Wallpaper in the Gilded Age Part V: Commercial Context

We turn now to how wallpaper was sold in the late Gilded Age. Again, the World’s Fair of 1893 is a good jumping-off place. The central court of the Columbian Exposition conveyed formalism, symmetry, and a sense of grandeur. The expansive pools at the Fair were meant to symbolize 400 years of unbroken and supposedly laudatory progress.

1. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

The face of the White City was one thing, but the graphic style of the commercial interests of the day was another. An ad for the wallpaper monopoly (the National Wallpaper Company) from The Decorator and Furnisher was probably shooting for "grand." I believe they landed on "grandiose" instead.

2. An advertisement for the National Wallpaper Company. 

3. The pavilion of the National Wallpaper Company.
Whether grand or grandiose, the pride of a successful industry is captured in the image of the exuberant National Wallpaper pavilion at the Fair from the same magazine. It's only mildly surprising to learn that the exterior frieze, dado, pillars, and panel decorations lavished on the pavilion were made entirely of Lincrusta. We’ll talk more about Lincrusta below, but first, a few caveats about our sources. 

The Decorator and Furnisher magazine (1882-97) is a unique base for exploring the Ventfort Hall wallpapers. The publication’s style—ornate, rich, conservative—mirrors the style of Ventfort Hall itself. However, the editors and writers of The Decorator and Furnisher were never less than rhapsodic about the industry they covered. The result is a blurring (if not an erasing) of the line between advertising and editorial. The manufacturers were more straightforward in their advertising copy but this too was a hard sell. They were not selling to the general public. They were selling to the sellers of their products: the showrooms, distributors, and retail store owners in a vast and competitive marketplace.[1]

4. Garden Door ad, The Decorator and Furnisher. 

There was a division between popular taste, without which the mass-market wallpaper business could not have advanced, and the taste of the elite. Yet they were intimately related. The practices of Warren, Fuller & Company, a top New York firm, were perhaps typical. Most of their advertising copy and graphics (like the “Garden Door” ad) seem directed at the top 1% of customers like the Morgans, the proud owners of Ventfort Hall, and Rotch and Tilden, the Morgans’ architects. Yet their bread and butter was undoubtedly located elsewhere: in sales to the professional classes who needed to keep up appearances, and in yet more sales to the masses that decorated cheaply and often. Warren, Fuller & Co. admitted as much in the last sentence of an article: “Of course, we have white and brown blanks, and the cheap bronzes [gilts] that most houses make to suit the public demand.”[2] This might be the best place to discuss the genius of William Morris, whose designs managed to suit the demand of the 99% as well as the 1%.

It’s no exaggeration to say that William Morris created a popular wallpaper style in the late nineteenth century practically single-handedly. Somehow, his designs appealed to both sides of the natural/stylized divide. His design work most exploited the hand-drawn lines of the post-medieval period. These were vital, and even crude. Yet from them he crafted smooth repetitive ornament. His repeats filled the wall without imprisoning it. The more didactic qualities of Dr. Christopher Dresser’s designs offer an interesting contrast. Dresser’s “art botany” style was impressive, especially to design theorists, but it’s doubtful that his wallpapers sold anywhere near as well as Morris’s. Thanks to the wide-open wallpaper market, originals as well as copies of both men's designs were widely available. 

5. William Morris design for "Fruit" (1862).

6. William Morris design for "Vine" (1883).
7. Christopher Dresser wallpaper.

8. Christopher Dresser wallpaper.

In 1882 Harper's Bazar commented on how Morris’s papers fit the marketplace: "The rich flock papers, to be sure, the stamped leather papers, the linoleum stamped in low relief with fine designs, are another thing. But one can, with the exercise of taste and discretion, giving a little time to the choice, compass as fine effects from papers costing a tenth of the price of those. All of the imported papers are dear, and not all of them are beautiful. Those of Mr. Talbert's designings and of Walter Crane's are pretty sure to be fine, and we are prone to think nothing ever quite equals those that come to us in William Morris's name. A large book of William Morris's papers may be found in almost any paperhanging shop; as one turns them over, and thinks of the room at home, one is filled with longing for the dark or light jasmine, for the blue-green wreath, for the robin's-egg tile and diaper, for one and all, perhaps; and one is only reconciled to getting quite as good an effect, on the whole, from a paper costing little or nothing in comparison, when one finds that these lovely things are four dollars and a half a roll.”[3]

The comment about wallpaper costing "four dollars and a half a roll,” was meant to shock. The writer’s reference to wallpaper "costing a tenth of the price" is exactly right, for in 1882 a lot of decent wallpaper was selling for no more than forty-five cents a roll. The situation was probably not much different eleven years later, when Ventfort Hall was being furnished.

I asked another wallpaper researcher what he thought about wallpaper in the early 1890s: what, if anything, was distinctive about it? Bo Sullivan, owner of Arcalus Period Design, said he felt that by 1893 the overtly "artistic" experimentation of the Aesthetic/Moorish/Romanesque styles of the 1880s was giving way. Coming into prominence were the conventional scrolling delicacies of Empire, masculine medieval revival styles, and feminine florals.[4]  After looking at dozens of early-90s issues of The Decorator and Furnisher, I have to agree. The decoration of the drawing room below, though certainly heavy, is nevertheless an exercise in floral forms.

9. Drawing room, Bartholomae & Co.
These multi-part decorations were elaborate for good cause. Many homes below the upper-class level lacked dadoes, deep coves, and other ceiling ornaments. Multi-part paper decoration (notably, friezes and borders) embellished this starkness. 

