800 wanted their house interiors full of patterns.

        Rufus Porter

Rufus Porter was a self taught artist, scientist, publisher, teacher and inventor. He was a proponent of the Fancy Style in all he did. He lived an exciting life in the Age of Reason and took full advantage of his talents and interests. He never was a financial success, but his magazine from 1845 is still going, as a web site now.

Rufus Porter was apprenticed to his brother as a shoe maker. By age 18 he was in Portland, Maine painting houses. He practiced many fancy painting techniques such as wood graining, marbling, brush lettering, stenciling, fresco painting and watercolor portrait painting. He traveled through New England and down to New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and into Virginia painting portraits. From 1817 to 1819 he traveled to Hawaii. His little watercolor landscapes were not selling, so he switched to landscape murals in houses and taverns. These highly patterned and decorative designs are still being imitated to this day. His murals may seem primitive and distracting to modern eyes. In the 1820s they were stimulating and inspiring improvisations that could build one's character and creativity.

Rufus Porter was an inventor and teacher. He was editor of The New York Mechanic, The American Mechanic and The Scientific Mechanic magazines. He also founded and edited The Scientific American magazine. The invention above is a Plumb and Level Indicator, or "Inclinometer". Below is a dirigible or "aeroport" from 1831, and equipment to remove houses.


Horse drawn carriages and coaches in the 19th century were always decorated with stripes and lines. On public transportation bright colors were used along with bold painted and gilded ornaments. Early fire engine decoration appears to be done by coach painters.

As trolleys and trains were developed, the same Fancy style of the stage coaches and omnibuses was transfered to these new vehicles.

In 1816 kaleidoscopes were introduced to America and became a sensation. People would wait in line and pay money to look into the instrument. Here is the inventor and three images from his device. From this craze came a change in the design of quilts. Before 1816 quilts were one large cloth with appliqué pictures of flowers, birds, etc. sewn on.

Once the women of America saw the light at the end of the kaleidoscope, quilts became patchwork stars. Each quilt was a unique intuitive design with a touch of mathematics and a touch of art. This design concept continues to interest people to this day.

Fire engine decoration is a prominent example of the Fancy Style. Most of American design was highly decorative throughout the 1800s. The scrolls and stripes on a fire engine made the vehicle look light and precisely built. The color scheme of hand engines was similar to those found on fine carriages. Subtle mixed colors were often used instead of single pigment colors. Coaches and large vehicles would be vermilion with chrome yellow wheels. A hand engine would be carmine glazed vermilion with plum wheels.

Fine lines on early hand engines were very thin. They were "a gift to people that took a closer look" at a vehicle. Every fancy painter had their own style of line work. The lines added an energy to a design that people of the time enjoyed. Fire service equipment was considered high-tech and very special. The decoration was public art and needed to be bold and tasteful. Every paint job was customized to the firemen's choices. Each fire company was independent, with its own colors and traditions to work into the decoration.

Plain and Fancy styles on buckets and parade hats.

The "fancy colors" listed above were small amounts of accent colors used in tinting colors or making dots, lines etc.

If you want to know more about the Fancy Style, try this book;
American Fancy by Sumpter Priddy. It answered questions I'd had for years about why 19th century vehicles had so much decoration. People then felt empowered by pattern, line and color in their lives.

In 1800 Fancy meant "anything that had the power to spark wonder, delight and creative thinking."