Wallpaper In The Gilded Age Part VI. Wharton's Wallpaper Complex

Edith Wharton published her first book at age 35 in 1897: The Decoration of Houses (hereafter DH), co-written with Ogden Codman Jr. She had a lot to say about wallpaper—nearly all of it bad. 

1. Page 44 of “Decoration.”

Let’s finish that sentence: “Its merits are that it is cheap, easy to put on and easy to remove. On the other hand, it is readily damaged, soon fades, and cannot be cleaned; while from the decorative point of view there can be no comparison between the flat meanderings of wall-paper pattern and the strong architectural lines of any scheme of panelling, however simple.”

Furthermore: “Sometimes, of course, the use of wall-paper is a matter of convenience, since it saves both time and trouble; but a papered room can never, decoratively or otherwise, be as satisfactory as one in which the walls are treated in some other manner.”

Wharton's wish for less wallpaper was soon realized. The sea change in wall decoration around 1900 can be seen in the pictures of the White House parlors in Part IV of this series. But before we go any further: 

1. Inasmuch as the comment about “medical science” was the body blow against wallpaper, what medical science is she talking about?

2. Is it really she who is talking? Which ideas in DH are Wharton’s, and which belong to Codman? 

3. We know about Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize, her Legion of Honor from the French government, and the high tide of Whartoniana in academia that shows no sign of subsiding. But, what is the legacy of Ogden Codman, Jr.?

1. The charge that medical science had declared itself against wallpaper, as if a necessary stand had been taken against some strange Ebola-like disease, contains some truth. There had been periodic uneasiness about the hygienic aspects of wallpaper as early as 1852 when Harriet Martineau reported on a visit to a Scottish paperstainer.[1] The common practice of “papering over” led to fears of infestation by insects and vermin attracted by wheat paste, hide glue, and paper, and of contagious disease lurking under the layers. And arsenic-derived colors were certainly a concern.

However, arsenic in wallpaper was old news by 1897. The alarm had been sounded as early as 1860 in England and the drumbeat had increased such that by the early 1880s, legislative hearings in Massachusetts and other states had pitted doctors’ testimony against manufacturers. The manufacturers, especially in the US, dragged their feet. Yet by 1897 the arsenic scare was essentially over. 

It’s possible that bad publicity about the manufacturers’ attitudes lingered until 1897. However, more likely explanations for the remark about medical science can be found in the Victorian era’s well-known horror of uncleanliness in any form. Germs, the spread of disease, and unhealthy air were concerns, but they were not completely understood. There is abundant literature c. 1900 from the budding field of home economics which suggests that academic and governmental policies toward farm families, the working poor, and tenement-dwellers were slanted toward removing their wallpaper and replacing it with paint for a variety of reasons. These ranged from the medical concerns cited above to the argument that patterns, like people, possessed and projected character: patterns could be frivolous or meaningless—or worse. 

In retrospect, some of these reasons seem overstated, if not absurd. For example, the notion that certain shades of red could provoke anger and malice. A magazine article from 1896 declared that a vivid red “…must have been of the aniline order, for to the sensitively endowed organs of sight, aniline colors, even aniline blues and greens and yellows, still more aniline reds, seem palpitatingly instinct with aggressive life.”[2] No doubt this claim about the sensitivity of sight would have resonated with Edith Wharton, an unusually high-strung person.[3] Taken together, I think these factors go a long way toward explaining why the authors felt justified in invoking a supposed stance of “medical science” against wallpaper.

2. The Breakers: Codman's design for a bedroom wall.

2. The conventional view of the respective Wharton/Codman contributions is that Wharton did most of the writing while Codman offered an expert's practical advice. There seems little reason to revise this interpretation. In 1897 Codman had just been hired to decorate a few rooms at Frederick Vanderbilt’s mansion going up in Hyde Park. The established decorator on the site was Stanford White, who had been dispatched to Europe with a sizable budget to buy antique decorations. It was probably White or Codman who picked out the mauve French hand blocked wallpaper for one of the upper bedrooms. This is only one example that even though machine-printed, cheap wallpaper was increasingly being scorned by the upper classes, no such hesitation was felt when it came to expensive and highly finished French wallpaper. 

The pair were about the same age. Yet Codman was an experienced interior decorator, while Wharton had yet to find her footing as a writer and was still transitioning from a role as society hostess. In her favor she was well-travelled and extremely knowledgable about the historiography of decoration. As a girl she had lived in Europe and seen firsthand the grand centers of Berlin and Paris which had been shaped by architects Schinkel and Haussmann. On her return to the US, upper class New York brownstones looked positively shabby. It seems that each author brought special talents to the enterprise, with Codman providing a needed dose of male authority. 

They were certainly compatible.  She called him “Coddy” in their correspondence, and they remained friendly long after DH was published. Indeed they were working on a revision of DH when she died in 1937. Despite the passage of a century and the sometimes dense subject matter and near-constant European references, the book still crackles with nervous energy and wit. It seems logical to ascribe this to Wharton.[4]

3. Entry door, 7 East 96th Street, New York City.

3. Codman’s legacy cannot help but suffer next to the critical acclaim earned by Wharton. While Codman won no Pulitzer and was never again a best-selling author, he commanded respect and was emulated in his field, which was really interior decoration rather than architecture. The newly-married Nancy and Ronald Tree took over a New York City townhouse which had been designed and decorated by Codman. While there, Nancy Tree (later Nancy Lancaster) is said to have absorbed some of his classic style. She recalled later that “It really was the most beautiful house in New York….Inside there was a stone entrance hall and the most lovely staircase going up to the main floor….We took the house from Ogden Codman furnished, and the drawing room was filled with lovely French furniture….Codman had perfect taste. I remember the curtains were made of unbleached sailcoth or muslin. It was all very smart.”[5] 

4. Vestibule, 7 East 96th Street, New York City.

In a way, the Codman/Lancaster connection brings us down to the present day. Codman was still alive when I was born in 1949, and Lancaster passed away only in 1994. This multilayered European style of Codman’s showed up as the so-called English country style in Lancaster’s subsequent interior decorating career (she always denied being "in trade," but the denials are not convincing). She bought into the Colefax and Fowler design firm after World War II and was involved in their operations until 1977. Colefax & Fowler continues to sell wallpaper and design services.

5. Codman's design for a chair for Harold Brown Esq.

Strangely, Codman’s working methods were showy, yet based on careful scholarship. He labored over expensive watercolors to get the details of his designs across to his clients, and though he was sometimes criticized for this, the drawings were based on his personal library of thousands of photos and measured drawings. The collections he left to the Metropolitan Museum and Columbia University have been used to advantage by generations of architects, Fiske Kimball among them, and are still considered important.[6]

Now, back to our opening quotes. As a longtime wallpaper lover I was more than upset when I first read Wharton's comments about wallpaper. They sounded harsh. I still hear a somewhat frantic tone in her disapproval, but I now ascribe this to her self-appointed role as design reformer. She was deadly earnest about her trickle-down theory: “When the rich man demands good architecture his neighbors will get it too. The vulgarity of current decoration has its source in the indifference of the wealthy to architectural fitness. Every good moulding, every carefully studied detail, exacted by those who can afford to indulge their taste, will in time find its way to the carpenter-built cottage.”[7]

She seems to have been wrong about this. True, there was a noticeable shift toward classicism among the cottagers of Berkshire County. This late phase of Gilded Age building is illustrated by representative photos later in this article. It’s been well-described as “The Age of Archeological Correctness 1900-20.”[8]  But there were also novel developments in architecture which she could not have foreseen. One was the low-slung style of residential forms favored by the Prairie School architects. They, too, had a reformist bent. Another development was the kit home movement. These ready-cut homes were distributed by Sears and other retailers. Their use harmed the livelihoods of local builders because the kits were reasonably good quality as well as cheap. Kit homes were successful, but the savings came at the cost of craftsmanship in design—the very thing that Wharton had advocated. 

Another problem for Wharton’s trickle-down theory is that a turn toward the classical does not seem to have happened in the professional classes. The Colonial Revival was embraced to some extent but so too was the burgeoning Arts and Crafts movement, yet another reformist strain, which emphasized structural honesty often accompanied by a saddened (neutralized) color palette. Nor was the “vulgarity of current decoration” put aside, if we extend “vulgar” to include “popular.” Wallpaper was consumed with gusto for at least another thirty years. But, if her aim was a bit off, her message was heartfelt. Essentially, she was scolding her fellows in the upper class for putting fine ornament on poor forms.