The profusion of forms was impressive, but it masked a problem. The gradual mechanization of the wallpaper industry has already been mentioned. Wallpaper is perennially based on cheap and efficient replication. In the 1870s the wallpaper manufacturers found themselves in an enviable situation: mechanized cylindrical templates began turning in earnest at just about the time that cheap wood pulp became available. The only practical limitation to supply was demand, and the demand was huge.

One spokesman was supremely confident about meeting the demand. In language no less ornate than his products, he declared that “as the forces of nature are guided by creative power to produce the lilies of the field and the colorings of the sunset, so also the mechanical forces that blindly do our bidding are here harnessed to the production of beauty that will create an art environment, and an atmosphere of beauty for the nation at large.”[5] Despite this confidence rampant mechanization ultimately fell short. As production shifted from handicraft to machine-craft, voices were raised in protest. Handicraft was not so easily disposed of. By the 1890s consumers were demanding, and the manufacturers scrambling to provide, cheap wallpaper made by machine that nevertheless looked handmade and distinctive.

The manufacturers responded to these challenges by redoubling their efforts at mechanization and consolidation, and, with rhetoric. They went so far as to suggest that machine-craft was not only as good as handicraft—it was better! 

An editorial (p. 139, September, 1893) proclaimed that the National Wallpaper Company's pavilion at the White City was "devoted to the exalted mission of showing how manufactured art, with its centralized execution, can equal, if not indeed surpass the feebler execution of the individual hand. The work executed by the artist's hand may be valuable for its rarity, but machinery harnessed to art may elevate a whole continent of people to a higher plane of existence." These lofty sentiments beg questioning. 

Wallpaper was a success with all segments of the American public. But, the dubious suggestion that machine craft had outstripped the hand of man himself (and, by analogy in the previous quote, the hand of the Creator as well) could probably only have come from a manufacturer. Granted, consumers as well as producers reaped benefits from the “centralized execution” characteristic of the age of monopolies. Yet in the years around 1893, a time when a brutal depression was taking hold, artisans and laborers, particularly those thrown out of work, would hardly have agreed that machine dominance and manufactured art were elevating a continent of people to a higher plane.[6]

10. Samples of Lincrusta made by the Frederick Beck & Company factory in Stamford, Connecticut.

The embodiment of the conflict between machine-made and hand-made wallpaper may have been Lincrusta. Gilded Age luxury wares like Lincrusta looked hand-crafted on the wall, but these relief materials were cranked out by the mile. To be sure, many of them were colored to match their surroundings. But this work was generally done by local decorative painters. Lincrusta was often one of the more expensive wallcoverings in a house. In one instance (at Villa Louis, built 1885), the cost was around six dollars a roll. As we saw in Part I, the Lincrusta hung at Ventfort Hall seems to have been in the middle price range for Lincrusta patterns.

Anaglypta-types are also represented at Ventfort Hall. Practical Paperhanging by Arthur Seymour Jennings, published in 1892, contained a back-of-the-book ad in which Nevius and Haviland touted a brand new product—Anaglypta.

11. Practical Paperhanging and Anaglypta ad.

12. The "Columbia" roomset from “Indoors.”

Patriotism was another prominent theme in wallpaper around the time of the Fair. The Warren, Fuller & Company roomset shown above was featured in the pavilion of the National Wallpaper Company and provoked a comment in The Decorator and Furnisher: “it is something peculiarly appropriate to see the stars and stripes adapted to our decoration.” A stars and stripes shield was also prominently displayed in the frieze area of the Blue Room of 1894 (see Part IV, photo 15).

The World’s Fair exhibits by members of the National Wallpaper Company were carefully laid out. The portieres decorating the doorways of H. Bartholomae & Co.'s space were made of “heavy satin Derby of a shrimp pink ground, with a special Empire design in ecru.”[7] The portieres and silks were made by the Lyons Silk and Tapestry Company of Paterson, New Jersey. The Lyons company had supplied the “old blue” silk damask wall fabric for the Yergason/Harrison Blue Room of 1892. 

Even the leading English manufacturer William Woollams and Co., which might have been expected to feature reform patterns at the Fair, showed instead “sixteenth century pattern of flocks on lacquered gold, and their Rosebury design of wall-paper in Cornelian flock which was a gigantic floral pattern of mammoth leaves, mingling with scrolls of leaves and flowers.”[8] Similar descriptions of patterns from Woollams in The Decorator and Furnisher invariably included the word “scroll.” 

Color commentary was a staple of The Decorator and Furnisher. Indeed, the manufacturers and their allies in the press got so worked up that they ran out of adjectives and began making them up, fulfilling a reviewer’s prediction: “an inspection of their sample books holds out a temptation for the enthusiastic critic to turn his words into pigments, and dazzle the reader with the radiance of description reflected from the colorings of the patterns exhibited.”[9]

The Decorator and Furnisher emphasized descriptors like “Rose pink, heliotrope, China blue and lemon yellow...Continental yellow, Waldorf green, tobacco brown, tapestry blue, golden green and flesh pink.”[10]  And like shrimp pink, not to be confused with rose pink or flesh pink. And like “Boston” yellow, or even “bright sappy green.” These were not Aesthetic Movement colors: not jewel tones, nor Tiffany's carefully blended colors. Instead, many of them were “old” colors, the colors of tapestry. 

13. “…the saddened colors of woven tapestry…” 

Reading this quote about Birge wallpapers (not fabrics) one can almost feel the deep grays, greens, and yellow-browns leaching down into the fibers of the paper. The term “saddened” is evocative, but it’s really a technical term for a “shade” as opposed to a “tint,” (i.e., black or gray added to a  color rather than white). This love of tinkering with colors was a sign of the times, and not far from a love of distressed color for its own sake.[11] Indeed, “old,” also became a descriptor: as already noted, the silk damask in the Blue Room was an "old blue", a faded grey/blue. “Old golds,” “old reds” and “old greens” are also encountered in late-nineteenth century trade magazines.

