Wallpaper in the Gilded Age, Part I: Introduction

Wallpaper in the Gilded Age: 
A Nine-Part Series Based on Ventfort Hall 
by Robert M. Kelly

1. "Leather" paper.

I. Introduction to Six Types of Historic Wallpaper Found at Ventfort Hall
II. 1893: Historical Context
III. 1893: Social Context
IV. Architectural Change 1800-1900
V. Wallpaper's Commercial Context 
VI. Wharton's Wallpaper Complex
VII. Cottage Industry: The Notebook of L. C. Peters
VIII. Revisiting Six Wallpaper Types
IX. Conclusion

*** author's note: These blog posts started as a written version of a lecture about six wallpapers found at Ventfort Hall. The six wallpapers are covered in Part I. The writing continued. When I came up for breath I had a series of nine parts. I enjoyed exploring the nooks and crannies of related areas, and hope you will, too. Many will wonder in the course of these explorations what the heck happened to those original six wallpapers. Let me assure you: the wallpapers SHALL RETURN in Part VIII. 
During this work I was introduced by Nini Gilder to the amazing nineteenth-century daybook left by L. C. Peters, an accomplished carpenter and all around fix-it man for the Lenox colony. I decided that his story (Cottage Industry) belonged here as well. It appears as Part VII. 
That said, forward into 1893! 

I. Introduction to Six Types of Historic Wallpaper Found at Ventfort Hall

2. Period colorized postcard.

Ventfort Hall, a Jacobean-revival pile in Lenox, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, was narrowly saved from the wrecking ball around twenty years ago. Volunteers started a preservation program which has breathed new life into the 1893 structure. The educational programs explore not only the Hall's history but also the culture of the late Gilded Age during which it was constructed. 

3. Ventfort Hall in disarray: the view from the basement looking up through the collapsed floor to the dining room.

Six seemingly first-generation wallpapers from the house are of prime importance: a leather paper, a block printed floral, a “stenciled look,” a Lincrusta, an Anaglypta-type, and a varnished tile. 

4. Fabric remnant on 2nd floor.

Though not addressed here, fabric was also important at Ventfort Hall. A batten system to which sewn fabric was tacked extended throughout a second-floor hallway in the private quarters. More fabric was hung in the Salon.

When I was asked to give a lecture about Ventfort Hall's wallpaper I gladly accepted. For starters, wallpaper history is literally made up of fragments, and any opportunity to connect the fragments must be taken. An ongoing problem is that wallpaper was so prolific in the nineteenth century that we’ve resorted to stereotyping it, perhaps in self-defense. 

Few eras are stereotyped more firmly than the last decade of the century, when bilious green and red gilt scrolls, like some invasive species from hell, grew wild on ceilings, friezes, sidewalls, and adjoining surfaces. Or did they? In fact, the colors were often pastels, the scrolls could be reform-influenced, and many wallpapers were painstakingly colored and nicely matched to their surroundings—a claim which cannot be made for every era of wallpaper history. Many writers treat 1890s decoration as a way station, a time when decoration was either stuck in a rut or desperately trying to get out of one. The pages of The Decorator and Furnisher, a major trade magazine of the time, offer vivid testimony that this picture is unfair and inaccurate. To be sure, the writers employed by the magazine were also salesmen. Yet, a genuine pride in American manufacturing wells up in their advertorials, a pride that does not seem misplaced when rarely seen samples of 1890s wallpaper are closely examined. 

Other than these concerns, case studies are an excellent way to illumine a moment in time. The moment here is June, 1893, when the George Hale Morgan family moved into their newly constructed home in Lenox. George's wife, Sarah Spencer Morgan, was a remote cousin. She brought plenty of money into the marriage—she was the sister of J. P. Morgan. 

But, as impressive as the house and family are, the wallpaper story associated with them is no less important. It leads far beyond the Hall—to Chicago, to London and Paris, and to the White House. It turns out that 1893 was a significant year for architecture, design, and decoration. It was, I believe, a hinge year. Broadly speaking, 1893 witnessed the last stand of the picturesque and a resurgence of classicism. The first suggestion of complexity came when my colleague Bo Sullivan sent several gigabytes of information gleaned from the pages of The Decorator and Furnisher, the New York City trade magazine which ran from 1882 to 1897. 

5.  The Decorator and Furnisher magazine.

The magazine's style was not quite what I expected. The early 90s are known for grandiosity, but this particular magazine was permeated with it. Some historians have proposed that by the early 90s a shift toward a cleaner decorative culture was beginning and that this forward-looking change can be read in the buildings and plan of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. While there is some truth to the claims, upper-class style in 1893, on the evidence of the contemporaneous commercial press, seems rather to have been looking in a different direction—back. 

Back past the short lifespan of the United States. Back to Europe and to post-medieval if not medieval times. Back to shields, heraldry, mottos, nationalism, and the “colors of woven tapestry” as one writer put it. To some extent, this conservative outlook dovetailed with the design of American wallpapers in the late nineteenth century, which were often florid, in the sense of flower-based. But, the high-style decoration in the pages of The Decorator and Furnisher went further. It was florid in the sense of exceptionally ornate. This extended to the house style of the magazine.

Although a shift to pared-down styles was in the wind, this de-cluttering is hardly in evidence judging from available documentation. This makes the somewhat retrograde wallpaper choices of the Morgans more understandable. Yet, it leaves unanswered the questions that we always have about wallpaper, namely: how popular were these choices?; how expensive were the wallpapers?; how exclusive were they?; were they domestically produced?; how did the style of the wallpapers relate to the style of the house? This series of posts aims to answer some of these questions. 

Ventfort Hall was build by Rotch & Tilden, a Boston firm. The house was the most expensive building project yet in Berkshire County, an area known for expensive building projects.[1] 

6. "Leather" paper in Long Hall.

The first samples to consider are the so-called leather papers. These oblong scraps were found beneath the cornice moldings in the first-floor hallway. Leather papers were highly processed. They were created by embossing and finishing paper laminates to approximate the effect of gilt leather. There seems to have been a shift from multiple layers to single layers as machine embossing improved. 

Leather papers were often promoted in the pages of The Decorator and Furnisher. Reviewing the offerings of Warren, Fuller & Company, a writer stated: "We must not forget to mention the leather papers. The most striking one is the Heraldic shield pattern. Unusual care has been taken in producing this high relief effect. These are well named, as they retain the character color and texture of stamped leather. Architects and others will be gratified in finding so close a resemblance."[2] This direct appeal to architects is significant, for it would have been Arthur Rotch or George Tilden who chose, or, helped choose, the interior finishes. Both were trained for this creative role at the Beaux Arts school in Paris. 

7. Block printed floral in 1894.

This block printed floral was found in a bathroom thought to be Sarah's. Though the design and colors are elaborate, the wallpaper conforms to English reform design principles. The flowers are not naturalistic but instead two-dimensional flowers and branches which have been worked into a frame. The strange object on the bathroom wall in photo above was apparently part of the burglar alarm system. 

8. Block printed floral remnant found behind alarm.

9. "Stenciled look."

The next pattern has been dubbed a “stenciled look.” The two colors are simply rendered in a post-medieval style, but the vertical repeat is very long—55". This wallpaper was almost certainly created with block prints, and therefore expensive. This looming pattern decorated the wide third-floor hallways outside the guest rooms. Incidentally, the pattern as rendered here is askew, due to the preserved strip of wallpaper twisting in mid-air. 

10. Anaglypta-type in service hall.

11. Lincrusta in service hall.

Both the Anaglypta-type (above the dado) and the Lincrusta (below the dado) were hung throughout the three floors of the service hallway, mute witnesses to the hustle and bustle of household chores. The Analypta-type is now heavily encrusted in paint which obscures an innovative strapwork design. With its spear and shaft motifs the Lincrusta presents a somewhat military aspect, albeit the beaded molding and rigid fluting hint at a classic revival effect. This pattern has recently been identified as stock pattern 22 A, available in both Lincrusta and Anaglypta.[3] 

It could be adapted for a stairway by raising the pattern as the staircase rose, a half-width at a time. Both Lincrusta (from 1877) and Anaglypta (from 1887) were English patented products. There was an American licensee for Lincrusta—Frederick Beck—who ran a Connecticut factory starting in 1883. 

12. Illustration of pattern 22 A on a staircase.

“Lincrusta-Walton” is often encountered in advertising of the period. Lincrusta was developed by Frederick Walton, inventor of linoleum, while Anaglypta was invented and patented by Thomas Palmer, an employee of Walton. The distinction between the types is that Lincrusta is solid. It was made from linseed oil, cork, and other materials which were forced under great heat and pressure into molded ornament. Anaglypta, on the other hand, was hollow, and made from pulp. Thus Anaglypta was cheaper and often used overhead. With a few coats of paint, the Anaglypta types could stand up to regular wear and tear, as here. 

13. Varnished tile wallpaper.

The final paper under consideration is a varnished tile wallpaper which still hangs in a rather grim third-floor bathroom. The offerings of Nevius and Haviland were reviewed in 1893 by The Decorator and Furnisher [4]: "That branch of their sanitary grade known as tile patterns contain some new and rarely beautiful designs. There are tile effects with Empire patterns and blue and white, green and white, soft red and white, and other combination, all washable and sanitary, and suitable for halls, kitchens and bathrooms. These goods are artistic, durable and cheap...." 