6. Edith Wharton’s Autograph.

Another part of Wharton's wallpaper complex can arguably be attributed to the sheer popularity of machine-made wallpaper. Wallpaper in 1897 was hyper-conventional, inescapable, omnipresent. Perhaps for these reasons it was also oppressive. Self-aware non-conformist females such as Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of The Yellow Wallpaper, were poised and even eager to speak out against oppression. If wallpaper was viewed by them as a representative convention and part of a rising tide of mediocre materialism, it would have easily warranted opposition. 

In her defense, late-nineteenth century decoration had gotten impossibly complicated—it had turned in on itself. As an encyclopedia entry about Codman observes, “For over twenty years, interior decoration in America had meant domestic trappings of mass-produced items ranging from rugs and draperies to ornamental china, statues, oriental motifs with Colonial Revival furniture, much if not all of which was given popular credence by the displays of the 1876 Centennial Fair in Philadelphia.”[9]  

It may have been inevitable that the baby—wallpaper—would be thrown out with the bath water—the decorative swamp that had overtaken polite parlors. Wharton herself referred to the “fungoid growth” of misplaced ceiling ornaments which led to the widespread use of ceiling papers (p. 96, DH). It’s well to remind ourselves of what those ceiling paper/frieze/sidewall roomsets actually looked like when she was writing in 1897. These were not the tasteful abstractions created by latter-day Victorian revivalists such as Bruce Bradbury, based on the aesthetic principles of “art wallpaper.” Instead, they were the scrolling Empire elaborations lurking in the back numbers of The Decorator and Furnisher from Birge, Bartholomae & Co., and other high-end New York City firms.  

Her dismissal of wallpaper may have been wrong and overstated, but her prophetic role as design reformer seems to have been necessary. Like the Jacobins of the French Revolution, who had to completely dismantle absolutism to make way for governments guided by rationalism, Wharton was willing to go too far. It may seem frivolous to compare the Terror, the world’s first exercise in totalitarian democracy, to her proposed world without wallpaper. Yet in both cases a complete break with the past was prescribed. The leaders of the American Renaissance said as much. Her strong disapproval of wallpaper was truly complex: it seems to have stemmed not only from the health issues mentioned earlier, and not only as a rescue operation to save American decoration from the confusion of pattern. It seems that she was also acting on a belief that she and Codman had been called to implement the ideological purity of the American Renaissance pushed by McKim and others.[10] 

As an antidote for the confusion of overlaid pattern, Wharton proposed a re-evaluation of walls. Instead, the correct proportion of openings to solids should be recognized for what it was: the soul of the room. Surface decoration was only acceptable when it complemented that intrinsic beauty. Curiously, given her wallpaper complex, she seems to have had a blind spot for painted decoration. Perhaps she considered handcrafted decorative painting more adaptable and therefore more acceptable. Again, her argument was based on a trickle-down theory: “When painted walls were in fashion, there existed, below the great creative artists, schools of decorative designers skilled in the art of fresco-decoration, from the simplest kind to the most ornate. The demand for such decoration would now call forth the same order of talent, and many artists who are wasting their energies on the production of indifferent landscapes and unsuccessful portraits might, in the quite different field of decorative painting, find the true expression of their talent.” (DH, p. 41.) 

To Wharton, fireplace and doorways were the most important parts of a room, and how they fit the walls was more important than any particular style. She certainly challenged conventional thinking. For example, she considered the Louis styles to be variations on a theme: “It must not be forgotten that the so-called “styles” of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI were, in fact, only the gradual development of one organic style, and hence differed only in the superficial use of ornament” (DH, p. 12).

In short, she looked through style and found structure. This was both a ressourcement and a path forward, at least for elite decoration. Her thinking anticipated some observations of Peter Thornton: “Each period of history has its own way of seeing things….a certain degree of density in the arrangement of the furniture….not simply a question of how the walls are decorated, of what furniture is present, and of the pattern of the carpet….a matter of density”.[11] Wharton rejected the density of her time. It was a rejection of the “flat meanderings” of wallpaper patterns, but even more, of how those patterns were being used. Whatever the causes, elite interior decoration became increasingly foreclosed to conventionally patterned wallpaper after 1897, and Wharton was in the thick of the change.

