Wallpaper in the Gilded Age, Part II: Historical Context

1893 was eventful. 

On January 15 the Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble, a pillar of the Lenox colony, died in London; on May 1, the fairgrounds of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago opened; and in June, George and Sarah Morgan were getting settled in their new home: Ventfort Hall in Lenox. 

In 1893, much of the nation was mired in an economic depression. Yet, this seems to have had little effect on the “cottagers,” the elite group who could afford vacation homes in multiple locations. Fine new estates (Erskine Park, Belvoir Terrace, Wheatleigh, Wyndhurst, Shadow Brook, and Lakeside) were completed in Lenox and Stockbridge (a neighboring town) without pause during the 1890-1895 stretch. So too was Ventfort Hall. No doubt as Ventfort Hall was being finished, many cottagers in Berkshire County were planning trips to the Columbian Fair.

1. The Court of Honor at the Columbian Exposition.

It's estimated that 27 million people saw the “White City” before it closed on October 31 at a time when the population of the U. S. was around 100 million. In 1893, monopolies were in favor; some resulted in great fortunes, and some of these fortunes enabled great building projects. Monopolies also figure in the wallpaper story; the major firms consolidated into the National Wallpaper Company in 1892, creating near-total market control until 1900.[1] 

Wallpaper was hugely prolific in the nineteenth century. While it's impossible to give a full account here, a sketch can begin with the statistics gathered for a World's Fair—not the one in Chicago in 1893, but the one in London in 1851. Before considering those statistics, it's useful to recall that practically all colonial wallpaper had been British, and that French goods were preferred after the Revolution. This change was accelerated not only for nationalistic reasons, but because French manufacturers in the early nineteenth century were the undisputed design leaders. But the British did not take this lying down, and by 1850 a great reform movement in wallpaper design was underway.

Reformed or not, British wallpaper was popular in America at the time of the Great Exhibition. So was French wallpaper. However, the most popular wallpaper in the U. S. by 1850, roll for roll, was almost certainly domestic, and we know this because of the statistics which were collected for the Great Exhibition. A comparison of those statistics with generally accepted population figures for the era is revealing. 

By 1850, a US industry which had barely existed at the time of the Revolution was second only to Britain in per capita production of wallpaper. The British were producing twelve square feet per capita to the nine square feet of the U. S. and the six square feet of the French. Equally important was the emergence of printing machines. Great Exhibition figures show that France had 12 machines and Britain 20, at a time when the U.S. had 40. It is therefore not surprising that by 1893, 43 years later, the continuing proliferation of equipment along with rising standards of living had resulted in staggering increases in wallpaper consumption.[2]  The critical hike in the U. S. seems to have occurred soon after mechanization began. Industry estimates suggest that by 1860 wallpaper use in the U. S. had increased six-fold over 1850. Consumption continued to climb throughout the late nineteenth century and seems not to have abated until 1930.

2. Commemorative wallpaper of the Great Exhibition, 1851.

What of the history of styles? We've already touched on design reform in Britain. Let's look at an unreformed wallpaper. The commemorative wallpaper above depicts the Great Exhibition of 1851. With its stairways-going-nowhere and incongruous blend of the iconic Crystal Palace, French-inspired landscape scenery, and wooden framework, it effortlessly qualifies as an example of bad taste according to reform sensibilities. The reform movement for household furnishings led by A. W. Pugin, Charles Eastlake, and Owen Jones was a curious blend of aestheticism, nationalism, and moralism. Consumers were instructed that bad design was not only bad in itself: it must never be allowed into the home where it could influence young minds. No doubt this watercolor sketch for a wallpaper design by Owen Jones was thought by reformers to be far less damaging to young minds than the Great Exhibition wallpaper.[3] 

3. "Moresque" design by Owen Jones; 1858.

The reformers held that representing natural forms on wallpaper was dishonest, and that throwing in three-dimensional architectural motifs was even worse. The reformers felt that ornamented walls should remain wall-like—flat. Stylized wallpaper flowers passed muster, because they were abstracted. At the other end of the scale were naturalistic florals, which became popular in France as early as the 1790s. Twist-knots in frames were an early variant. Many French companies continued to offer naturalistic flowers in a variety of forms throughout the nineteenth century. These found wide acceptance in the American market. 

By 1893, an American preference for naturalism plus some elements of reform had developed into a style. We might call it the post-reform floral. The color and variety of floral composition appeared within a framework. The grid structure was readily apparent and so too were alternating repeats in alternating rows. A 1905 American wallpaper design textbook explained how to transform a lush French block print design of over 30 colors into an American cylinder print design of about 10 colors. And it did so with no sense of shame.[4]

The wallpaper at Ventfort Hall would probably have won approval from the reformers. Much of it was high-minded as well as high in cost. Yet the practicality of the service stairwell papers and the varnished tile paper seems to head off in a slightly different direction. Above all, the wallpapers were elaborate in design. And in 1893 this elaboration was needed in order to fit into and stand up to their surroundings.

4. American cylinder rollers as shown on pg. 3 of ICS textbook. 


[1] Among important companies, only Birge (in Buffalo) and Campbell (in Brooklyn) were holdouts.

[2] This superabundance helps to explain why the walls of newly-built Ventfort Hall in 1893 displayed at least twelve wallpaper patterns and probably many more. Nor was this an unusual amount of wallpaper for large homes of this era. 

[3] The wallpaper designs above are from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum: the watercolor design by Owen Jones is from 1858: 'Wallpaper sample, called "Moresque", designed for John Trumble & Co.' The commemorative wallpaper for the Great Exhibition was probably produced by Heywood, Higginbottom & Smith. It was one of several chosen by Henry Cole in 1853 to illustrate "False Principles of Design" at the Museum of Ornamental Art, Marlborough House, London. Specifically, the design was said to illustrate False Principle Number 28: false perspective.

[4] International Correspondence School Reference Library: “Section 10: Wallpaper Designing”, Scranton, 1905, p. 37.

caption credits:

1. The Court of Honor from The Official Views of the World's Columbian Exposition, C. D. Arnold and H. D. Higinbotham, 1893; this public domain image from the Project Gutenberg Ebook has been posted on Wikipedia.

2. Great Exhibition commemorative paper, c. 1851. V & A museum no. E.158-1934.

3. "Moresque", designed for John Trumble & Co. by Owen Jones. V & A museum no. 8341:50.

4. American cylinder rollers as shown on pg. 3 of "Wallpaper Designing," I. C. S. Reference Library.

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.



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