Neat And Not Too Showey

Review: “‘Neat And Not Too Showey’: Words and Wallpaper in Regency England” by Amanda Vickery in Gender, Taste, and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700-1830, edited by John Styles and Amanda Vickery, 2006, Yale Center for British Art.


This chapter essay plumbs the significance of the Trollope and Sons letter book, a rare collection of correspondence between that paperstaining house and their customers 1797-1808. The collection is housed at the London Metropolitan Archives.

The lessons of her leading anecdote (about papers ordered by a strait-laced parson) are offered as merely “suggestive” about taste, personal preferences, and consumer choice. This sets the tone.  Indeed, her main points seem to be not about wallpaper, but rather how the correspondence might shed light on other aspects of consumer culture. The limitations are not surprising, when we consider how much of the material culture of wallpaper has been lost, and how little we know about the records that survive. It is frustratingly difficult to assign meaning to transactions, even when we have the consumers’ own words, as here.

She proves that "neat" was an important wallpaper descriptor, and "gaudy" was, too. Unfortunately, the letters reveal little about the letter-writers themselves. Still less clear is how the buying habits of the patrons of Trollope and Sons relate to the wider paper-hangings market. Vickery points out that though all agreed on the importance of taste, none could define it. If we are any clearer on what "good taste" in wallpaper consisted of based on the letter book, it seems that it was channelled toward conformity. 

The defense for the unaccountability of taste is an old theme; a suggestion is made here that taste was so taken for granted that contemporaries couldn't be bothered to comment. These defenses were no less true around 1800 than they are today. But, the way that taste was expressed in 1800 is certainly different than today, which is why we care about old letter books and other evidence.

It's true that the letters offer “rare insight into the desires and anxieties of a group of consumers."  But whether they also offer “a lexicon of the working language of consumer taste” is somewhat more in doubt. "Handsome", "neat", "pretty", and even "gaudy" remain slippery concepts, even though this essay is helpful.

These disappointments are balanced by new and useful information and several insightful passages relating wallpaper to other forms of consumer culture. Chief among the discoveries are the comments of Countess Poulett about the new trend of borders going up the corners of the room. This is not specifically dated, but it must belong to the turn of the century. This suggests that the convention (which is also mentioned in the Duppa, Slodden letter books of the 1810’s and 20’s housed at the V & A) was actually a revival style helping to modernize the papered room for neoclassical taste rather than a continuation of the very old and necessary tradition of bordering each margin of the room.

There are a few boners. She calls the 1509 Cambridge fragments the first wallpaper, but these were printed on offcuts from a printing press and stuck onto beams, and fall firmly into the “unwallpaper” category. Indeed, it is the discarded texts themselves (subsequently overprinted with pattern) referencing the end of one royal reign and the beginning of another which allow the fragments to be dated.

Her text clouds the fact that decorated paper made the audacious leap to the perpendicular wall not in the bedrooms and sanctum sanctorums of English ladies, but in full view, over the mantel or fireplace; nor are we told that this occurred at least a hundred years earlier, in many different countries, and within a less privileged social class. Her assertions that “wallpaper’s career was essentially one of pretense,” and her repeated characterization of wallpaper as an imitation are flat out wrong.

To illustrate: ground beef is derived from beef. But, that fact does not make hamburger an imitation of beefsteak. Nor is it fair to call a hamburger pretentious, just because it is not a steak. Similarly, paper-hangings are not simply less competent or sham versions of silk and chintz. They deserve unqualified recognition, particularly in a volume about material culture.

French writers understand the distinction.  Jean-Pierre Seguin observed in "Wallpapers of France: 1800-1850" that cutting-edge workshops in Paris persisted in printing flat distemper colors of the most subtle shades to render fabric-like wallpapers, when they could have easily shortened the work by using flock. Nancy McClelland got it right in 1924: “wallpaper has succeeded in being always a reproduction and yet keeping always a definite character of its own, due to its texture and its processes.”

For a contribution to a volume about gender, her observations about that subject are surprisingly slim. But, when they come, they are fresh and counter-intuitive. It's most interesting that she found no evidence in the letter books for the “gendering of interiors”: light colors and gay patterns for women, dark and grave for men, and so on.

She shows us how the costs and frequent re-paperings recorded in Martha Dodson’s account books illustrate the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of paper-hangings. Some 21% of the correspondents in the letter book in 1798 were women. Vickery compares this high involvement of women to women's purchases of silver (they were involved with only about 12% of those choices, ostensibly) and china and pictures (about the same recorded involvement, on the whole). She suggests that even this 21% probably falls short. Referring to the trade card images of Wheeley’s and Masefield’s showrooms, she comments that “choosing wallpaper a deux may even have symbolized marital harmony.”

She makes the keen observation that it was not just that ashlars and other stone types of paper were appropriate for hallways and entries on a materials basis — the neutral tones also served as a foil for the elaborate colors and patterns reserved for more important rooms. Her analysis of how the existing rules of decorum applied to the paper-hangings environment (pg. 205 and following) is persuasive. She explains why we should not be surprised that certain colors were chosen for show, or as a backdrop for pictures, or for certain rooms, or for rooms with a northern or southern exposure. These were a continuation of norms for the decoration of homes, albeit of homes that tended toward the upper end.

The essay raises interesting questions about the interplay between color and pattern. She finds that “the most consistent factor shaping the customers’ choice of paper was total decor.” A discussion follows about the coloring of paper to match other features of the home. Many correspondents mentioned color in a rudimentary way, as in “a green paper”, "a French gray”, etc., and she acknowledges that since no examples are in the Trollope archives (in contrast to other depositories, which have swatches), we are left unsure of what the letter-writers actually meant.

She also acknowledges the limitations of this sampling. Letters were exchanged only in certain situations: when problems arose; for repeat orders; when customers were at a distance; or when they had difficulty paying. Thus, even though hundreds of letters were studied, they are only part of the business. Although she does not say so explicitly, off-the-shelf orders (stock in trade, cash and carry, call it what you will) must have accounted for a certain proportion of sales. These customers had no need for letters of any sort. Unfortunately, it is not possible to guess what this proportion might be. It must have been large.

She refers to the use of common blue papers for “underpapering,” a neologism. We must assume she means as lining paper. But, it is unlikely that a common paper (a general description for a low-priced paper, often ungrounded) would have been used as a liner. Her reference to the color —blue— offers a clue that these may have been coarse blue and green lining and wrapping papers such as bagcap and lumberhand. The coarse types of liner were not much different than the so-called “sugar papers” used to wrap sugar and other confections. This last phrase is often used, in a confiding tone, by my British correspondents when they describe cheap paper. I have not yet found the heart to tell them that Americans of my generation relate as much to “sugar paper” used for sweets as we do to "excelsior" being used for packing — that is, we don’t use the term at all!

For Vickery, “neat”, though a small word, is capable of heavy lifting. She uses it so often it seems almost a synonym for the general notion of “decorum,” i.e., consumers were so anxious that their decoration should be thought appropriate that this pursuit led them toward patterns that were indisputably “neat.” This seems a little too pat. Where there no adventurous consumers?  Maybe "smart" picked up where "neat" left off.

The tendencies of “neat” toward control, repetition, restraint, and the like point toward folk art, but this implication goes unexplored by Vickery, although she does note the application of “neat” to an array of other similarly broad and relatively low-priced consumer products.


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