In DH Wharton said that pattern on pattern was "always a mistake", and her certitude helped end much dithering about the relative virtues of rose, flesh, or shrimp pink. In architecture and decoration there was a sharp turn toward the classical, the stripped down, the symmetrical, and the white. Suddenly, colorful applied ornament was out of fashion, especially the curlicue/filigree/scrolling elaboration championed by magazines like The Decorator and Furnisher and decorators like Edgar Yergason. 

Wharton is sometimes credited with being the first woman interior decorator, but she seems not to have practiced as a decorator at all. Besides, Candace Wheeler has a much greater claim for that title, since she was active from the 1880s, in one way or another, in the heretofore largely male world of design. Nor does Wharton seem to have been much of a feminist (though her work during World War I proves that she was a humanitarian). Or, if she was a feminist, she was a conflicted one. Annette Benert points out that “[Wharton] later expressed little interest ‘in travelling scholarships for women—or in fact in scholarship, tout court!—they’d much better stay at home & mind the baby’ and gave a $500 scholarship ‘for a young decorator (stipulating it should be a he) in the Codman-Odom Decorative Art School.’….” Benert also sees "a gendered note in the book’s (DH) association of conspicuous waste with women and of comfort and privacy with men.” [12]

Privacy occupies a strange place in DH. On one hand it is highlighted as a little-recognized “first requisite of civilized life” (p. 22). On the other hand, the book spends little effort telling professional decorators, the book’s intended audience, how to achieve privacy. Wharton herself knew exactly how to achieve privacy. Although The Mount, her home in Lenox, is modeled after Belton, a modified Italianate villa, the model had no service wing. The service wing at The Mount was therefore “set back with a separate entrance, a trick to make the house symmetrical and the servants invisible.”[13]

7. The Mount, Lenox, Massachusetts.

8. Belton House, Lincolnshire, National Trust.

Candace Wheeler was just mentioned and there are links between her professional approach and that of Edith Wharton. Wheeler was motivated by the ideals of the aesthetic movement which were crystallized by the 1876 World’s Fair. That movement hoped to convert a materialist people into a nation founded on truth and  beauty. Wheeler bought into this vision and worked tirelessly for its realization. Similarly, Wharton put the ideals of McKim, the 1893 World’s Fair, and the City Beautiful movement into practical use. Both women were humanitarians. Wheeler provided gainful employment for impoverished Civil War widows, and Wharton devoted time and money to the re-settlement of refugees in France after World War I. Finally, both preferred handiwork to machine-work. Though Wheeler was a successful business owner, she seems never to have mechanized her output.[14]

The Architectural Picture

As previously stated, picturesque architectural forms hung on among cottagers in Berkshire County. The turning point may have come as late as 1897 with the construction of Bellefontaine in Lenox. This exercise in French classicism (extant as the centerpiece of the luxurious Canyon Ranch spa complex) is modeled on the Petit Trianon. As we see below, classic proportions were evident in the last stage of cottage construction. 

9. Brookhurst.

10. High Lawn.

11. Eastover.

12. Ashintully.

13. Brookhurst living room.

It's hard to dispute Wharton's dismissal of wallpaper when viewing interiors like this living room at Brookhurst (1910). Assuming that wallpaper was purchased, where would it go? It could not go on the overdoor, nor on the overmantel, nor on the narrow panels used for the sconces. Nor would most wallpaper patterns have been appropriate for these temple-like walls.

14. Brookhurst entrance hall.

The front hallway of Brookhurst is another vindication of Wharton's creed. The graceful curves of an early-nineteenth century chair are thrown into relief by a plain wall. The ratio of solids to openings makes visual sense. The architectural detailing itself becomes the decoration, just as she had advocated. In the sparseness of the scene there’s a hint of the next stage. Even though the components are strictly classical, the approaching coolness—modernism—is palpable. The next phase had even less need for patterned walls than the classicists had, the full term was reached, and Modernism would finally squelch the hothouse growth of the picturesque. Not even the enamel gloss of Colonial Revival woodwork would survive.[15]

A Step Back

At this point we need to take a step back from this triumph of classicism. In DH Wharton had complained about the “flood” of ornamental wallpaper which completely submerged a room. Wallpaper was guilty as charged, but why did the flood arise in the first place? Wallpaper was certainly not hung that way when it began in the late-seventeenth century. At that time, boundaries and corners were respected. Any pattern of importance would have been centered on sections of wall, following the traditions of hanging large-figured fabrics. As Wharton noted, historical tapestry never turned corners (DH, p. 39). 

Leather hangings, too, were most often put up in discrete rectangular sections, not all over an entire room. Or, if they were put up throughout, which happened occasionally, borders were used at corners to define the spaces. For these reasons, the wholesale use of wallpaper on contiguous surfaces had no classical roots, as Wharton rightly observed. However, the “flood of pattern” which so annoyed her did follow the historical development of the vernacular American interior.

For a time after the American Revolution the fashion for a wood-paneled fireplace wall continued. But this, too, dropped away and the four plaster walls united to form a box, which was increasingly decorated with a continuous flow of paint or pattern. In the early republic, when modest homes with shorter walls proliferated, the spaces between the top of the doors and the ceiling narrowed, leaving little space for an overdoor.[16] When overdoors and overmantels didn't fit, or were deemed unnecessary, they were simply abandoned by the carpenter-builders of the early nineteenth century. Chair rails, dadoes, plinths, and columns shared the same fate. The result was simpler rooms. 

These boxy rooms with contiguous walls were new. It’s no wonder, then, that new solutions for their decoration were found as the housing stock expanded just prior to the Civil War. Into this opportune moment stepped a product that was not exactly new. But, it had stellar attributes. It was popular, locally made, democratic, and best of all, becoming cheaper with each passing year. It was wallpaper.


[1] Harriet Martineau, Health, Husbandry, and Handicraft, Bradbury and Evans, 1861, pp. 460-474. The book is a collection of her columns, including one about paper-hangings written for Dickens’ Household Words: “A clever young man, who examined the house from top to bottom, fixed his suspicions on a certain room, where he inserted a small slip of glass in the wall. It was presently covered, and that repeatedly, with a sort of putrid dew. The paper was torn down; and behind it was found a mass of old papers, an inch thick—stuck together with their layers of size and exhibiting a spectacle which we will not sicken our readers by describing….We may never think of the pattern on the wall of our room, while we go to bed only to sleep and rise the moment we awake; but it is certain that delirium in fever cases has been precipitated, and that frightful visions, or teasing images, have been excited by fantastic patterns on chintz bed-curtains, or on the hangings of the walls. The paper for bed-rooms should be of a rather light colour, and of a pattern as indefinite as can be had…”. 

[2] Cited on p. 256, Jan Jennings, “Controlling Passion: The Turn-of-the-Century Wallpaper Dilemma,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 31, No. 4, (Winter, 1996), pp. 243-264.

[3] Of course sometimes wallpaper is just wallpaper. Yet, despite some revisionism, Wharton retains a reputation for sensitivity, especially in early life. In A Backward Glance Wharton recalled that her "secret sensitiveness" was "quite incommunicable to others." A recent critic asserts that “As a child, Edith Wharton used her intellectual and aesthetic awareness to engage in what she later called “making up” [composing stories] to quell her fear of ugliness. As an adult, she used her artistic awareness to fashion architecture, interior design and gardens that sheltered her from and countered what she perceived to be an external ugliness that was always an ominous presence in her life.” ReneĆ© Somers, Edith Wharton as Spatial Activist and Analyst, Taylor Francis Ltd., 2009.

[4] A persuasive argument for Wharton as principle author is found on p. 119 of Alice Kinman’s “The Making of a Professional: Edith Wharton's 'The Decoration of Houses,' South Atlantic Review, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Winter, 2000), pp. 98-122. Kinman argues that literary critics, in ignoring DH, have overlooked the complex process by which Wharton appropriated aspects of her training as a society matron in her self-definition as a professional author. Codman was  both bi-sexual and comfortable in that role (though necessarily discreet). See David Doyle, 2004, “"A Very Proper Bostonian": Rediscovering Ogden Codman and His Late-nineteenth-century Queer World”. Journal of the History of Sexuality 13 (4). University of Texas Press: 446–76. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3704534.

[5] From Nancy Lancaster: Her Life, Her Work, Her Art by Robert Becker. According to Becker, Codman's close attention to different periods and emphasis on comfort molded Lancaster’s professional approach. The townhouse is extant. See: http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/the-way-they-live/2015/big-old-houses-edith-and-ogden

[6] “Of great interest to architectural historians was the discovery of many of Codman’s measured drawings of colonial and Federal houses, often made on the occasion of their demolition.” In “Drawings from the Office of Ogden Codman, Jr.,” Stuart Drake, Old-Time New England, 1997, p. 51.

[7] Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr., The Decoration of Houses, introduction.

[9] Encyclopedia of Interior Design (1997), entry on Ogden Codman Jr. (Ronald J. Onorato), p. 293.

[10] Wharton sent McKim the final draft of DH, which he largely approved of in a three-page critique. McKim in turn invited her to review his renovations at the White House, but that assignment went instead to Charles Moore: Annette Benert, 2004, p. 15 in “Edith Wharton, Charles McKim, and the American Renaissance,” Edith Wharton Review 20 (2). Penn State University Press: 10–17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43512971

[11] Peter Thornton, Authentic Decor, (1984), p. 8.

[12] Benert proves to be an incisive critic in her 2004 article for the Edith Wharton Review (and presumably in her subsequent book on those subjects) but in "Edith Wharton at War: Civilized Space in Troubled Times", Twentieth Century Literature 42:3 (1996): 322-43 she had downplayed Wharton’s self-awareness of her humanitarian accomplishments in wartime France. A more sympathetic assessment is found in Caroline Hellman’s “Chintz Goes to War: Edith Wharton's Revised Designs for Home and Homefront,” Edith Wharton Review, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 8-13.

[13] Ailsa Boyd, p. 30, “'The Decoration of Houses': The American Homes of Edith Wharton”, The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 - the Present, No. 30, America & Europe (2006), pp. 74-91.

[14] Mary W. Blanchard, 2002, “Embroidery, Enterprise, and the Modernist Vision in Gilded Age America.” Review of Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875-1900. American Quarterly 54 (4). Johns Hopkins University Press: 661–79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30041945, p. 673. In another review of the Wheeler exhibition, Penny Sparke notes that Wheeler had little to do with advanced technology and apparently never moved beyond hand manufacture: Penny Sparke, 2002, Technology and Culture 43 (4). [Johns Hopkins University Press, Society for the History of Technology]: 797–98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25148021. But see p.52-4, Mary W. Blanchard, Oscar Wilde's America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age (1998).

[15] Onorato, though dismissing the suggestion that Wharton was an incipient modernist, may have been on the right track after all: “It is tempting to consider Codman’s and Wharton’s principles as a proto-modern aesthetic: an insistence that houses are “mechanisms for living”, that “the supreme excellence is simplicity” and that architecture and interior design should be unified…” In Encyclopedia of Interior Design (1997) entry on Ogden Codman Jr. (Ronald J. Onorato), p. 293.

[16] Catherine Lynn, Wallpaper in America, p. 156: “...few American houses boasted rooms with ceiling heights that could have accommodated such decorations [dessus-de-porte] in the space between the door frame and the ceiling. Instead, these specialized products of paper stainers were used here to decorate overmantles... and as “fire boards.”

caption credits

1. © WallpaperScholar.Com. Photo from The New York Times photo archives.
2. Ogden Codman, Jr., watercolor and pencil on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 51.644.73(15).
6. Signature: public domain.
9. Houses of the Berkshires, p. 246. Helen Morris Scorsese.
10. ibid, p. 258. Augusta O. Patterson, American Homes of Today (1924).
11. ibid, p. 264. Dorothy Windsor.
12. ibid, p. 269. Katharine W. McLennan.
13. ibid, p. 251. Helen Morris Scorsese.
14. ibid, p. 250. Helen Morris Scorsese.



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