On The Trail of The Paper Curtain

One of the fascinations of wallpaper history is the rise and fall of the paper curtain. A poor man's window shade, they were much used around 1840 or so, and maintained their popularity long after the Civil War.  Yet they are not well documented and are almost unremembered today.

Two factors leading to their demise were their ephemeral nature and association with a backwoods mentality.  One type of paper curtain could be customized with painted scenes and these could be fairly elaborate.  But the more popular type by far was was the cheaper printed version which had a simple rectangular border around a bouquet – and sometimes not even that.

Fortunately, paper curtains left a trail in newspaper and directory advertising and in popular literature, some excerpts of which are below. It is not always clear how wallpaper curtains differed from plain paper shades. Nevertheless, these references can help us get a mental image and place them in the social context.

One view of paper curtains came to me quite by accident.  I had enjoyed the great Dreyer film "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and decided to rent another of his films.  "Ordet" tells the story of a Danish farming family. The setting appears to be early 20th century.  The middle son believes he is Jesus Christ.

About half an hour into the film, the Christ figure wanders over by a window, reaches up, pulls the shade down and LO, there is a paper curtain, complete with border and flowery vignette!  Perhaps not an Oscar moment, but I was happy about it! To be sure, this may have been an oilcloth or some other "improved" material, but the basic paper curtain idea was there.

"... the frozen lake lay without a shadow on its bosom; the dwellings were becoming already gloomy and indistinct; and the wood-cutters were shouldering their axes, and preparing to enjoy, throughout the long evening before them, the comforts of those exhilarating fires that their labour had been supplying with fuel...the paper curtains dropped behind our travellers in every window, shutting from the air even the fire-light of the cheerful apartments..."
from The Pioneers, James Fenimore Cooper, 1823, Chapter Five, pg. 46.

"...the pew furnishings, as to cushions, carpets and colors, were the work and the monuments of the very diversified individual tastes of their occupants, while in the aisle there was nothing. The light was intense—white light, for the windows were many and the blinds were not; the curtains were poor, inadequate paper affairs, often rent, which allowed the penetrating beams to strike the face and enter the eye without mercy, and cause the hands and hats to go up in self-protection, 'the immense Navarino bonnets, nearly as large as an umbrella,' here finding a reason for being..."
from Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895, Mary Rogers Cabot, 1921.

around 1835:
"Supper was ready when we returned; and then the best room was assigned to the three ladies, while the gentlemen were to have the loft. We saw the stars through chinks in our walls; but it was warm May, and we feared no cold. Shallow tin-pans,—milkpans, I believe,—were furnished to satisfy our request for ewer and basin. The windows had blinds of paper-hanging; a common sort of window-blind at hotels, and in country places. Before it was light, I was wakened by a strong cold breeze blowing upon me; and at dawn, I found that the entire lower half of the window was absent. A deer had leaped through it, a few weeks before; and there had been no opportunity of mending it. But everything was clean; everybody was obliging; the hostess was motherly; and the conclusion that we came to in the morning was that we had all slept well, and were ready for a second ramble in the cave."
from Society in America, Harriet Martineau, 1:119 (1837); she was visiting Mammoth Cave near Nashville.

"...as our hero had never seen the inside of a New-England tavern before, he took particular notice of the painted floors, the wooden-bottom chairs, the green paper curtains at the windows; of an old-fashioned mahogany secretary, with a large Bible and two or three hymn-books placed with religious care on top; and of the profiles of the family, cut in white paper, and hung up in black frames around a yellowish sampler, with the name and age of the feminine prodigy who worked it somewhat ostentatiously emblazoned in gilded letters upon the glazing..."
from The Knickerbocker, Vol. 16, 1840; The Haunted Merchant, by Harry Franco, Chapter 9.

"I looked round for something to divert myself with until the hour of breakfast. I wandered to the window. The view from it was tame and did not hold me long.... I then turned my observation upon the room. It was still ruder in finish and in furniture than that below. The chairs and bedstead were evidently of domestic manufacture. A case of shelves, protected by a curtain of wall-paper made to roll up by a simple contrivance, was plainly of the same workmanship. I discovered that this supplied the place of a wardrobe. As my eye thus took account of the objects in the room, it fell upon one which gave evidence of a certain luxury nowhere else visible..." 
from page 13 of "Record of an Obscure Man", by Mary Lowell Putnam, Ticknor & Sons, Boston, 1861; on the first page of the story the narrator says "...in the spring of 1842 I made a tour through some of the Southern and Southwestern States.  I travelled chiefly on horseback..."

© Library Company of Philadelphia; lithograph by W.H. Rease, "Finn & Burton's Paper Hangings Warehouse No. 142, Arch St., Philadelphia"; printed by F. Kuhl, ca. 1847. Gift of Charles A. Poulson. Appears in Wainwright (1958) as # 127.

New Furniture: "...we shall devote some time and space to the description of a suite of new and elegant furniture...now, this may cause divers groans from 'honest country folk,' where chairs, a bureau, a looking-glass, and a table, are still considered the essentials of parlor furniture...but while we enjoy the honest sincerity which still lives in the shadow of wall-paper curtains, and deprecate the extravagant transparency of embroidered lace ditto, our veracity as a faithful historian compels us to do justice to the elegant articles, in which Mr. Henkel's good taste and the skill of his workmen are displayed..."
from Godey's Lady's Book, Vol. XL, page 152 (Feb. 1850).

"Dust Venetian blinds with feather brushes. Buy light-colored ones, as the green are going out of fashion. Strips of linen or cotton, on rollers and pulleys, are much in use, to shut out the sun from curtains and carpets. Paper curtains, pasted on old cotton, are good for chambers. Put them on rollers, having cords nailed to them, so that when the curtain falls, the cord will be wound up. Then, by pulling the cord, the curtain will be rolled up."
from A Treatise on Domestic Economy: For The Use Of Young Ladies At Home by Catherine Esther Beecher, pg. 304, NY, Harper, 1856.

"If you . . . can without much trouble, bring me some green paper for curtains. I will be much obliged. I cannot get any about here. They have blue at the [nearby town] but it does not shade a room as pretty as green. I shall want about 15 yds., but if you cannot buy by the yard, you may get two rolls and perhaps Nancy will take some of it. Fabe [Lucy's husband] says such curtain paper is in very large rolls, if so of course I shall not want enough to curtain the town."
Lucy, living in a small town in the Adirondacks, writes to a relative in Albany, N.Y.

"He closed and locked the door, then untied the curtain string and lowered the green paper curtains, and next climbed the ladder that I had seen him descend, telling me to follow him. He opened the cover of an iron chest, and, after fumbling about inside it, asked me to look into its depths..."
from "Stringtown On The Pike: A Tale Of Northernmost Kentucky", by John Uri Lloyd, NY, Dodd, Mead and Co., 1901, Chapter 3: The Lost Deed.

Making Home Pleasant: "...anything that gives a room a cold, chilly appearance, should be avoided even in summer; for we like cool, shady places, but not damp ones, where there is nothing but shade. Green paper curtains, which are often used in sitting-rooms, though not allowed in the parlors, are the very worst possible species of shade to windows; and if you must have them at all, put them in the best rooms, where only now and then a person enters. In summer, the sunlight coming through green venetian blinds, or, better still, the fresh leaves of a clustering vine, with their exquisite shadows, on the floor and walls, is most refreshingly cool; but paper shades never can produce the same effect—they but color the light. When shades are used, they should be either buff or some delicate neutral tint..."
from The Genesee Farmer, Vol. 24, 1863: "A Monthly Journal Devoted to Agricultural and Horticulture, Domestic and Rural Economy" (Joseph Harris, Rochester, NY).

"... let anybody travel, as I did last year, through the valley of the Connecticut, and observe the houses. All clean and white and neat and well-to-do, with their turfy yards and their breezy great elms, — but all shut up from basement to attic...not a window-blind open above or below... I have my doubts about the sovereign efficacy of living in the dark, even if the great object of existence were to be rid of flies. I remember, during this same journey, stopping for a day or two at a country boardinghouse which was dark as Egypt from cellar to garret. The long, dim, gloomy dining-room was first closed by outside blinds, and then by impenetrable paper curtains, notwithstanding which it swarmed and buzzed like a beehive..."
from House and Home Papers, by Christopher Crowfield (H. B. Stowe) Atlantic Monthly (1864).

