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A Passion for Old Designs

SPNEA's collection of historic wallpapers enjoys an international reputation. What began as a gift of thirty-nine samples in 1911 has grown to be the best documented regional collection in the country and the second in size only to the collection at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City.

Img_02SPNEA's extensive collection of historic wallpapers was recently significantly enriched through the addition of the Waterhouse Archive of Historic Wall-papers, a gift from Mr. Bernard Scott. Scott was the business partner of Dorothy S. Waterhouse, who amassed the collection and founded Waterhouse Wallhangings, a company that specializes in reproducing historic wallpaper designs.

Dorothy Waterhouse credited her fascination with old wallpapers to the restoration of a 1799 house she and her husband had purchased in the mid 1930s on Cape Cod. "It was a tremendous job getting those ugly 1890 papers and ornate Victorians scraped off...Suddenly I spotted beneath the drab looking top layers some beautiful colors...all in fascinating block-print designs," she related in one of the numerous newspaper articles describing how her hobby was born and how it turned into a business. It was through such newspaper and magazine articles and her numerous lectures throughout New England beginning in the late 1940s that word spread of her interest in the subject. Many people sent her scraps of wallpaper seeking her help in identification, while others invited her to their homes to see the wallpapers that remained on the walls or the rolls they had discovered in the attic. She often came away with samples and duly noted on most the name of the donor and the town where the paper was found.

Dorothy Waterhouse was most interested in early wallpapers, and the collection now given to SPNEA contains many eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century examples. It is equally rich, however, in samples of popular patterns from the mid-nineteenth century. The collection includes both fragments and unused rolls of wallpaper, wallpaper-covered boxes, wallpaper-lined trunks, and several sample books, some from the early 1950s, which relate to Mrs. Waterhouse's first venture in reproducing documents from her collection. Illustrated here are some of the highlights.

-Richard C. Nylander
Senior Curator

Nearly 4,000 images of wallpapers in SPNEA's collection may be viewed in a searchable online catalogue, Wallpaper in New England, on SPNEA's web site, The site also provides a short history of wallpaper, sources for reproduction wallpaper, information on care and conservation of historic papers, and an extensive bibliography of books and articles on wallpaper history and interior decoration. The cataloguing and access project was supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency.

LEFT Many of the collection's eighteenth-century wallpapers are fragments removed from walls. Often several fragments had to be pieced together to reconstruct the documentary designs produced by Waterhouse Wallhangings. These two patterns are American, dating between 1785 and 1800. The design of the cherub and gazebo was probably copied from a French paper.

BELOW LEFT ( TAN ) Sample of an English pattern, 1740-1760, found in the Whipple House in Ipswich, Massachusetts. While most eighteenth-century wallpapers were block printed, one block for each color, in this example the colors were stenciled, after which the black and crimson outlines were printed over them. This accounts for the misaligned pattern and the variation in color, which apparently did not bother the eighteenth-century consumer as much as it might today's. In the early 1950s, the design was reproduced under the name "Queen Anne" by the Warner Company of Chicago, which used papers from the Waterhouse collection in several collections of documentary wallpapers and coordinating fabrics.

BELOW RIGHT ( PINK ) Two borders attest to the quality of French block-printed wallpapers in the early nineteenth century. At this time French wallpapers were readily available and could be found on the walls of houses in country and city alike. The uppermost border, which was designed to be used with a wallpaper of the background stripe, was found in a house near Hollis, New Hampshire. The location where the other border, produced by the Paris firm Jacquemart et Bénard, was used is not known; the identical pattern, however, was used in the drawing room of the White House before it was burned by the British in 1814.

ABOVE LEFT French scenic wallpapers are perhaps the best-known type of historic wallpaper. The non-repeating panoramas could transport the viewer to Parisian parks, Olympic games, Italian ports, or country hunts. This unused fragment from "Les Voyages d'Anthénor" illustrates the intensity of the colors found in scenic papers when new. The scenic paper illustrating this mythological tale was first produced by Joseph Dufour in Paris about 1820. This example is probably a reprint by Dufour's successor, Desfossé & Karth.