14. Florals, Alfred Peats catalog. 

Patterns like these in the Peats catalog were popular well into the 1900s, at about the time that the upper classes were abandoning ornament and moving toward classical simplicity.

Unfortunately, a lack of documentation (or perhaps only a lack of analysis and commentary) has left an impression that turn-of-the-century wallpaper was fairly uniform. On the contrary, even if there was continuity among best sellers, entire lines of new patterns were released by the major companies each year. Yet with the passage of time those differences are difficult to establish. 

In general, patterns after 1900 seem to have been more structured, more strongly defined by Empire/Rococo scrolls, and more often laid on blended grounds.[12] The looseness of Art Nouveau was apparent, but these do not appear to have been best sellers. The papers illustrated above may have cost fifty cents a roll. Gilt powders were often used on outlines, positive motifs, and backgrounds, and many wallpapers had strong colors. Yet, these strong color combinations could also shade off into pastel tones. Sales of saddened (neutralized) colors fell off somewhat but remained popular in the new century for ostensibly colonial patterns, especially large figures in entry hallways. Saddened colors were also used for “tapestry papers,”: robust vegetative growth in deep greens, yellows, and browns.  

One final thing to mention about price involves, again, a ten-fold difference, this time between the prices of the wholesale and retail trade. In a letter to his retail store customers in December 1897 concerning the spring trade, Albany wholesaler John Day offered "gilts" at astonishingly low prices—four to eleven cents per roll. 

15. Letter of John Day, close-up.

“Gilts” at this level were not custom creations but a class of goods. As with “leather papers,” a soft glow illuminated the patterns. But "gilts" as a class were unashamedly cheap. As the name implies, gilts were regular wallpaper jazzed up with bronze powders, many from German suppliers. Gaslight illuminated these sparkling wallpapers. They often cost ten to thirty cents a roll at retail.

16. Thibaut sample book cover. 

17. Thibaut “gilt” samples. 

John Day offered not only low initial prices, but an additional 10% off for quantity purchases, and 1% for cash. The result must have been tens of thousands of rolls changing hands for pennies a roll. This marketing letter helps to establish the downward trend of wallpaper prices for the lowest grades, a trend that would bottom out at a few pennies a roll—even at the consumer level. 

For many wallpaper consumers in the immigrant, rural, and working classes, the wallpaper market around 1900 must have seemed a golden age, a time when advanced mechanization, the flood of product, and falling prices had enabled nearly all to decorate their walls cheaply and often. This was, of course, the moment when the upper classes, at the urging of Wharton and others, were abandoning ship. 

The images and ad copy of The Decorator and Furnisher are still impressive. They present a range of upscale products, some of which found their way into Ventfort Hall. Yet the ultimate success of the manufacturers was built on different strategies: on maximizing profit by amassing capital, and on combining and rationalizing production. One result of the monopoly was that more people than ever before were the beneficiaries (as the manufacturers might put it) of over-production. Another result was that excess stock was dumped in Canada, much to the annoyance of Canadians. These trends changed when the Ring was busted up around 1900. 


[1] A more nuanced view of the late-nineteenth century market for wallpaper than attempted here would require study of the few publications that exist. Two of importance are the organ of the boss painter’s association (House Painting and Decorating, founded in Philadelphia in 1885), and the union publication (The Painters Magazine, from 1874). Also useful would be major newspaper stories and government documents. For example, congressional hearings of various dates about tariffs, interstate commerce, and the dissolution of the wallpaper monopoly around 1900.

[2] The Decorator and Furnisher, July, 1893, p. 146, “Warren, Fuller & Co.'s Exhibit.”

[3] Harper's Bazar, Vol. 15, No. 16, April 22, 1882. Morris went into the wallpaper field, at least in part, to make goods more affordable, but because of technical difficulties was soon contracting his work out to Jeffrey & Co., a long-established block printer. The irony of an avowed socialist producing high-cost consumer products was noted in the period.

[4] Bo Sullivan, email correspondence, September 24, 2014.

[5] The Decorator and Furnisher, December, 1893, p. 100 in a staff article on “Mural Decoration.”

[6] The depression beginning in 1893 is widely regarded as second only to the Great Depression of the 1930s in its severity. Most sources cite a financial panic in 1893, followed by a severe downturn in the economy that did not abate until 1897. Increased mechanization had been a spur to the economy in the 1870s and 80s, but was by the same token a major factor in the downturn. Fifty railroad lines failed, according to www.encyclopedia.com. 
Economic studies have found that a major cause of the depression was underconsumption: “…the economy was producing goods and services at a higher rate than society was consuming and the resulting inventory accumulation led firms to reduce employment and cut back production.” In contrast to earlier periods in American history, “…few families were self-sufficient, most relied on selling their output or labor in the market…”  This explains the devastation wrought by high unemployment rates. These exceeded 10% for 4 or 5 consecutive years, and rose as high as 20% in major cities, at a time when the US population was about 100 million. Quotes in this paragraph are from the web site of the Economic History Association: https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-depression-of-1893/

[7] The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 22, No., 4, July, 1893, p. 142; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.

[8] The Decorator and Furnisher, December, 1893, p. 105.

[9] The Decorator and Furnisher, December, 1893, p. 100, in a staff article titled “Mural Decoration.”

[10] The Decorator and Furnisher, December, 1893, p. 104, in a review of Birge wallpapers.

