Living like a King: the ultimate guide to historical interior design

How would a fresher have decorated their room in the past? Volunteer blogger, Zoe Voice finds objects from the Collections to discover how students would have made their room in St Andrews homely.

You know what they say; each person is the king of their own castle – or in our case, of our rooms in student accommodation (although Uni Hall definitely could lay claim to being at least castle-esque). When I first started St Andrews all those years ago, decorating my room was almost a ritual into settling in to my life here, and judging by how popular the poster and plant sales at the Union are, I’m not alone. This year, I took it upon myself to rifle through the bulging MUSA store to find some interior-design tips from days gone by, some of which were even used in our Student halls, to get an idea of what the halls would have looked like for all the budding Freshers over a hundred years ago.

  • Wall Decoration
    • Paintings

It’s always a cute touch to put up photos of your loved ones from home, maybe a prom photo or a selfie with your mum; I know that I had all of the above in abundance. But if you’re looking for something a bit more, well, statement, you could maybe follow in the vein of this dashing gentleman. Undergraduate John Craig was painted around 1928 by Beatrice Huntingdon, an artist native to St Andrews originally hung in St Salvator’s Hall. This almost-lifesize figure in the unmistakable red gown, standing on Martyr’s cross with iconic silhouettes from around the town in the background is about as ‘St Andrews’ as you can get. Even if it won’t fit in your room, I’m sure your mum would love it over the mantlepiece back home.

Huntington, Beatrice M. L., 1889-1988; The Student
Museum number HC1992.2.1
  • Butterflies

If you’re feeling a bit more hands-on with your decorating, during the Enlightenment and beyond some people loved rolling up their sleeves, grabbing a butterfly net, and catching butterflies to proudly display. Sounds weird, but it was very much ‘a-la-mode’ at the time. Cabinets of Curiosities filled with stuffed animals, shells, and tribal masks were common pieces in any middle-to-upper-class home, serving as a way to display your worldliness, intellect and most importantly to show off over dinner. MUSA has four wooden cabinets full of specimens for Europe and Asia, all of which are remarkably well preserved. So, if you’re looking for a conversation piece for your new roommates, this could be for you. Just stay away from the tropical butterfly house in the Botanic Gardens, okay?

dbi BPM2013.39(4.9R) after
Museum number BPM2013.39
  • Crockery

I’m a big fan of £15 boxes of plates and bowls from Ikea as much as the next person, however back in the day mass-production was far less common than it is now. These plates were made of pewter from a maker William Scott in Edinburgh, and would have been used for everyday meals in St. Mary’s College c.1815. Heavy definitely, but far less easy to smash during washing up. For someone with a natural flair for clumsiness, this might be the solution.

HC333 (1)
Museum number HC322-339

The spoons further show how precious manufactured items were a hundred years ago or more. The spoons are made of silver, and one would have been given to each matriculating student in exchange for a deposit, both of which would have been returned at the end of the year if the spoon was in good use. Not only that but metalwork was expensive to the point where older spoons would have been melted down and recast into shiny new ones when they got too worn. The spoons in the MUSA collection would have been used in St Salvators, St Mary’s, and the United College. Only having one spoon would have reduced washing-up for sure, something I think many students would benefit from – myself included.

  • Chair and Desk

Arguably, the most important area to a student’s room is the desk, where all those great thoughts pour out onto the page. We hope. This beautiful Victorian Davenport desk would have belonged to a lady, and although it appears small to us now, it would have been used exclusively for writing, rather than the desk/dining table/ coffee bar/ dumping ground I know I used my desk in halls for. Although come to think of it, this desk would have been used almost exclusively for writing letters, so we can say that we’re following our ancestors when we sit writing to our friends on Facebook for hours instead of our essays.

Museum number HC2001.44


The ubiquitous swivel-chair is a staple of all uni rooms, but if you had enough money back in the 1600s, you’d be more likely to get a chair made for your height rather than relying on the handy adjust-ability we have to day. Named the Lauderdale chair, the initials ‘B L’ carved next to the date 1623 on this are thought to identify Elizabeth (Betty) Lauder, the sister-in-law to the Duke of Lauderdale. Out of all of the objects I looked at, I’ll have to say this is the one where I’m most thankful for modern advances. Not even a pillow and stylish throw would make this chair comfortable.

Museum number HC791

It’s safe to say that the past had a much different attitude to interior design. Precious materials and handmade pieces were far more common, but this meant that items were looked after more, and were designed to last. You can see from the excellent condition of all of these objects, they’re a far-cry from the cheap throw-away objects we’re all guilty of buying today. I’m sad to say that my Ikea plates have little hope of surviving the year, let alone hundreds of years and uses.

Which interior design era do you prefer?


About Zoe Voice

Zoe is an Undergraduate Art History student at St Andrews, particularly interested in religious art and architecture, and hopes to go into a career in museum collections care and restoration. Aside from that Zoe loves reading, cooking and travelling; recently returning from a summer trip around Scandinavia.

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