If only these walls could talk!

The red house holds a lot of secrets. First secret was the hidden door Will discovered in between the kitchen and the dining room. And then came the wallpaper that revealed itself, hiding behind the lathe and plaster, when Will started tearing down the walls of the dining room.

Buried under the Under the plaster and lathe we discover wall paper which had been applied directly onto the wall planks
Buried under the Under the plaster and lathe we discover wall paper which had been applied directly onto the wall planks

As Will worked his way around the dining room, tearing down every square nail, ripping off every inch of lathe and plaster, we discovered there was not just one, but two layers of wall paper and a border on the plank walls.

Dining room, original planks and wall paper
Dining room, original planks and wall paper

It was a pretty darn cool discovery. However, neither one of us knew much about wallpaper. We had no idea what this discovery could possibly tell us about the house or its former owners. I can’t speak for Will, but I can tell you my knowledge of wallpaper is limited to licking lollipops while my mother poured over enormously large and heavy books filled with reams of wallpaper samples when she fell into full blown decorating mode. The shopkeeper let my mother take the old books home and she would spend hours re wall papering my dollhouse. Lollipops and doll houses is where I draw the line. I was clearly not educated or equipped to handle our new discovery.

Will and I, eager to show off our latest discovery, invited our neighbor Carl Sprague  http://www.carlsprague.com/and his mother Tjasa Sprague ( famous for her tireless work on restoration of Ventfort Hall , http://gildedage.org, the guilded age mansion and museum  in Lenox, MA) who have a wonderful appreciation and curiosity for such things to come see our latest findings. They snapped pictures and ooohed and awed and then told Robert Kelly, a renowned expert on wallpaper, to come see for himself.

I asked Mr. Kelly how he got so interested in wallpaper. He started out innocently enough as a painter/paperhanger in his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts and little by little got pulled into the romance and history of wallpaper — one of the most prolific and enjoyable decorative materials ever invented. After a long career spanning over thirty plus years working with wallpaper in historic homes (including Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Martin Van Buren’s Lindenwald, Washington Place in Hawaii and the Governor’s Mansion in the Virgin Islands..(And now the Red Cottage), he turned to writing. His first full-length book is the Backstory of Wallpaper, published on September 12, 2013. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0985656107 . It has been nominated for the Historic New England book prize and nominated for the Lee Nelson Book Award of the association for Preservation Technology. Mr. Kelly also has a wonderful blog, http://wallpaperscholarblog.blogspot.com/

 

 

We were in the hands of an expert. From Mr. Kelly’s wallpaper interpretations we learned a few more secrets about the age of the house and who may have lived there.

 

The front room, aka the dining room, which is original to the building of the house, has unpainted plank walls that are 9”x15” wide and run vertically for the most part. The middle section of the wall facing the street is paneled horizontally. In preparation for wallpaper the grooves of the tongue and groove planks are filled with a cement-like substance but it was impossible to determine when this was done. Since the planks remain unpainted it is possible that the planks were not decorated for some time in the 18th century and early 19th century.

 

By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain was the leading wallpaper manufacturer in Europe, exporting vast quantities to Europe in addition to selling on the middle-class British market. Fashionable eighteenth century Americans purchased wallpapers from France and England. The origin of the paper in the red house was distinctly American. It was of poor quality in Mr. Kelly’s professional opinion, and the application of the wallpaper was also poorly done, leading him to surmise that the people who lived in the house were not entirely well off but wanted to appear as such.

 

By the 18th century designs include panoramic views of antique architecture, exotic landscapes and pastoral subjects, as well as repeating patterns of stylized flowers, people and animals. The foliate leaf/vine pattern paper is a repeating pattern that is made from hand carved blocks.