[11] The Inland Printer: A Technical Journal Devoted to the Art of Printing, Vol. 26, Maclean-Hunter Publishing Corporation, 1901, p. 89: “So far we have dealt with pure colors only, i. e., colors neither diluted with white nor saddened or subdued with gray…we can produce tertiary colors by adding a suitable proportion of neutral gray to a primary color.”

[12] I am indebted to Bo Sullivan of Arcalus Design for these observations.

caption credits:

2. The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 22, No., 4, July, 1893, p. 139; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
3. The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 22, No., 4, July, 1893, p. 140; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
4. The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 23, No. 3, December, 1893, p. 106; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
5. William Morris wallpaper: “Fruit,” E.299-2009. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum.
6. William Morris wallpaper: “Vine,” E.1074-1988. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum.
7. Christopher Dresser wallpaper: photography copyright Matt Flynn.(http://design.designmuseum.org/design)
8. Christopher Dresser wallpaper: photography copyright The National Archives, UK. (http://design.designmuseum.org/design)
9. The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 23, No. 5, February, 1894, p. 186; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
10. Beck catalog, courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
11. A. S. Jennings, Practical Paperhanging, public domain.
12. The image is from “Indoors,” p. 26, courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
13. The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 23, No. 3, December, 1893, p. 104; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
14. Peats catalog, © WallpaperScholar.Com.
15. John Day letter, © WallpaperScholar.Com.
16. Thibaut Sample Book, private collection, courtesy Steve Johnson.
17. Thibaut Sample Book, private collection, courtesy Steve Johnson.

Wallpaper in the Gilded Age Part IV: Architectural Change 1800-1900

We can't talk about wallpaper comprehensively without acknowledging the frame into which it was placed—the architecture. By all accounts the key influence on high-style late-nineteenth century residential architecture was the American Renaissance, particularly the Romanesque strain attributed to H. H. Richardson. The favored materials for super-sized second homes in Berkshire County after the Civil War were brick, masonry, and stone. Although the subject of this article is architecture, we also touch on the colors of buildings: large civic structures (most often white); "picturesque residential" (often earth tones); Greek Revival and Federal (again, often white) and Colonial Revival (just about always white). The story begins with genuine cottage-building.

The Carpenter-Built Cottages of Southern Berkshire

Before 1800, Georgian/Roman/Federal traditions shaped farmhouses as well as town dwellings throughout the county. As in other areas of rural New England, it was the local joiners, not architects, who supervised house-building. After 1800, these carpenters began to modify traditional styles according to the publications of Asher Benjamin. They substituted simple drilling techniques and stock wooden ornaments for eighteenth-century carving.[1] Soon, more formal Greek Revival forms appeared. The county boasts some fine examples of vernacular and civic Greek Revival buildings, among them the second Lenox courthouse built c. 1815, now the Lenox Library. Lenox had been the county seat since the 1780s and held this title until 1868, when county government moved to Pittsfield, a city eight miles to the north.[2]

1. Lenox Library

2. The c. 1825 Merwin House in Stockbridge.

3. The Bancroft Hotel in Interlaken 
near Stockbridge was built in 1833 
as a stagecoach inn on the Albany 
Post Road.

Between 1825 and 1850 many of these squat Greek Revival and Federal shells got filled up with fanciful wallpapers, replacing bare plaster walls and humbler painted finishes such as whitewash and stenciling. Primitive paper-hangings, too, many of them “blanks” (ungrounded, with few colors) were replaced with more ambitious offerings from American paperstainers. The decorative history of the second quarter of the century is not well understood. One of the avenues for exploring it are folk-art paintings by the likes of Jacob Maentel and Henry Walton which occasionally show brightly colored walls.

Wall fashions at this time were diverse. No doubt what has been called early-Biedermeier in Europe was also happening here. Biedermeier was something new: a response to the heaviness of Empire decoration, but one that came from a rising middle class as well as tastemakers. Biedermeier could be brightly colored and was often based on simple forms derived from nature. Many of these characteristics can be found in the decorative arts that appealed to young Americans of the early republic. We, too, had a rising middle class hungry for new forms. Paperstainers mobilized. 

They copied new European wallpapers, as always. But they also created. What emerged, over a period of many years, was a nascent native style—a synthesis of French and English trade traditions. Colors in this style were bold. By the middle of the century many colors and designs had calmed down, but loud colors prevailed in the "country trade." A plethora of revival styles came in, many sporting frames, pillars, stripes, and trellises. “Fresco papers,” often printed on polished white grounds, were a high-style favorite. Throughout this period, “oak paper” and other handcrafted imitations of stone and wood were popular. As always, there were outliers—innovative wallpaper designs that defy categorization.

More important than the wall decoration, which changed often, was the fact that the rather plain Berkshire housing stock did not. There was little need to update a farmhouse, except to add to it. The more prosperous built staid Federal-style homes (Stockbridge is especially rich in these). These upper-class homes were not radically different in design from what had gone before. 

