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.


Review: "Behind Closed Doors" by Amanda Vickery, 2009, Yale University Press.


Only one of Vickery's ten chapters is about wallpaper. More about that in a minute, but first—this is a very accomplished book. That is not a reference to the traditional patronization of ladies' "accomplish'd" hair-, feather-, and shellwork. Vickery spends many pages exploring and rehabilitating that genteel work.

Her goals, laid out on page three: "this book takes the experience of interiors as its subject, staking claim to an uncharted space between architectural history, family and gender history and economic history. It brings hazy background to the fore to examine the determining role of house and home in power and emotion, status and choices."

Only a bold and ambitious writer would tackle the vast canvas of domestic life in England in the Georgian period (roughly 1688 to 1830 or so). The case studies and reviews of scholarly literature alone prove prodigious research. The prose is not always crystal clear but it's muscular. She weaves a convincing tapestry of what life was like for her cast of diarists, letter-writers, widows, spinsters, apprentices and shoppers.

The approach is unusual. Equal parts E. P. Thompson, John Cornforth and Jane Austen, she skips from social and folkway history to entertainments in great houses to imagined conversations in parsonages, all of this to bring out how people lived and why they lived that way. Her conclusions do not add up to a consistent world-view, but do they need to? The book is studded with wise observations.

The conventions and prerogatives of household control have long been marked by misogyny, prejudice and exploitation, and these faults have been explained away or perpetuated by later commentators. Sharp reappraisals of family life from a feminist or radical perspective, though useful correctives, are themselves sometimes off the mark. It is not yet clear what historic family life meant, and what it can tell us about how we should live today. This troubled history supplies an abundance of fat targets for her darts, which are well-placed and effective. She is also expert at fitting quotes into her text, and this helps to  sustain interest throughout what is really a small encyclopedia of Georgian life.

Some may find this an emphatically feminist reading, but this criticism overlooks an important point. If the long ago voices she employs are almost always female, and if her conclusions occasionally stand male/female relations on their head, it is because of three things: 1. her research found that men couldn't be bothered to keep domestic journals; 2. on the evidence, they refused to apply the dictates of the Enlightenment for greater equality, freedom and so on to their home kingdoms: "I have yet to encounter a single gentleman musing on whether it might be possible to reconsider his domestic rule in the light of the new political ideas" (pg. 185); and, 3. domestic life for the period surely was strongly marked by sexism, and it takes neither a female nor a scholar to recognize that.

She deflates fond notions and sheds new light, employing a sort of swarming offense that never lingers long enough on any point to erect a scaffold for a larger theory. Which is perhaps just as well. The way that this iconoclastic book cheerfully pulls down tottering assumptions is enough of a reward. More theory would have weighed it down, reducing appeal to the elusive educated lay reader toward whom it seems well-directed. One definition of a good book must be that it forces us to consider how we live today. After completing this book, I felt profoundly grateful that my household's daily linen and cooking needs don't condemn anyone to hours of arduous toil.

She talks often of decorum and found a decorous way of integrating strains of thought by introducing the reader to the themes of scholarly work ("Cohen has found...", "Bermingham suggests..." and so on), but then suppressing the discussion to a footnote. This is wise because if she had lingered on these debates, there would have been no room for the news that "by the 1750s pans outnumbered pots by two to one in thefts of furnishings from humble London lodgings" (pg. 266). Similarly, I guess I suspected that the "nobility were a peculiar minority" but I did not know that there were just 350 peers by 1832 in a population of over 18 million (pg. 130). Nor did I suspect that the typical marriage around 1700 lasted only ten years (pg. 208).  The nitty-gritty information gleaned from cases at the Old Bailey is especially valuable and her chapter on locks, boxes and keys is surprisingly profound.

I was baffled, amused and educated by the Brittishisms that popped up now and again. "Spirits were as firewater with him"; "Of a different kidney altogether was Sylas Neville..."; "The householder...paid scot and bore lot". Dilatory builders and decorators are not hassled by customers but "chivvied"; James Boswell "could not help wondering if his landlord would tick him off for nocturnal naughtiness" but here in the home of Yale University Press "ticked off" carries an entirely different meaning. Renting out an extra room was a "financial makeweight", and in the same vein a sensible husband allowed his wife to spend money, because "there was no making bricks without straw".

It must be wonderful to be able to describe the Georgian period in what sounds to an American ear like Georgian language. The chapter on wallpaper bears closer examination and will be reviewed in an upcoming post.

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