Gingerbread House Decoration of Old and Today

Learn about the origins of this decorative style and how it is finding modern application today.

By Bob Vila | Updated Nov 13, 2013 7:05 PM

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Gingerbread house decoration, Martha

‘Tis the season for cookie swapping and decorating Gingerbread houses. Everyone gets involved in the baking frenzy, from home cooks to the White House chef.

But let’s take a step back and first talk history.

Gingerbread Defined
The term “Gingerbread” refers to exterior decoration — sawn or carved — that is seen in many Victorian styles. On porches, it is characterized by spindle work and turned posts and on rooflines by bargeboards.

Gingerbread House History
In America, wood was used for the construction of most Victorian houses that epitomized the Gingerbread style. Thanks to the development of the power scroll saw, elaborate wooden trim could be cut into curved patterns that recalled the tracery work seen on Medieval Gothic windows. The bargeboards (also known as vergeboards) that embellished the rooflines along with the trim on the porch, windows, and doorways, became known as Gingerbread.

Not everyone was a fan of this new term. Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape designer, didn’t like the implication that the decorations were “flimsy and meager.” But he was in the minority and the name stuck.

For many years, this and other Victorian decorations were considered unattractive, even grotesque. More recently, however, the pendulum has swung in the other direction with homeowners appreciating and even admiring the elaborate detailing so often seen decorating the roofline of Gingerbread cottages.

Gingerbread Houses Today

Gingerbread TV Project
Coming soon to the site: my television project where we did extensive Gingerbread work on a cabin on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Project Description:

Bob tackles a remodeling and construction project on Martha’s Vineyard, MA, with the expansion of a tiny vacation cabin into a spacious family retreat with an authentic Vineyard Victorian look. The old cabin gets a facelift and a turret room complete with Gingerbread detailing. The expansion is all new construction with an emphasis on illustrating how to use Victorian detailing: from tin ceilings to fancy exterior trim work. Carpenter Bob Ryley crafts an intricate vergeboard based on period illustrations. After exploring the historical Victorian landmarks on Martha’s Vineyard, Bob hits the road for more ideas. From quaint shore cottages in Cape May, NJ, to Lucy the Elephant, a Victorian whimsy in Margate, NJ, and on through a host of opulent millionaires’ mansions in Newport, RI and the Hudson River Valley, Bob brings the follies and extravagances of Victorian design to life.  

Your Gingerbread Projects
Tell us about your gingerbread projects this holiday season in our Community Forum.