When picturesque villas arrived they were different indeed, in color as well as design. In contrast to the Greek Revival and Federal palette, mid-century tastemakers like Downing and Holly advocated natural stone and earth colors. The rolling lake country of the Berkshire hills was peculiarly suited to large estates. A fine new home could be well-sited on its terrain and at the same time well-hidden on an innocuous country road. When picturesque commercial structures went up in town centers, the contrast with older forms must have been evident. It is much less evident now. Nevertheless, present-day Stockbridge hints at how townscapes may have looked when they were truly picturesque. The south side of Main Street has not changed appreciably since it was painted by Norman Rockwell in 1955.[3]

4. Rockwell's "Home for Christmas" c. 1955.

A small book could be written about this collection of styles, but briefly, the large building on the right is the present-day Red Lion Inn, a replica of an earlier hotel.[4] Moving to the left, the small brick Housatonic Bank was built c. 1825; the front was remodeled in the nineteenth century. Next is the Flemish Revival Old Town Hall dating from 1884. Next to it is the Seymour Store, a brick front-gabled commercial space from c. 1826. The neighboring colonial revival Guerrieri Block was built in 1921. Then comes the Pratt/Braman Block c. 1898, a highly decorated Queen Anne. Finally, the library, which started life in 1863 as a stone French Second Empire structure. It was encased in brick veneer and wooden trim in colonial style by Ralph Adams Cram in 1938. Despite the preservation of this picturesque stretch on Main Street, the dominant color for residential structures in the main part of Stockbridge is white, while the great estates are notable for their individuality, including their handsome earth tones. This contradiction will be explored a little later in this article.

Getting back to the mid-nineteenth century, the question rises as to why, during the early picturesque phase, town fathers in the Berkshires seem not to have been as self-consciously “colonial” as were, say, the residents of Litchfield, Connecticut. 

Like Lenox, Litchfield was built on a hill, and was an important town, fourth-largest in Connecticut, in 1810. But despite a railroad which arrived in 1840 the population of Litchfield declined relative to neighboring towns in the Housatonic and Naugatuck Valleys. These valley towns owed their existence to rivers which supplied power for mills. However, social forces were also at work in Litchfield. The town sheltered an old-money and scholarly crowd sustained by academies and partial to traditions. In the late nineteenth century Litchfieldians clung to the supposed rituals of white-painted and green-shuttered homes (actually, these were rarities in the eighteenth century) and discouraged encroachment by the newly-rich and the tourist trade. Around 1900 additional railroad and trolley line development was successfully fought off.[5] 

There was certainly a clannish aspect to upper-class families in the Berkshires during the Gilded Age. They shared business and social contacts, architects, land transfers, and even gentlemen's agreements about positioning their homes. And, their self-styled aristocracy could hardly be called democratic.[6] Yet, the newly-rich were accepted among them, and no great reluctance toward tourism has been recorded. Consider the longstanding traditions of the Curtis Hotel in Lenox. An inn occupied this central location as early as 1773. The second county courthouse next door was established in 1815. A redesign of the hotel soon followed (both have a temple front facade). The hotel was next renovated in brick in 1839. A guidebook noted the importance of the hotel in 1852.[7] 

In 1853, the hotel was purchased by its namesake, William O. Curtis. During the height of cottage construction over the next fifty years the Curtis expanded several more times. High-society architects often arrived at the Lenox train station and stayed at the Curtis for a night or weekend while meeting clients. No such accommodations were needed (or wanted) in Litchfield.[8]

Few examples of the bracket, villa, and Italianate styles so prevalent in the more populous Hudson River Valley region to the southwest were erected in southern Berkshire. A few fan-lighted brick residences with marble lintels on the outskirts of Berkshire towns were constructed (some remain) but not much commercial brick construction took place in Lee or Great Barrington until the arrival of the railroads around 1840. 

These, then, are a few glimpses of Berkshire County's architectural setting on the eve of the Civil War—mostly plain and rural, with pockets of variety and commerce. Whatever sub-category of design describes the second-home cottages which came with increasing frequency, they were above all “picturesque.” And there was no more important figure in the arrival of the picturesque than Henry Hobson Richardson.

An Unbroken Line 

Richardson followed Richard Morris Hunt into the school of Beaux Arts in Paris (Hunt in 1855, Richardson in 1860). By the 1870s Richardson was building in stone, masonry, and brick to great acclaim. Echoes of his work can be seen in many Berkshire County cottages, among them the fortress-like Naumkeag in Stockbridge and castellated Blantyre in Lenox. Naumkeag was designed as a shingle-style-with-turrets by Stanford White in 1885. Blantyre came quite a bit later (1902) but still fits the picturesque mold as a neo-Tudor building. Both were furnished with large amounts of patterned wallpaper, as we shall see; Blantyre retains an original leather paper in its main hall. 

5. Naumkeag

6. Blantyre 

Richardson founded an unbroken line to the so-called American Renaissance in architecture. For example, McKim and White started their careers in his office. The American Renaissance was based on classical forms. But, the idea was not just to copy. It was to build "in the tradition of" older forms and create something not yet seen. This idea was well understood in decorative circles in 1893.

7. “Indoors” cover and title page.

 “Indoors,” a wallpaper promotional booklet published in 1893 by Warren, Fuller & Company sounded the theme while discussing forward-looking American architects: 

“...as they lead us into more academic lines we welcome the advent of the movement to promote study of buildings abroad. We also acknowledge the powerful influence of such men as Richard M. Hunt, Stanford White, Thomas Hastings, and others....There really seems to be no limit to the material our architects and designers use in preparing their schemes ....Designers and manufacturers alike go to Europe for their models. In this they are right in spite of the meaningless cry for novelty. Why, can we not have a new style? Yes, by all means, but that new something must be founded upon what we already have. It must be grafted in, so to speak, and take its proper place on the tree of knowledge, lest it be artificial and unreal...”[9] 

8. Sketch for a morning room from "Indoors."

The copywriter quoted above would no doubt have agreed that wallpaper, no less than architecture, needed to fit into its “proper place.” Careful planners of high-style interiors were constrained by the character of the surrounding doors, windows and moldings. This might help explain why the wallpapers of the late Gilded Age seem to match their surroundings so well. But, it’s worth noting that successful wallpaper of this era, no less than the architecture, was more “in the style of” than a line-for-line copy of something else.