This is the first layer of wall paper we found under the lathe and plaster. The width of the paper is 19 1/2 inches wide.  It was applied directly to the plank walls. Although the leaf/vine pattern is French inspired, it is definitely an American copy. The whitish/pinkish ground color was brushed on the paper first before the yellow and red design was applied. The block cutting and printing is indifferent and Mr. Kelly felt "everything about the paper suggests a low cost when it was first purchased and hung. The very wide overlap of an inch is often found in 18th century work, less often in early 19th century work. This suggest that a country handyman was given the assignment of hanging the paper. The numerous mismatches reinforce this assumption." 18th century....1700s.  This is some kind of old wallpaper!
This is the first layer of wall paper we found under the lathe and plaster. The width of the paper is 19 1/2 inches wide. It was applied directly to the plank walls. Although the leaf/vine pattern is French inspired, it is definitely an American copy. The whitish/pinkish ground color was brushed on the paper first before the yellow and red design was applied. The block cutting and printing is indifferent and Mr. Kelly felt “everything about the paper suggests a low cost when it was first purchased and hung. The very wide overlap of an inch is often found in 18th century work, less often in early 19th century work. This suggest that a country handyman was given the assignment of hanging the paper. The numerous mismatches reinforce this assumption.”
18th century….1700s. This is some kind of old wallpaper!

 

We found this block printed border applied above the red leaf paper on the plank walls in a few places. The design, inspired by French patterns, is American. The border is about 5 3/4 inches high. Seven color registration dots can be seen on the selvedge edge. Printing colors; blue, tan, yellow, white and gray. The selvedge edge should not be visible, suggesting that it was hung by someone "unfamiliar with professional practice"
We found this block printed border applied above the red leaf paper on the plank walls in a few places. The design, inspired by French patterns, is American. The border is about 5 3/4 inches high. Seven color registration dots can be seen on the selvedge edge. Printing colors; blue, tan, yellow, white and gray. The selvedge edge should not be visible, suggesting that it was hung by someone “unfamiliar with professional practice”
Two layers of wall paper on the dining room walls. The white ground paper layered over the red.
Two layers of wall paper on the dining room walls. The white ground paper layered over the red.
This ashlar block pattern wallpaper was layered on top of the existing red leaf wallpaper. We think it dates back  one hundred fifty years or so, circa 1840-1860. Each sheet measures 14 inches high by 20 inches wide. The thickness of the ink suggests this was block printed. It is typical of low- priced American wallpaper of that period.  The design is considered "especially naive" and influenced by typical indigenous woodcut commercial designs used in newspaper cuts, stenciling, advertising etc. The paper was often mis-matched, indicative of an amateur hanging job.
This ashlar block pattern wallpaper was layered on top of the existing red leaf wallpaper. We think it dates back one hundred fifty years or so, circa 1840-1860. Each sheet measures 14 inches high by 20 inches wide. The thickness of the ink suggests this was block printed.
It is typical of low- priced American wallpaper of that period. The design is considered “especially naive” and influenced by typical indigenous woodcut commercial designs used in newspaper cuts, stenciling, advertising etc.
The paper was often mis-matched, indicative of an amateur hanging job.

Things I never knew…the real key to determine the age of the paper is whether the paper is “joined” paper or “continuous” paper. Joined paper was necessary prior to the invention of continuous papermaking machines; the method was to paste the edges and join the sheets together end to end into long rolls. The paper was then grounded in color and finally printed upon.

Continuous paper was documented for commercial use in France by 1831 and advertised in 1835 in several locations in the US. It is logical to assume that continuous paper gradually edged out joined paper over a 5 to 10 year span so that by 1845 practically all wallpaper would have been continuous.

What Mr. Kelly found surprising and the incongruity hard to explain is that the underlying wallpaper is NOT joined paper, while the one on top IS. The underlying paper may be an early cylinder paper, which was known to have been produced in Berkshire County. The Berkshire connection is especially interesting because of the existence of the Laflin wallpaper factory in Lee, Massachusetts, 1825-1837.

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “If only these walls could talk!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *