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.

How To Buy "Backstory"