By the time that Ventfort Hall was built in 1893, the large country house was an honored tradition in the Berkshires. A peculiar feature of the building boom was how malleable the designs could be. In 1882 Peabody & Stearns had a Queen Anne as well as a Colonial Revival design drawn up for Charles Bullard before Merrywood was constructed. The rambling colonial design was chosen. In 1893, the same firm offered a Tudor style for Wheatleigh, but an alternative (Italianate) was chosen by the railroad financier H. H. Cook.[10]  

Perhaps oddest of all, Mr. and Mrs. Robb de Pester Tytus dropped in on C. F. A. Voysey in England while planning their Berkshire County estate Ashintully. Voysey would have created “a quaint medieval range of low, half-timbered buildings around a courtyard and a formal garden with a free-standing chapel.”[11] Instead, the Tytus family hired Francis Hoppin to construct a Palladian behemoth. 

9. Ashintully.

The fact that it was common for these sophisticated architects to offer their clients a variety of designs shines a new light on the claims that a great estate was “modeled after the ancestral home” back in Europe. That seems not to have happened.

The First Wave

A recitation of some dates, styles and names associated with the first wave of cottage construction underlines the variety of forms. Richard Upjohn built the Italianate Highwood in 1846 and then pumped up Martin Van Buren's Lindenwald with Italianate woodwork and a bell tower in the 1850s.[12]  

Linwood, the Stockbridge estate of Charles Butler, was built in 1859 as a Gothic revival cottage. The Second Empire Southmayd Farm sprouted next door in 1870, complete with mansard roof. Oakwood, a shingle-style house by McKim followed in 1876, and then Naumkeag arrived in 1885, as previously noted.[13]  But, the picturesque was not to everyone's taste. A newly-published design critic went so far as to dismiss most of the architectural history of the nineteenth century as “a labyrinth of dubious eclecticism”. That critic, who would one day build a wood-framed house with impeccable classical proportions just down the road from Ventfort Hall, was Edith Wharton.[14]

10. From the introduction to The Decoration of Houses.

From White City to White House

Having looked at Richardson and his followers, we conclude this nineteenth-century tour with a look at two late-century phenomena: the construction of the White City, and the re-construction of the principal rooms at the White House.

11. Charles S. Graham, Official Bird’s-Eye View of the Fair. 

12. Art Palace at Night, painting, Charles S. Graham.

The “White City” of 1893 (Columbian Exposition) is known today as the first large-scale American expression of Beaux Arts design: neoclassical architectural principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor.[15] Hunt, White, Sullivan, and other leading architects participated. The Exposition has been hailed as the rebirth of classicism, but this easy label does not quite fit; American buildings did not immediately take on classical garb as the Fair ended. That said, it is true that nearly 200 buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture were featured. Though the buildings were meant to be temporary, the debt to classical architecture was real. The effects are still with us—in banks, post offices, museums, and libraries.

13. The First Agricultural National Bank was constructed in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1908.

14. Present-day Pittsfield City Hall was built as a U. S. post office in 1910.

Many of these civic temples were inspired by the City Beautiful movement which developed in the wake of the Fair. Its advocates believed that grandeur could encourage a harmonious social order that would increase the quality of life. But not everyone loved the White City, nor did everyone agree about what it stood for. Critics charged that the City Beautiful movement was far more concerned with aesthetics than social reform; Jane Jacobs referred to the movement as an "architectural design cult." And Louis Sullivan wrote that the classical style of the White City had retarded modern American architecture by fifty years.[16]

The McKim, Mead, and White Renovation of the White House 

In the years after 1893 a reverence for classical forms, a narrowing focus on a supposedly plainer colonial style, and the stripping of surface ornament gathered speed. These forces contributed to a completely new look around the turn of the century for the main rooms of a prominent building: the White House. 

To understand the changes to the state rooms on the first floor, it helps to learn how they were treated just prior to 1900. In 1892, only a year before Ventfort Hall was built, the principal rooms at the White House were slathered with pattern during a major re-decoration. True, Edith Wharton would trumpet in 1897 that “the overlaying of pattern is always a mistake.” But no one at the White House was thinking this way in 1892. On the contrary, the overlaying of pattern by decorator Edgar Yergason and First Lady Caroline Harrison was quite deliberate. An analysis of the decorating reveals that the patterns and colors were heady: 

“Yergason needed to make a bold statement in the [East] room while incorporating the existing furniture and light fixtures. He overcame this restriction by lavishing the walls and ceiling. Yergason combined neo-classical ornament and patriotic motifs with emblems of nature’s bounty to reflect America’s dominance over land and sea….The walls of the State Dining Room were heavily encrusted with plaster appliqué work. A drawing of the wall decoration reveals a large dado and frieze overflowing their traditional confines until nearly the entire wall is covered in high relief plaster appliqué…. Yergason delighted in creating interiors of refined coloration for the Green Room. Yergason masterfully transformed an historic eighteenth-century color arrangement of green, pink, white and gold with contemporary influences. A pale citrus green, referred to as “absinthe”, was contrasted with a dramatic pink color, and variously referred to as “peachblow” or “old-rose”, with touches of cream and a sprinkling of gilt highlights.…”[17]  

The Harrison/Yergason treatment of the Blue Room was just as elaborate. A neoclassical silk damask was hung on the walls, and the same sort of high-relief plaster loomed overhead and garnished the dado. 