pg. 18: "...she locked them out and pulled the curtains close, and, though people continued to come to the door through the whole day, no one gained admittance or saw a sign of life about the house. Inside sat the widow and the child, scarcely aware of the passage of time. They only knew that it was still day by the rays of sunlight that came in through holes in the paper curtains, and pointed across the rooms like long fingers..."
pg. 33: "...she had been thinking since they left the house how people would come and wander through it, and peer at everything, and know just how wretchedly they had lived. Now they could not, for it would all be burnt up. She sat and fancied the fire catching here and there in their poor little rooms, how the clock would tick till the last minute, even when its face was scorched and its glass shivered, and then fall with a sudden crash; how the flames would catch at the bed on which the dead man had lain, the mean paper curtains, the chair she had sat in, Mrs. Rowan's little rocking-chair, at the table where they had sat through so many dreary meals..."
from Catholic World (Vol. 13, 1871); "The House of Yorke": the story is set in coastal Maine.

Improved Paper Curtains: Common paper window curtains labor under several grave defects, chief among these being their stiffness and readiness to tear. A material called Japanese paper is now manufactured in London, which appears to be free from these and other drawbacks, and which furnishes a cheap, tasteful, and durable curtain. The inventors claim that they can produce in this material imitations of French silk, damask, and cretonne. The colors, being body colors, are more durable than dyers usually employ for woollen fabrics. The material consists of a mixture of vegetable and animal fibre.
from "The Galaxy", Vol. 15, edited by William C. Church, 1873, New York, pg. 565.

before 1885:

The Household: Hints on Furnishing: "...before we had blinds, I used to cut common plain curtain paper the width of the shade and several inches longer and tack shade and paper together on the roller, roll up as high as I wished, cut the paper off the length of the shade, then fasten to the hem at the bottom with a fine thread or a few pins on the back.  Of course, the paper is next the window..."
from the Canadian Messenger, April 1, 1885.

 Both found in a 19th century farmhouse in upstate New York. Stamped on the rollers are the words: "Putnams; Manufactory; Neponset, Massachusetts." Photo courtesy Wanda Burch.

early wallpaper texts

c. 1680, trade card

George Minnikin Stationer at ye Kings Head in St. Martins Le Grand near Aldersgate makes & sells all sorts of Japan & other colourd paper hangings both in sheets & yards & sells all sorts of stationary wares at reasonable rates.

c. 1690, trade card

At the Old Knave of Clubs, at the Bridge-foot in Southwark, liveth Edward Butling, who maketh and selleth all sorts of hangings for rooms, in lengths or in sheets, frosted or plain: also a sort of paper in imitation of IrishStich, of the newest fashion, and several other sorts, viz. flock-work, wainscot, marble, damask, turkey-work. Also shop-books, pocket books, writing-paper, brown-paper, and whited-brown paper, cards, and all other sorts of stationary wares, good and reasonable.
© Trustees of the British Museum; Heal, 91.12, AN588972001; Trade Card of Edward Butling.

1699, John Houghton, "Husbandry and Trade Improv'd": 

Of paper there are divers sorts finer and coarser, as also brown and blue paper, with divers that are printed for the hanging of rooms; and truly, they are very pretty, and make the houses of the more ordinary people look neat. At Ebbisham [Epsom] in Surrey, they call it paper tapestry, and if they be in all parts well pasted close to the wall or boards they are very durable; and it ought to be encouraged, because 'tis introductory to other hangings. [No. 356, May 19, 1699].

...a great deal of paper is now a-days so printed to be pasted on walls, to serve instead of hangings; and truly if all parts of the sheet be well and close pasted on, it is very pritty, clean, and will last with tolerable care a great while; but there are some other done by rolls in long sheets of a thick paper made for the purpose, whose sheets are pasted together to be so long as the height of a room; and they are managed like woolen hangings; and there is a great variety with curious cuts which are cheap and if kept from wet, very lasting...[June 30, 1699].

c. 1700, advertisement

At the Blew Paper Warehouse in Aldermanbury London.

Are sold the true sorts of figured paper hangings in pieces of twelve yards long and others after the mode of real tapistry, and in imitation of Irish Stich, and flowered damask and also of marble & other coloured wainscot, fitt for the hanging of rooms, and stair-cases, with great variety of skreens, chimney pieces, sashes for windows and other things of curious figures and colours.

The patentees for the sole making thereof do hereby signify that their sd. pieces are not only more substantial and ornamental as well as cheaper than the counterfeits sold in other places but are also distinguished by these words on the back of each piece as their true mark vizt.

(Blew Paper Society's Manufacture)

Where are also sold blew sugar loafe and purple paper in reams (they being the only patentees for the making thereof) and linnen cloth tapistry hangings very cheap.

You may observe the following method in the putting up the said figured paper hangings. First cutt your breadths to your intended heights then tack them at the top and bottom with small tacks, and between each breadth leave a vacancy of about an inch for the borders to cover, then cut out the borders into the same lengths and tack them strait down over the edges of the breadths and likewise at the top of the room in imitation of a cornish and the same (if you please) at the bottom as you see described in the figure below without borders and with borders.

But if you will putt up the same without borders, then cutt one of the edges of each piece or breadth smooth and even, then tack itt about an inch over the next breadth and so from one to another.

But whether you putt them up with or without borders gently wett them on the back side with a moist spunge or cloth which will make them hang the smoother.


[There are at least five known advertisements for the Blew Paper Warehouse. See S & E, 40. Another version contains additional information]:

At the Blue-Paper Warehouse in Aldermanbury, London, are sold the true sorts of Japan and Indian figured hangings, in pieces of twelve yards long, and half ell broad, at 2 s. 6 d. by the piece.  And another sort of large Japan and forest-work, in pieces of proper sizes, after the new mode, of real tapestry...the patentees for making the said figur'd hangings (observing the same to be counterfeited upon a thin and common brown paper, daub'd over with a slight and superficial paint) do hereby give notice, that the said true sorts may be distinguish'd from counterfeits by their weight, strength, thickness and colour, dy'd through; and are every way more lasting and serviceable. At the same places are to be sold blue sugar-loaf and royal purple paper by the ream.

1723, Jacques Savary (Savary des Bruslons), "Universal Dictionary of Commerce":

 "...a dominotier makes a sort of tapestry on paper, which for a long time was used by the peasants and the poorer classes in Paris to cover the walls of their huts or their rooms and shops....by the end of the seventeenth century, the technique had reached a high point of perfection and elegance. Quite apart from the larger quantities of paper that are sold for export abroad and in the principle cities of France, there is not a house in Paris, however grand, that does not contain some example of this charming decoration, even if only in a wardrobe or other private room."

1734, instructions from Robert Dunbar (Aldermanbury):

please to observe the following method of putting up the said hangings in any room, viz., First, cut one edge of each piece or breadth, even to the work, then nail it with large tacks to the wall and paste the edge of the next breadth over the heads of the tacks and so from one to another, till the room be perfectly hung, observing to make ye flowers join. N.B. damp the paper before you put it up, and begin next the window and make stiff paste of the best flour and water.

1737, correspondence:

Thomas Hancock, stationer, Boston, to John Rowe, stationer, London.

"Sir – Inclosed you have the dimensions of a room for a shaded hanging to be done after the same pattern I have sent per Captain Tanner, who will deliver it to you. It's for my own house and entreat the favour of you to get it done for me to come early in the spring, or as soon as the nature of the thing will admitt.

The pattern is all was left of a room lately come over here, and it takes much in ye town and will be the only paper-hanging for sale wh. am of opinion may answer well. Therefore, desire you by all means to get mine well done and as cheap as possible, and if they can make it more beautiful by adding more birds flying here and there, with some landskips at the bottom, should like it well. Let the ground be the same colour of the pattern. At the top and bottom was a narrow border of about 2 inches wide wh. would have to mine. About three or four years ago, my friend Francis Wilks, Esq., had a hanging done in the same manner but much handsomer, sent over here from Mr. Sam Waldon of this place, made by one Dunbar, in Aldermanbury, where no doubt he, or some of his successors may be found. In other part of these hangings are great variety of different sorts of birds, peacocks, macoys, squirril, monkys, fruit, and flowers, &c. 

But a greater variety in the above-mentioned of Mr. Waldon's and should be fond of having mine done by the same hand if to be mett with. I design if this pleases me to have two rooms more done for myself. I think they are handsomer and better than painted hangings done in oyle, so I beg your particular care in procuring this for me, and that the patterns may be taken care off and return'd with my goods."