14. Varnished tile wallpaper, another view.

The hygienic aspect of sanitary papers was hugely important to a late-Victorian clientele, as was the last word in the company's pitch...cheap! The varnished tile paper at Ventfort Hall, with its several colors, is a step up from the description in the magazine, but not by much. As we shall see, varnished tiles, like most wallpapers, came in a variety of grades, some of which found their way into other large estates in the Berkshire hills during the Gilded Age. 


[1] Cornelia B. Gilder and Richard S. Jackson Jr., Houses of the Berkshires, 1870-1930: The Architecture of Leisure, 2011, p. 132. Some of the wealth which created Ventfort Hall was inherited by Sarah from her father, Junius Spencer Morgan, who was killed in a freak carriage accident in 1890. The Ventfort Hall complex included six greenhouses on 26 acres. The house had 15 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, 17 fireplaces, billiard room, bowling alley, elevator, burglar alarms, and central heating. 
For more about Ventfort Hall:
Before and after photos are at John Foreman's blog site:

[2] The Decorator and Furnisher, V. 22, N. 4 (July, 1893) p. 147.

[3]  The pattern is number 22 A (code name "Ages") in the Anaglypta sample book for 1929-31.  It cost $3.00 per 8-yd. roll in 1927. Other patterns were as low as $1.60 and as high as $8.10 per roll.

[4] The Decorator and Furnisher, V. 22, N. 6 (September, 1893) p. 223.

caption credits:

1 - 4. © 2015 Ventfort Hall Association, Inc. 
5. cover, The Decorator and Furnisher magazine, courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
6 - 8. © 2015 Ventfort Hall Association, Inc. 
9. © WallpaperScholar.Com.
10 - 11© 2015 Ventfort Hall Association, Inc.
12. Courtesy of Steve Sullivan.
13 - 14. © 2015 Ventfort Hall Association, Inc.

REVIEW: Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses

by Robert M. Kelly

link to buy "Chinese Wallpaper": (cost of the book is about £10, or $16.33)

In 1988, paper conservator Catherine Rickman wrote in a journal article that "there is no information to be had in China about the watercolour paintings, albums and lengths of handpainted paper exported in their thousands from the country over the last two centuries. To find out how such artifacts were made we must study the paintings themselves....." Twenty-five years later this remains largely true, but enormous strides have been made by the National Trust and the cadre of paper conservators in England and other Western European countries through their periodic work on these marvels of decorative design. This in-the-trenches practice has now been documented with the publication of a catalog, "Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses," which gives great detail for each of the 45 some-odd Chinese wallpapers that beautify the walls of homes belonging to the Trust. The authors are Emile de Bruijn, Andrew Bush, and Helen Clifford.

Late-17th century prototypes in country houses included lacquer screens inserted into wall paneling. References to Chinese pictures at Versailles in the late 1660s and at Whitehall Palace in 1693 establish that oriental wallpaper was an influence long before the tax of 1712. This helps to explain the ads of tradesmen like George Minnikin (1680), and Edward Butling (1690), who traded in both Chinese wares and  English chinoiserie adapted from them. By 1700 Chinese paintings were being substituted for the lacquer screens as noted in Wappenschmidt's 1989 book (p. 19). In 1722 the memoirist John Macky related that Wanstead was "…finely adorn'd with China paper, the figures of men, women, birds and flowers, the liveliest I ever saw come from that country." 

"Chinese Wallpaper" begins with a short but concise essay which creates a framework for the hundreds of details to follow as each assemblage of wallpaper is discussed in turn. Distinctions are made from the beginning between so-called Indian pictures (generally small) and wallpaper proper (generally large panels which came in sets). The authors report that one art authority (John Winter) found that shimmering grounds were not usually present in Chinese fine art pictures. This prompts the authors to speculate that shiny wallpaper grounds sprinkled with mica may have been specially made for the West. The catalog is strong in technical details like these. The text is so dense that a number of entries note that "the paper was trimmed at the top" — in every instance these are the full width panels, which ranged from 44 inches to 48 inches wide. No doubt the foreshortening was a result of the installers adapting a twelve-foot strip to a ten-foot wall. 

This distinction between pictures and wallpaper proper is made throughout the book, and wisely so, because the differences between the two types are still not completely understood. Within this first grouping, pictures could be enclosed in borders, as in the Chinese Room at Erddig, or they could be put up in a collage, as in the Study at Saltram. At least now with this vast amount of detail we have a laboratory to work out some of the problems and solutions that were faced by 18th century patrons and paperhangers. Did the patrons perceive pictures as art objects in the home, even when they were put up in collages, or enclosed in Greek key designs? Were the larger sheets of wallpaper thought by them to submit more gracefully to the demands of the architectural environment? Or, did any of the patrons regret (or complain) that any of these beautiful things needed to be cut? Is the cutting of the top elements a sure indication that the paper was not "made for the room" and came in "off the rack" so to speak? Were the dimensions of the room ever sent to China prior to the making? Could the use of stacks of similar Indian pictures indicate a money-saving or time-saving strategy on the part of the homeowners? Or simply a preference?  

Although the bulk of the entries consist of the later scenic types, the book makes a strong case for the importance of the rarer and less-celebrated Indian prints: "The strong demand for sets of pictures to be used as wall decorations eventually prompted the development of Chinese wallpaper proper…" by which is meant the panoramic type. The Indian prints and pictures (here documented to have dominated the first half of the 18th century) were certainly more difficult to install than the latter. To borrow a phrase from David Pye, the Indian pictures were an exercise in the "workmanship of risk" while the scenics represented the "workmanship of certainty". After all, the installer of a set of prints needed to construct a narrative — to make decorative sense out of the India pictures in the context of a particular room. In contrast, the furnishing of a strong narrative was one of the built-in benefits of the larger sets.

Three techniques for producing the imagery on Chinese wallpaper: (left) printed outlines with color added by hand; (center) printed outlines with additional details and color added by hand; (right) entirely hand-painted.

It's helpful to know that "drops" in this text means "strips." It comes as a bit of a surprise that block printed outlines were used so often by Chinese artisans around mid-century. It's good that the authors include so many qualifications of the general description "hand-painted" which, although not wrong, has sometimes left a false impression. Far Eastern artisans seem to have turned naturally to stencils and block printed outlines to speed the work, where possible, just as was done throughout this period in the workshops of English paperstainers, who were busily engaged in supplying chinoiserie, sometimes known as "mock India papers." Not addressed here, perhaps because of space limitations, is the question: How did the chinoiserie products of factories such as the Blue Paper Warehouse or Dunbar's differ from their inspiration?

The catalog scours the history of each installation. Whether it was framed by fillets or turned corners to explode away the very architecture of the room, the Chinese papers owned a power which repetitive Western design could not match. There is much here about the decorative traditions of China as well. In this connection the contributions of Anna Wu to the catalog cannot be overstated. She brought Chinese books, research and historic sites to the attention of the writing team — to cite one example, the decorative schemes in the restored Juanqinzhai (Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service). This curiously-named retirement lodge of an emperor is once again awash in silk hangings painted with tromp l'oeil scenery and offers "...a high-end, customized parallel to the wallpaper produced for export to the West."

Although non-Trust properties are not scrutinized, they are not ignored. In addition to the 45 catalog entries, 125 "other" installations are included in the fine map of locations coded by era, so that, in all, 170 Chinese wallpapers are documented. The bibliography is sparkling and includes the most up-to-date (Peck's Interwoven Globe from last year) as well as an assortment of fairly recent titles. Catalog # 29 (a c. 1750 firescreen at Osterly Park) shows the age of that quaint tradition for decorating fireplaces. In retrospect, it's astonishing that most of these installations predate the American Revolution and the founding of the American trade. Yet what could be more "early American" than to display a flower pot in your fireplace all summer? 

This information is specific to English conditions but no doubt will help Americans understand wallpaper better. That American rooms tended to be squat rather than tall, and that our decorative traditions tended to be democratic rather than aristocratic, helps to explain why Chinese scenics in the domestic interior are practically unheard of in our nation's early history. The best treatment about Chinese wallpaper here remains Carl Crossman's Chapter 15: "Decorative Painted Wallpapers to 1850" in his Decorative Arts of the China Trade (1991). Our two older books, McClelland and Sanborn, have just a few photos of Chinese wallpaper. We must not forget that many Chinese scenics formerly in English country houses were auctioned off to a new home in the US, the most prominent of which may be the former Ashburnham Place wallpaper now at Blair House, the president's guest house. 

Saltram stands out. There are four rooms extant, and signs that even more rooms may have been done up with Chinese wallpaper. Even when little wallpaper remains, as at Osterly Park, the scents of tea and perfume of the exotic East seem to linger in the air. A particular effort is made to untangle and understand the identification of Chinese wallpaper with femininity and sociability. It seems to have been no accident that most of the known locations for Chinese paper were dressing rooms, bedrooms, and drawing rooms. The authors quote a revealing statement by the salonist Elizabeth Montagu: "I assure you the dressing room is now just the female of the great room, for sweet attractive grace, for winning softness, for le je ne sais quoi it is incomparable". Those indefinable qualities are still being debated. 

Who were the patrons who made this all possible? The homeowners turn out to be various MP's, landed gentry, and (in a later age) heirs to marmalade-manufacturing fortunes: in other words, those who possessed the resources, the patrimony, the tall and large rooms, and the nerve to order such exotic wall treatments. 

[all photos in this post copyright National Trust 2014]

link to buy "Chinese Wallpaper"

How To Buy "Backstory"