15. Blue Room c. 1894: a patriotic shield is displayed on the ceiling.

The decoration of the Cleveland and McKinley administrations was not as fussy as the Harrison renovations. A geometric design of paneling was put on the walls of the Green Room, solid colors were used more often, and pattern began to recede. But views of the Green Room and Blue Room from around 1898 show that their decoration was only slightly less swanky than that of ten years earlier.[18] 

During the work McKim spoke often about a “classic restoration” to the Federal period, but the results slid well into Georgian territory.[19] No doubt the long delay of the renovation explains some of the abruptness of the changes. So too does the greater separation of residential and official functions. The second floor became newly important as sequestered domestic space, and the newly created West Wing as a theatre for a presidency more powerful and efficient than ever before. 

But, whatever can be said about its authenticity or abruptness, there is no question that the 1902 renovations were a big change to the interior wall surfaces. The contrast between “before” and “after” photos of the parlors over a roughly ten-year span are sharp—even shocking. The circular ottoman of the Blue Room was exiled around 1900.[20] Such a large shift in visual weight raises questions: Why? What was happening to wall surfaces around 1900? Why did patterned wallpaper largely disappear from elite interiors in the coming years? These questions will be considered in Part VI of this series.

16. Blue Room comparison

17. Green Room comparison

18. Red Room comparison

Postscript: The Curation of the Colonial

I said earlier that the Lenox/Stockbridge area did not follow the Litchfield, Connecticut model of extreme colonial revival in the early-picturesque era. But, Stockbridge and Lenox caught up. In the period 1875-1925, a preference emerged for painting houses white, as opposed to natural stone and earth colors (or, the colors of the late-Victorians: mossy greens, maroons, and ochres).[21] 

Just as the architects, by building new homes, were the cultivators of the Gilded Age colonies, the elders of these three towns took on a curatorial role, especially when it came to the appearance of the town centers.  

Although mid-century picturesque forms were not purged outright, they were often remodeled to fit a Colonial/Federal aesthetic.[22] For example, the Stockbridge Casino was painted yellow soon after it was built by Stanford White in 1886. It is now painted white and serves as the main stage for the Berkshire Theatre Festival.

Another example of curation came with the arrival of the county-wide trolley line. It was not banned in Stockbridge as it had been in Litchfield. Yet staunch opposition by cottagers and the Laurel Hill Association kept the tracks in a riverside location (following present-day Park Street) rather than in the center of town, as elsewhere in Berkshire County.  In Lenox, the cottagers also had their way: a newspaper reported in 1901 that “The cottagers at Lenox have been much disturbed over the idea of a trolley line along the main highway, and have favored another route which is now made a part of the plan of the new company.”[23]    

Yet somehow in spite of this curation during the last quarter of the nineteenth century the Berkshire community was able to absorb the ultra-rich, including the newly-rich, and even cater to them, while retaining a reputation for rural authenticity. At least that was the opinion of Edith Wharton, who traded Newport for Lenox in 1900: “…we sold our Newport house, and built one near Lenox, in the hills of western Massachusetts, and at last I escaped from watering-place trivialities to the real country…”[24]


[1] James Garvin, A Building History of Northern New England, 2001, p. 108-9. Benjamin published The Country Builder’s Assistant: Containing a Collection of New Designs of Carpentry and Architecture, Which will be particularly useful, to Country Workman in general, in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1797. His book developed the ideas of English architect William Pain in an American context. Pain was in turn a popularizer of Robert Adams’ innovations. Pain’s The Practical Builder and The Practical House Carpenter had been published in Boston during the 1790s.

[2] The architect was Captain Isaac Damon. From Massachusetts Cultural Resources Information (MACRIS) LEN.21: “Built in 1815, this was Lenox’s Second County Courthouse. The First Courthouse, a wooden structure built shortly after Lenox became the county seat in 1787, was not large enough to adequately serve the needs of the county court. The new Courthouse was a far more imposing structure, costing the county $26,059, a substantial sum in 1815. The Courthouse quickly became a landmark, and came to symbolize Lenox’s position of prominence in the region.”

[3] "Stockbridge Mainstreet at Christmas (Home for Christmas)" was published as a story illustration for McCall’s magazine in December of 1967 but was actually painted about 1955. The painting hangs in the Norman Rockwell Museum at the other end of town.

[4] An inn opened on this corner in 1778 and was known for many years as Bingham's Tavern, later Plumb's Hotel and Stockbridge House. In 1895 it was re-named the Red Lion Inn and promptly burned to the ground. This led to the construction of a replica by architect Harry Weeks of Pittsfield in 1897. Lion G. Miles has researched the property. See his “Anna Bingham from the Red Lion Inn to the Supreme Court,” New England Quarterly (June 1996): 287-299.

[5] William Butler, 1985. “Another City Upon a Hill: Litchfield, Connecticut, and the Colonial Revival,” p. 45 in The Colonial Revival in America, edited by Alan Axelrod. New York: W. W. Norton. Hotels and a tourist trade did come to Litchfield, but not until the Shepaug Railroad opened a passenger spur in 1872.

[6] There is no reason to think that wealthy Jews faced less prejudice in Lenox than they did in Newport or Saratoga. They summered in alternative destinations such as the New Jersey coastal towns of Keyport, Freehold, and Elberon. Catholics were not plentiful but they were not unknown: the Alexandres of Springlawn and Count de Heredia, whose wife Georgie Cook de Heredia inherited Wheatleigh, lead the list.

[7] Joseph E. A. Smith, Taghconic: Or, Letters and Legends about Our Summer Home, Redding and Company, 1852, p. 93.

[8] “The loss of the County Court in 1868 had little impact on business at the Curtis, which by this time was catering to a growing number of seasonal visitors. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, and accelerating rapidly after the Civil War, a stream of visitors came from New York, Boston, and other cities to experience the healthful climate, take in the views from its veranda, and join in the social activities that took place there. Many guests returned year after year: some, desiring more space and privacy than the hotel rooms afforded, rented houses on Main and Walker Streets, also owned by the Curtis’s. These became known as “Curtis Cottages” and their occupants as “cottagers”; this has been cited as the origin of the term “cottagers” to describe wealthy summer residents in Berkshire.” From MACRIS for Lenox, LEN. 23, citing Form B from 1/31/87.

