IX: Conclusion: Wallpaper In The Gilded Age

1. Architect's rendering, 1894.

The very mention of 1893 and the Gilded Age conjures a quaint picture which is not contradicted by the wallpapers found at Ventfort Hall. The overdone designs and age-worn colors of the leather paper, the 3-D strength of the Lincrusta pattern, and the grandness of the “stenciled look” reinforce the stereotypical view of the milieu: the starchy manners; the ceaseless dressing-up; the fussy prose.

2. Collage.

All fit easily into a narrative about a privileged upper class. The late nineteenth century was the age of industrial revolution, of nationalism (even triumphalism), and, most of all, of monopoly, with all of the baggage—unbridled power and social ills—which that term carries. But the wallpaper is also a bridge to the human story, for each wallpaper was a choice among many.

3. The Decorator and Furnisher, 1893. 

I maintained earlier in this series that 1893 was a hinge year. It witnessed the grudging retreat of the picturesque and the beginnings of a classic revival with somewhat uneven results. Ultimately, a new era unfolded (one not beloved by wallpaper scholars): the era of modernism, in which ornament was barely tolerated.

But de-cluttering (for this is what the classic revival and modernism had in common) on the day that Ventfort Hall was finished was practically unknown. The seeds of change were there, but they would need many years of incubation to sprout forth with Wharton’s manifesto in 1897. 

I offer a word-collage of the six wallpapers of Ventfort Hall: 

a preference for reform florals (English influence) as opposed to unreformed florals (French influence); heraldic; strap-worked; glimmering; spaced-out conventional motifs; wallpaper that knew its place; not way-out aesthetic designs; not experimental; not freakish; robust; a color palette which was blended, old, safe, and sad. In a few words, masculine and well-ordered. 

Like most who were furnishing large homes in 1893, the Morgans were liberal in their use of wallpaper pattern. Both pattern and the medium of wallpaper itself were still respectable. The wallpapers seem to have hit just the right note. They were not the highest examples of wall fashion as found in New York City and Newport, but neither were they inappropriate for their architectural surroundings, which were grand indeed. It almost goes without saying that the level of finish was far above the mainstream wallpaper market of 1893. The cheap gilts offered by John Day of Albany would not have been welcome. 

4. George Morgan, grandchild Sarah, and family dog.

The wallpaper choices at Ventfort Hall make further sense when we consider that George Hale Morgan and Sarah Spencer Morgan were solid citizens. They were in their early 50s and had three children. They, and their family name, were firmly established in society; they had no need or inclination for experiments.

5. Period colorized postcard.

From our 122-year distance a first glance at Ventfort Hall suggests a celebration of European culture. Its elegant Jacobean revival silhouette encloses intricate ceiling coffers, stained-glass windows, marble floors, and elaborate plasterwork as well as “gilded leather” walls. Yet much of this Renaissance-inspired decoration was almost certainly American-made. By 1893 our nation had asserted an indigenous decorative culture. The industrial revolution grounded this accomplishment, but what concerns us here is the successful transfer of decorative craftsmanship, both hand- and machine-made, from Old World to New.

This was done by appropriating the forms and styles of Europe, and by fabricating and installing them through the agency of trained architects like Richardson, Hunt, White, Rotch, and Tilden, and skilled American artisans. These accomplishments were encouraged and celebrated in the pages of "Indoors," the promotional booklet from Warren, Fuller & Co., one of the leading wallpaper firms of the day. 

6. Frontispiece of “Indoors,” 1894.

In the Berkshires much of this activity was fueled by the economic resources of a prosperous business class. They in turn relied on men like L. C. Peters, the transplanted Englishman, who kept the grounds and buildings in good order, and on women like the unnamed dozens of women domestics who ran the households, and on the curation of village elders, who saw to it that towns such as Lenox and Stockbridge remained attractive and accessible while yet retaining a rural reputation.

The relationship of the wallpapers at Ventfort Hall to the ideals of the White City is conflicted. Design and social reformers were looking forward in 1893, yet many in the upper reaches of the wallpaper industry were looking in the opposite direction—back to a shared sensibility with Europe. 

The leaders of the American Renaissance accomplished many of their goals. They used old forms as a creative template for new effects in a new culture. Yet some of the popular forms that these ideals took—parading, pageantry, overt patriotism, and patrimony—are open to criticism. Were they not excessive, if not indulgent? Were they not opposed to American values such as pragmatism and egalitarianism? 

“Indoors,” contains a fantastic example of such pageantry. Sedate young ladies are safeguarded by a quintet of cherubs as the girls entertain an older married (?) couple in the background. The couple may be foreshadowing the girls' expected destiny. This highly theatrical scene would not have been out of place on the main stage of the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge. More to the point, a peek into the parlors of the newly-constructed Ventfort Hall of 1893 might have revealed just such a scene (minus the angels).

7. As above, detail.

All the world's a stage. Perhaps the patrons of the Gilded Age, including the George Morgans of Ventfort Hall, were guilty of over-dramatizing the importance of their roles. In the end, the creation, choice, and installation of wallpaper was an integral part of the furnishing of the “great estates.” Well-ordered wallpaper was part of a beautiful fantasy that the George Morgans and many of their peers believed in, bankrolled, and achieved, if only for a few more years.

-- the end --

caption credits:

1. Architects rendering from February 17, 1894, published in American Architect and Building News. Courtesy of Providence Library.

2. © 2016 WallpaperScholar.Com.

3. Courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.

4. Photo dates between 1893 and 1900. Posted on Daily Gazette (Northampton, MA) web site on July 29, 2012.

5. © 2016 Ventfort Hall Association, Inc.

6. Frontispiece for “Indoors” published by Warren, Fuller and Company, courtesy Bolling & Company Archive. Courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.

7. As above.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the following for their help in writing this series of blog posts: Bo Sullivan, manager of the Bolling & Company Archives; Steve Sullivan; Wayne Mason; the late Jo Ann Fitzpatrick Brown (Blantyre); Cornelia Gilder; Stephen Peters; Margaret Layton; Mark Wilson of The Trustees of Reservations (Naumkeag); www.whitehousemuseum.org; www.whitehouse.gov; and the staff and volunteers of Ventfort Hall, especially Tjasa Sprague.

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