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A picture rail is a type of molding that runs horizontally across the walls of a room, level with the top of the door frame. The rail provides a way to hang pictures instantly, and without putting holes in the walls. The hanging itself it accomplished by an accessory called a “picture rail hook,” usually made of metal, which has an arm that hangs over the top of the rail. A second arm extends down in front of the rail to provide a hook to hang the picture.
Originating in the 15th century, picture rails peaked in popularity in the late 19th century, when it was fashionable to have rooms full of hanging pictures and knick-knacks. Oftentimes during this period, the rail would be nearly invisible, buried beneath a solid line of portraits and paintings lining the walls. In the 1990s, a resurgence of interest in period decorating brought the product back into the decorating magazines. In modern homes, it is usually used as a decorative accent to the crown molding and chair rail rather than as a functional fixture.
Picture rails are traditionally and most commonly made from wood, although modern homes sometimes contain lighter, cheaper acrylic castings. Depending upon the decor of the room, the rail can be stained or painted, and comes in a variety of sizes and profiles. Victorian picture rails were usually functional, and accordingly, stuck out further from the wall to allow ample room for hooks. Modern rails meant strictly for decorative purposes are generally thinner and hug the wall closer, making for a slimmer profile that is not as conspicuous in the room.
Today’s picture rail has evolved beyond the traditional molded wood. Some are made of thick cork to be used as an office bulletin board. Others are magnetic, meant to be hung in kitchens to hold knives, with hooks for pots and pans. There are wider versions that pictures can either hang from or rest on top of, and there are even wicker rails that can act as wall-mounted baskets as well as support a hook.
The variability and versatility of the feature, especially in its most recent incarnations ensure its place in the home for another five centuries. A room with custom molding, including the picture rail, has a more cohesive look, and a classic style. Adding this feature is also a quick, inexpensive way to change the look of a room, and can be installed by anyone with the right tools and a bit of patience. With the seemingly endless selection available, the most difficult part is choosing the perfect one.
A picture rail is a cop out to real traditional wainscoting. What's bad about it is that when you want to remove it, it rips the dry wall apart.