About Jacqué's thesis and "the WALLPAPER"

In 2003 Bernard Jacqué wrote a doctoral thesis about wallpaper: ‘De La Manufacture Au Mur: Pour une histoire matérielle du papier peint, 1770-1914’.

The French original can be accessed at:

This thesis, the title of which I have translated "From the Workshop to the Wall - Toward a Material History of Wallpaper" is large (600 pages, 2,300 footnotes) and important. Trust me.

"The WALLPAPER" newsletter is founded on an assumption: that the linchpin to an all-around better understanding of historical wallpaper, in all countries, is “Manufacture Au Mur," hereinafter "MauM." I have translated three parts of MauM (hopefully without wrecking them beyond repair) and those links are below.

"The WALLPAPER," on the other hand, is essentially a commentary, in monthly installments, on the thesis, for at least the first year of publication. You may subscribe by sending request to thewallpaper@roadrunner.com

This commentary is my own work and consists of adapting the lessons of the thesis to the American situation and to present-day wallpaper scholarship. Beyond any one detail or lesson, the focus of MauM is critically important. MauM is the first extended attempt to view wallpaper not as decorative art or applied art or as a minor art of any kind, but as material culture.

In other words, MauM dares to ask the question: outside of style, why is wallpaper important? 

Granted, there have been many books published about wallpaper over the last 20 or 30 years (not any about American wallpaper, mind you) but books published about wallpaper nonetheless. But few of these wallpaper books break new ground. And fewer still are written in English.

Instead, the most interesting writing has come from people with names like Velut, Koldeweij, Cerman, and Wailliez - the Europeans. As for major journal articles published in the US over the last twenty years, to the best of my knowledge there have been precisely three, and two were written by Bernard Jacqué. This only underscores that Jacqué is the most prolific writer about wallpaper of our age. Indeed, of any age. So that the volume as well as the quality of Jacqué’s writing is a factor in putting his thesis at the forefront of the agenda of "The WALLPAPER."

After Jacqué’s thesis I judge the second most significant English-language publication about wallpaper over the last 17 years as David Skinner's book about Irish wallpaper. Skinner took Catherine Lynn's approach. His broadly-based archival research searched well beyond the scant visual evidence to find the social, economic, and personal stories that needed telling. Next most important publication might arguably be the catalog about Chinese wallpapers in National Trust houses authored by Andrew Bush, Emile de Bruijn, and Helen Clifford.

For the rest in the Anglo/American world, I note four theses as worthy of study, all from the UK, and all freely available to browse on the internet: those of Clare Taylor, Phillippa Mapes, Wendy Andrews, and Anna Wu.

Taylor: ‘Figured Paper For Hanging Rooms’

Mapes: The English Wallpaper Trade, 1750 - 1830

Andrews: The Cowtan Order Books, 1824-1938

Wu: Chinese Wallpaper, Global Histories, and Material Culture

Some final words about the thesis. In compiling this massive work, Jacqué kept his nose to the grindstone.

He did, however, allow himself one personal memory. It's about a boy's visit to the Wallpaper Museum in Rixheim. This youngster took in the panoramic views of 'Scenic America' with great excitement. He knew this one! A recent reissue had been hung in his grandmother's house. Everyone was enjoying the moment until the boy began reviewing the troops near West Point. Something caught his attention. Much to his disappointment, THESE soldiers in the museum sported brilliant red plumes; whereas the same soldiers back at grandma's house had none! Jacqué comments: “...a printer had failed in his task - and only a child's eye's could see it."

I thought of this boy and this anecdote when reviewing Jean Zuber's earliest successes after taking over the factory in 1802. For it is a fact that this young visitor to the Wallpaper Museum was walking on the same wooden floors where children not much older or younger than he had toiled throughout much of the nineteenth century.

In a typical year, the Zuber factory employed 200 workers. At least a quarter (50) of these workers were between the ages of 8 and 12. Indeed, during the 1790s the proportion of child labor was double that - half of the entire work force. Jacqué repeatedly brings home that the low price of labor in the quasi-feudal village of Rixheim, a dependency of the independent city of Mulhouse, was a significant factor in the success of Zuber. Labor cost less than in Paris, Lyon, and other French cities. 

And this is just one example of the value of the thesis. We may come away with the same conclusion: that the French dominated luxury wallpaper-printing in the long nineteenth century, and that therefore Malaine, the artistic director, as well as other artisans, deserved the gold medals handed out at international exhibitions. 

But thanks to Jacqué's unblinking assessment we know that the provision of beautiful ornaments for parlor walls also depended, to a significant degree, on the willing hearts and tiny hands of children.


Three selections from Jacqué's thesis are presented in English-language versions (the links lead to a PDF):

1: A Historiography of Wallpaper, http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/rzsz-6286

2: Zuber’s ‘Indépendance’ (1853) a hand-painted restatement of ‘Scenic America’ (1835), 

3: The Scenic Revival of the 20th Century, http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/e87a-2350