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September 2, 2009

I once went to a party at the boss’s fancy house.  My date leaned over to me and said “You can tell this is a WASP house.”  I looked at him wondering where he was going with this.  “Just look at all the wallpaper,” he said, waving an arm to indicate all the walls of the first floor.  “Jews never use wallpaper.”

Having learned he was a bad judge of a lot of things, I doubt there’s any veracity to his statement.  (He seemed to overlook the fact that his own [Jewish] mother put up wallpaper in several rooms in her house.)  I think wallpaper is an equal opportunity decorating option, without regard to race, creed, religion or wallet.  There’s high end (ooh, dig that Scalamandre pattern!) and low end (think that contact paper will cover the crack in the wall?).   I remember a pattern my mother once selected for her kitchen consisting of oversized orange swirls against a silver metallic background.  Wallpaper is often a choice best left to the brave of decorating heart.

In one of my favorite classes in grad school we studied historic interiors, from what was on the wall or floor during what period to where that chair would go and what sort of window decor you’d peek through to see if that were your gentleman caller at the door.

I love looking at the prints and color themes once popular in carpets, fabrics and wallpapers.  Artistry meets graphic design.  Muted small details.  Garish bold flourishes.  Embossing.  Metallic accents.  Flocking!  (The Adelphi designs above all date from the mid-18th century.)

The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now known by the much less cumbersome moniker Historic New England, has one of the best archives of historic wallpaper patterns in the country, spanning from 1750 to 1950 — two centuries of style!  Better still, it is all in an online database, searchable by period, color, source, or other tags that allow you to truly hone in on whatever it is you are looking for.  The collection was started in 1911 by SPNEA founder William Sumner Appleton.  The website also includes information on care and conservation, the history of wallpaper in New England, and links to additional resources, including manufacturers, conservators, suppliers of  historic reproductions and other historic wallpaper collections.

Unfortunately, the collection does not include any images from the remarkable hand-painted English wallpaper hanging in the 1768 Jeremiah Lee mansion (click here for images of the exterior), a National Historic Landmark in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  After passing out of the Lee family, the building served as a bank for a century and was then acquired by the Marblehead Historical Society (celebrating 100 years of stewardship of this remarkble property, donations welcome).  The rare surviving paper — the only such wall treatments surviving in place —  received a $70,000 Save America’s Treasures grant for conservation.

That Dominatrix of Style, Ms. Martha Stewart,  illustrated the painstaking process for hand-blocked wallpaper in her recent decorating issue.  “Using woodblocks, artistic skill, and plenty of manual labor, Adelphi Paper Hangings, in Sharon Springs, New York, brings historical wallpaper patterns back to life.”  (Click through to see the magazine’s image portfolio, showing the process and the wonderful patterns and colors.)  (The Adelphi paper samples above may be found here in their terrific historical overview.)

My ancestral link to wallpaper is through my grandfather, who for many years ran the paint and wallpaper department at Sears.  My family “legacy” (meaning one of many things stashed in the homestead attic) includes several old wallpaper rollers, their sides embellished with the shapes — metal outlines stuffed with felt — that would pick up the paint and set the pattern down on paper.  My grandfather had one of these made into a lamp.  I remember it sitting on a side table with its giant shade and the base that reminded me of birch bark, dark blotches against a white background.  Anyone else want to make a lamp?  I’ve got extra rollers!

(For wallpaper in contemporary decorating use, Erin at Elements of Style shared some of her recent design installations)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. vmichael permalink
    September 3, 2009 9:37 am

    I rehabbed a 1906 Chicago graystone in the 1990s and when we stripped the paint in one room we found that the original plaster had been covered with wallpaper, not paint. The reason may have been economic wallpaper was often cheaper thn paint.

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      September 3, 2009 3:24 pm

      Hey Vince, nice to see you here and thanks for sharing perspective from one of my favorite cities. You know, it may also just be that the lady of your house thought the wallpaper was prettier than paint! (Now my mind begins to wander off wondering how she chose the pattern, whether it was her favorite color… or, as you suggest, maybe the builder was just cutting some corners… not nearly as romantic a notion.) Did you end up saving the plaster or did it come down with the wallpaper?

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