1747, The London Tradesman, by Robert Campbell

Chapter 32
Of the Upholder and the Trades employed by him

I have just finished my house, and must now think of furnishing it with fashionable furniture. The upholder is chief agent in this case. He is the man upon whose judgment I rely in the choice of goods; and I suppose he has not only judgment in the materials, but taste in the fashions, and skill in the workmanship. This tradesman's genius must be universal in every branch of furniture; though his proper craft is to fit up beds, window-curtains, hangings, and to cover chairs that have stuffed bottoms.

He was originally a species of the taylor; but, by degrees, has crept over his head, and set up as a connoissieur in every article that belongs to a house. He employs journeymen in his own proper calling, cabinet-makers, glass-grinders, looking-glass frame-carvers, carvers for chairs, testers, and posts of bed; the woolen-draper, the mercer, the linen-draper, several species of smiths, and a vast many tradesmen of the other mechanic branches.

The upholder, according to this description of his business, must be no fool; and have a considerable stock to set up with: however, a young man who has a mind only to be a mere upholder and has no prospect of setting up in the undertaking way, does not require such a universal genius as I have been speaking of: he must handle the needle so alertly as to sew a plain seam, and sew on the lace without puckers; and he must use his sheers so dextrously as to cut a valence or counterpain with a genteel sweep according to a pattern he has before him.

All this part of the work is performed by women, who never served an apprenticeship to the mystery, as well as men. The stuffing and covering of a chair or settee-bed is indeed the nicest part of this branch; but it may be acquired without any remarkable genius. All the wooden-work they use is done by the joiner, cabinet-maker, and carver. A tradesman who is a good hand in the upholder's own branch is paid twelve or fifteen shillings a week; and the women, if good for any thing, get a shilling a day.

© Trustees of the British Museum; Banks, 91.1, AN705271; Trade Card of Bromwich & Leigh.

1747, General Description of All Trades

Upholders, the 49th [company] (pg. 214)

Most frequently called upholsterers, who are the absolute necessary tradesmen for decently or sumptously furnishing an house and a large branch of business it is, the working part of which is not hard, but clean and genteel; (and if they were not so, what would the nice ladies do with them?) therefore fit for smart youths, who have no strength to spare; for they even employ woman to do some of the needle-work.

Besides performing this part many of them are great shop-keepers, who have abundance of ready-made goods for sale always by them. Most of them are also appraisers (which see before) and several of them are undertakers too...

The upholsterers take with an apprentice generally from 20 to 30 l. who work from six to eight; pay a journeyman in common 2 s. 6 d. or 3 s. a day; or, if by the year, 15, 20, or 30 l. and his board. If a master only does business in a private way 100 l. may serve his occasions; but if he keeps a stock of upholstery ware and materials for funerals he had need have 500 l....

Arms. On a chevron between 3 tents as many roses.

Paper-Makers (pg. 159)

...[the Paper-Makers] goods go chiefly into the hands of the wholesale stationers, who vend them to the retailers, booksellers, printers, & c...There are likewise hangings for rooms made by colouring and embossing of thick paper, the making and dealing in which is now become a considerable branch of trade; the masters in this part seldom take an apprentice with less than 10 l. at the working part of which a journeyman can get 15 or 18 s. a week, and a shopman has generally 10, 15, or 20 l. a year and his board. To set up in this branch compleatly will take up 500 l.

1766, History and Practice of Wood Engraving, by Jean-Michel Papillon*

. . . one of the first obstacles was the contrary attitude of my own father, whose firm opinion was that I should not make my career that of a fine engraver, but as an engraver exclusively of wallpapers; which were of course his line of business. . . .

. . . I was made to work all day printing wallpapers, as likely coloring them in when I was not cutting out the blocks, as going to houses of quality to attend to the hanging of papers. . . .

. . . when young, being engaged with my father in going almost every day to hang rooms with our papers, I was, some time in 1718 or 1720, at the village of Bagneux, near Mont Rouge, at a Monsieur De Greder's, a Swiss captain, who had a pretty house there. After I had papered a small room for him, he ordered me to cover the shelves of his library with paper in imitation of mosaic. . .

* from: Traité historique et pratique de la gravure en bois (3 vols.). The first extract is from 1:xi. The second is from 3:7 (this volume is also called the Supplement). The third is from 1:83.


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