JAIC 1981, Volume 20, Number 2, Article 14 (pp. 150 to 151)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1981, Volume 20, Number 2, Article 14 (pp. 150 to 151)


Richard C. Nylander

ABSTRACT—This paper considers the use of wallpaper in the restoration of historic houses. Included in the discussion are the following points: where to locate original fragments in a house; the difference between commercial reproduction wallpapers, adaptations, and custom reproductions; and considerations in hanging a reproduction wallpaper.

MORE AND MORE FREQUENTLY, those in charge of historic houses are realizing the importance of using wallpapers to convey an accurate impression of the past. For example, when one considers that in the eighteenth century wallpaper was an expensive commodity chosen by many individuals to exhibit their wealth and taste, it is surprising to tour a restoration of a grand eighteenth-century mansion and find the best rooms fitted up with fine furniture, floor length silk curtains, and white walls. Surely if the original owner could have afforded silk, he also could have afforded wallpaper.

By its nature, wallpaper is a fragile decorative art. Few historic houses still retain complete rooms of original or early wallpapers. Their conservation is addressed elsewhere in these proceedings. More often, groups undertaking a restoration are faced with locating suitable reproduction wallpaper.

The decision as to which wallpaper to use in a restoration should be the result of a research project into documents related to the house and its owners. This study should be combined with a thorough examination of the structure itself to determine a chronology of architectural changes and locate any surviving samples of wallpaper.

Samples of papers once used in a house can be found in many different places. Occasionally unused rolls survive in an attic or other storeroom. More often fragments are located on the walls themselves. The most obvious place to look is under later layers of paper. Architectural changes, such as mantels, baseboards, door casings, picture moldings, or even a later layer of plaster or a second wall can conceal an earlier paper. Paper hangers did not always move larger pieces of furniture, such as bookcases or heavy mirrors when a room was to be repapered.

Records should be kept on each sample or group of samples found, with notations as to location in the room and layer in the sequence. Photographs should be taken before any samples are removed from the walls. Research should then be done on the samples to determine their approximate age.

Certain objects with family associations should also be examined for wallpaper evidence. Extra wallpaper was often used to cover the backs of framed pictures, to make diaries or account books, or to make small useful boxes. Leather trunks or paper-covered hat boxes can be considered with a word of caution. Some small figured designs used for trunk linings were manufactured specifically for that purpose and rarely were applied to the walls of any houses. The same is true for some of the large, continuous designs found on hat boxes.

If none of these avenues yields even the smallest fragment, one must rely on the most up-to-date research on the subject, such as Catherine Lynn's book Wallpaper in America.

When all the research has been done, the committee or individual in charge of the restoration has two options. The first is to purchase a reproduction paper which is already available; the second is to have a reproduction custom made from fragments discovered during the course of research. In both cases, the final choice must be consistent with the interpretation of the house. It makes little sense (and only confuses the visitor) to choose an eighteenth-century paper because the house in question was built in the eighteenth century, when the decision has been made to interpret the lifestyle of the late nineteenth-century occupant.

Commercial reproductions are of two types. An accurate reproduction follows exactly the design, scale, and color of the original document. An adaptation captures the spirit of the original design, but the scale or design has been reworked to make the paper more appealing to the modern eye.

Most reproduction wallpapers are not manufactured by the same processes used to produce the originals. Silk screen and roller printing are the common printing techniques used today. The quality of the paper stock may also differ in the reproduction. Sheets of rag paper seamed together, the eighteenth-century technique employed to create a roll, are not used for reproductions of eighteenth-century papers. These are compromises that are accepted at this time.

Custom reproduction wallpapers are usually more expensive than those reproductions commercially available, but they often are the only way to recreate the appearance of a room. Certain designs which were extremely popular in the past are not reproduced commercially because they are no longer fashionable and therefore do not sell. Frequently when a sample of wallpaper is found in a historic house, committees choose to have a custom reproduction made. Most wallpaper manufacturing firms will consider custom work. There is a common belief that wallpaper manufacturing firms will happily reproduce any sample found in a historic house, include the reproduction in their regular line, and give the historic house enough paper to use in one room. In reality, this does not happen. A firm may include the reproduction in their line if it considers the design appealing by today's standards. If this is the case, a royalty arrangement should be negotiated.

The goal of a custom work is an accurate reproduction; therefore, the committee should be adamant that the end product is as accurate as is possible in terms of design, scale, color, and simulation of the original printing technique. No artistic license or “antiquing” should be allowed.

Once a reproduction paper has been chosen, attention should be paid to its installation. Borders were commonly used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and should be used in the restoration of a room.

At any period, there were those who did not completely understand the pattern of a paper. This resulted most often in mismatching the pattern. If evidence found in a house indicates that a paper was hung incorrectly originally, a question of accurate interpretation is raised if the decision is made to match the pattern when the reproduction is hung.

Wallpaper is a dominant feature in any room. The correct choice of a reproduction wallpaper for a historic house can only enhance our understanding of the past.

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Copyright 1981 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works