ABOVE RIGHT Oval and round pasteboard boxes covered with wallpaper, known as bandboxes, became a lucrative sideline of the wallpaper business between 1820 and 1845. While any leftover paper could be used, manufacturers also produced patterns specifically designed to fit the proportions of bandboxes. Patterns printed in white, pink, and lacquer green on a blue background appear to have been the most popular. An unused portion of the hunting scene on the middle box was also found in the collection.

ABOVE A manufacturer often stamped its name at the end of a roll of wallpaper. The stamps are rare because they were usually discarded when the paper was hung. Moses Grant, Jr., and Company had a successful business in Boston between 1811 and 1817.

LEFT A selection of French and American wallpapers illustrates popular styles and some of the printing techniques employed in better quality papers of the 1840s and 1850s. The sky of the striped pattern with alternating vignettes was created using a method of blending colors called irisé. The two floral patterns on the left are printed on a satin ground, a highly polished surface that reflects the light. Each of these processes added to production time and therefore to the cost per roll.

RIGHT Popular colors of the 1820s and 1830s are found in the pristine wallpapers that line a leather-covered trunk and a grained box. The pineapple pattern, of American manufacture, was particularly popular and was often used to cover bandboxes. The other paper is French.

LEFT This top-of-the-line block-printed border made in France between 1845 and 1860 was part of popular decorative scheme of wallpapers and borders known as a "fresco" paper or "décor." When hung, the different elements would give a plain plaster wall the appearance of elaborately carved and gilded paneling. The rich effect was further enhanced with both flocking to imitate green velvet and gold leaf to shimmer under candle- or gaslight. Touches of gold became increasingly popular in mid-nineteenth century wallpapers. Many American factories employed women to do flocking and apply gilding as well as roll the finished printed paper.

RIGHT In the 1880s, Anglo-Japanese wallpapers capitalized on the consumer's fascination with all things Japanese. Scores of motifs were crowded into a formulaic, asymmetrical framework of rectangles, circles, and squares. Sometimes the motifs were appropriately exotic; other times they made little sense, like those in the pattern that juxtaposes the Brooklyn Bridge, Niagara Falls, a lighthouse, and paddlewheel steamers with oriental vases. The letters printed on the wallpaper selvedge provide the clue to the manufacturer and help date the pattern. "W.N.P." stands for the W. N. Peak Company of New York, which went out of business two years after the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883. "A.W.P.M.A." on the selvedge of the other pattern refers to the American Wall Paper Manufacturers Association, a group active between 1880 and 1887.

LEFT Japanese leather paper was one of the many relief decorations designed to appeal to the late-nineteenth century taste for elaborate patterns imitating tooled leather. The patterns were embossed onto wide rolls of paper several layers thick. The front was then covered with a gold wash, the background color applied with a stencil, and lastly, the entire surface was lacquered. Walter Crane's olive-and-gold "Peacock and Armorini" won a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1878. The pattern was also available in more expensive stamped leather, although contemporary accounts record that the difference between the two was difficult to detect.

RIGHT At some point in the early twentieth century, a member of the Percival family of Lenox, Massachusetts, used a variety of artistic and Arts and Crafts wallpapers to make colorful folders for family papers. Two of the papers were designed by the celebrated designer William Morris: the peach-colored "Marigold," 1875, on the right; and "Lily," 1873, on the smallest folder on the left. The bird and floral design on the left is "Minto," a 1901 pattern by the versatile architect and decorative designer C.F. A. Voysey.

LEFT This roller-printed border, produced by an unknown American Company sometime between 1910 and 1920, pictures Mount Vernon looking more like a log cabin or Adirondack camp than the elegant plantation of the nation's first president. The inscription on the reverse, "From house on top of mountain/ Wilmot Flats, NH," suggests the paper may have been used to decorate a rustic interior.

RIGHT Nursery papers, spurred by the popularity of illustrated children's books, were a phenomenon of the 1880s and '90s. Illustrations by Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, and Randolph Caldecott were turned into wallpapers intended both to instruct and amuse children. This c. 1895 English example is typical of the genre.

A Passion for Old Designs