[9] Indoors, a promotional booklet from Warren, Fuller & Company, pp. 16 and 20. I wonder if this is not an oblique criticism of the Aesthetic approach toward interiors taken by Tiffany and others; their methods of decorating respected the individual character of each room and such methods did not lend themselves to replication.

[10] The American Architect and Building News published five sketches for Wheatleigh in 1902 featuring French chateau to Scottish baronial to Italian villa (Houses of the Berkshires, p. 136).

[11] Houses of the Berkshires, p. 270.

[12] Lindenwald in nearby Kinderhook, New York was a large but plain Dutch brick building when it was constructed in 1797

[13] Joseph Choate (Naumkeag), Charles Southmayd (Southmayd Farm), and Charles Butler (Linwood) were New York City law partners who built their houses on adjoining plots of land in Stockbridge. Today Linwood houses the administrative offices of the Normal Rockwell Museum.

[14] From the introduction to: The Decoration of Houses by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr., 1897: "It is therefore all the more encouraging to note the steady advance in taste and knowledge to which the most recent architecture in American bears witness. This advance is chiefly due to the fact that American architects are beginning to perceive two things that their French colleagues, among all the modern vagaries of taste, have never quite lost sight of: first that architecture and decoration, having wandered since 1800 in a labyrinth of dubious eclecticism, can be set right only by a close study of the best models; and secondly that, given the requirements of modern life, these models are chiefly to be found in buildings erected in Italy after the beginning of the sixteenth century, and in other European countries after the full assimilation of the Italian influence." 

[15] An observation of Julie Rose. See her masters thesis for an overview of the Fair: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma96/wce/title.html

[16] "Meanwhile the virus of the World's Fair, after a period of incubation ... began to show unmistakable signs of the nature of the contagion. There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread Westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward.... By the time the market had been saturated, all sense of reality was gone. In its place, had come deep seated illusions, hallucinations, absence of pupillary reaction to light, absence of knee-reaction-symptoms all of progressive cerebral meningitis; the blanketing of the brain. Thus Architecture died in the land of the free and the home of the brave.... The damage wrought by the World's Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer.” Louis Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea (1924).

[17] Keith D. MacKay, "The White House Interiors of Caroline Harrison and Edgar Yergason, 1890-1892." PhD diss., Corcoran College of Art & Design (Washington, DC), 2009, pp. 30-1.

[18] views of Green Room, Red Room, Blue Room around 1898 at www.whitehousemuseum.org

[19] William Seale, The President’s House, Vol. 2, p. 682. See p. 662 for how McKim’s Beaux Arts training may have influenced his approach.

[20] The exile was temporary.

[21] Andrew Jackson Downing: "Do not paint your house white!" (essay in the mid-century magazine The Horticulturalist). Henry Hudson Holly: "...do not fall into the opposite extreme, and paint your house white, which is no color at all, always cold and glaring, and makes an ugly spot in any landscape..." Picturesque Country Seats (1863), p. 48.  Although white still dominates, other house colors seem to have made a significant comeback in the Main Street area of Stockbridge. This may be the result of better color analysis and restoration practice.

[22] The exhaustive National Register of Historic Places registration (2001) for Stockbridge is instructive. It lists 92 buildings in 15 architectural categories for the Main Street Historic District. The bulk are Federal or Colonial Revival. According to the form: "Since 1853 the village improvement society, the Laurel Hill Association, has monitored the village’s external appearance, reflected in the absence of large signage, parking meters, overhead wires, news vending boxes, and traffic lights." 

[23] Boston Evening Transcript, January 28, 1901, p. 4.

[24] Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, D. Appleton-Century Co., 1934, p. 124-5.  See also Butler, p. 38.

caption credits:

1. The Lenox Library photo is the work of John Phelan, from Wikimedia Commons:
2. Merwin House, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, USA. View of facade's front-left corner, copyright, Daderot
3. Copyright John Phelan: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Former_Bancroft-Curtisville_Hotel,_Interlaken_MA.jpg
4. "Home For Christmas," ©  2015 Norman Rockwell Museum.
5. Naumkeag photo courtesy of The Trustees of Reservations.
6. Blantyre photo public domain.
7. “Indoors” promotional booklet, courtesy of the Bolling & Company Archive.
8. ibid.
10. © 2015 WallpaperScholar.Com.
11. "Map of the Chicago Exposition," painting by Charles Graham, from www.chicagology (Terry Gregory). 
12. "Art Palace at Night," painting, Chicago Tribune Supplement, 1893, Charles Graham, from www.chicagology (Terry Gregory).
13. <http://mass.historicbuildingsct.com> (Daniel Sterner).
14. File photo, www.BerkshireEagle.com
15. The Blue Room, circa 1894, during the Benjamin Harrison administration (Benjamin Harrison Home), whitehousemuseum.org. The first lighting fixtures installed in 1892 are clearly visible.
16. Left side, see 15.; right side: hand-tinted photo of the Blue Room in 1904 (Library of Congress - Theodor Horydczak).
17. Left side, hand-tinted etching of the Green Room around 1887 (Library of Congress); right side, hand-tinted photo of the Green Room, circa 1904, looking northeast (Library of Congress).
18. Left side, hand-tinted etching of the Red Room around 1887 (Library of Congress); right side, hand-tinted photo of the Red Room, circa 1904 (Library of Congress).

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