JAIC 1981, Volume 20, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 58 to 65)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1981, Volume 20, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 58 to 65)

COLORS AND OTHER MATERIALS OF HISTORIC WALLPAPER

Catherine Lynn

ABSTRACT—Published eighteenth- and nineteenth-century instructions for the making of wallpaper are examined, with particular attention given to the specific pigments recommended and their application.

AT THE Wallpaper Conservation Symposium in the spring of 1980, I attempted briefly to survey the history of wallpaper in America. Conceived as an introduction to the subject tailored for conservators, my talk touched on the sequence of styles popular from the seventeenth century to about 1915; and I chronicled, in a summary fashion, successive ways seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century craftsmen made, decorated, and installed paper hangings. This exercise seemed worthwhile for the occasion, when I could show a great many slides. However, to repeat it for this published symposium report now makes little sense to me because my book Wallpaper in America has subsequently appeared. It covers and expands upon much of the same material and includes in its 483 pages of text 102 color plates and 250 black and white illustrations which cannot be duplicated here. In addition, I have recently put together for the Cooper-Hewitt Museum a little picture book on the wallpaper collection there. It includes an essay that attempts to give a brief stylistic overview closely related to what I might otherwise have included in an essay for the present volume.1

1See Catherine Lynn, Wallpaper in America: The Seventeenth Century to World War I (New York: The Barra Foundation and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, distributed by W.W. Norton, Inc., 1980) and Catherine Lynn, Wallpaper in the Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution, 1981). In a Winterthur Conference report, Technological Innovation and the Decorative Arts (Jan Quimby, ed., Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974), under the name of Catherine Lynn Frangiamore, I published an essay “Wallpaper: Technological Innovation and Changes in Design and Use” which covers much of the history of making wallpaper that I presented in the Andover talk.

With this lapse into self-advertisement, I do not mean to imply that I think these publications say all there is to say on the subject but to admit that they do include most that comes to my mind just now as appropriate for a brief survey. And in referring readers of this symposium report to my publications, I do intend to beg off recapitulating here information included in works for which the remarks that follow aspire only to provide an extensive footnote, an amplified appendix, in the form of information about colors and other materials used in the wallpaper trade, with the hope that it may serve specialists who have a particular need for relatively detailed and obscure information not easily available outside specialized research libraries.

Techniques for laboratory analysis, for the identification of the physical and chemical make-up of objects, are among conservators' skills. So that they can stabilize or repair old wallpaper, they must be able to recognize the components of the paper itself, of the paste used for adhesion to the wall, of the surface on which the paper is/was fixed, and of the medium in which the coloring was carried, as well as the coloring matter used in decorating the paper. By making such close analyses of wallpapers, conservators can aid curators or restorers of old houses in cataloguing and especially in establishing a date range for wallpaper, if they can refer to some chronology of materials and techniques used in “paper staining.” In hopes of making a contribution to such a chronology, I have gathered the information presented below. It is in part a response to the fact that during and after my talk at Andover, members of the audience registered an eagerness to read for themselves eighteenth and nineteenth-century instructions for making wallpaper, and reports of the ingredients, especially of the coloring matter, used in its manufacture. It was their hope that this information could perhaps help conservators narrow or focus the range of substances for which they might initially test. Familiarity with old recipes and with descriptions of factory procedures can perhaps guide their expectations about what is most likely to be found in the coloring matter of early paper hangings, supplementing the much more widely-distributed knowledge of ingredients in the paper stock itself, information that is available in the vast literature of paper-making history that both preceded and followed the writings of Dard Hunter.

1835 emerges as an approximate and useful date marking a relatively great divide in the history of wallpaper manufacture. Before that date virtually all wallpaper was made by painting, stencilling, engraving (rarely), or (most often) by printing with woodblocks in distemper colors on joined sheets of handmade paper. During the 1830s, a significant number of paper stainers began to use “endless” machine-made papers and machines adapted from calico printing to make wallpaper. On the wallpaper printing machines, rollers most often had raised rather than engraved printing surfaces formed of brass and felt. To adapt to the need of new machines for faster-drying colors to be put on the paper in rapid succession, nineteenth-century manufacturers developed thinner bodied media for carrying colors. In addition, throughout the nineteenth century new synthetic pigments were introduced to the trade.

To suggest the nature of materials used during the “classic” pre-1835 period for “staining” paper hangings, I give here part of an appendix entitled “Of the manufacture of Paper Hangings” published by Robert Dossie in his Handmaid to the Arts, in Two Volumes, A New Edition (London, 1796), transcribed from a photocopy of the volume at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Editions as early as 1758 are known. The portion given here is taken from pages 305 through 309 in the second volume. Other parts of Dossie's text served as the basic source for descriptions of early wallpaper making in Chapter 2 of Wallpaper in America and were extensively quoted. Therefore I do not repeat much of what appears there, but give in full Dossie's paragraphs on colors and their vehicles.


1 Of the Colours proper to be used for Paper Hangings

THE COLOURS PROPER to be used for the painting or colouring the paper hangings, are all the kinds that can be used in water and varnish; but, for common designs done with water only, the following are most proper.

For red, lake, vermilion, rose pink, and red ochre. For blue, Prussian blue, verditer, and indigo. For yellow, the yellow berry wash, Dutch pink, and yellow ochre. For green, verdigrise, or a mixture of the blue colours with the yellow colours, particularly with yellow berry wash. For orange, vermilion, or red lead, with Dutch pink. For purple, a wash made of logwood, or a mixture of the lake, or rose pink, with deep coloured Prussian blue, or with indigo. For black, ivory black, and in some nicer cases, lamp black. For white, whiting; and for the heightenings, white lead.

Where great brightness is required, the lake should be used for the crimson red, and Prussian blue for the blue, but, for many purposes, rose pink used alone for the crimson red, and indigo mixt with whiting for the blue, will answer the purpose with greatly less expense.

The lake, rose pink, Prussian blue, and Dutch pink, intended for this use, should be had, of those who make them, in a moist state, before they have become more dry than to be of the consistence of paste. There is a double advantage in this, that they save the trouble of levigation; and, mixing much more kindly with the vehicle than when they are dry, and to be ground afresh, they both spread much farther on the work, and, lying more even, appear to be brighter.

The yellow berry wash employed for this use may be prepared by boiling a pound of the French berries with half an ounce of alum in a gallon of water, for an hour, in a pewter vessel, and then filtering off the fluid from the dregs through a flannel or bag, or through paper for nicer uses; returing afterwards the filtered tincture into the pewter boiler, and evaporating away part of the fluid till the remainder become of the strength required, which may be tried by spreading it with a pencil on common paper. When this is used for grounds, no farther mixture is necessary. But when it is used for painting, this tincture or wash should be rendered thicker by the addition of half an ounce of gum Senegal or Arabic to a quart or more of the fluid, if found necessary. This wash thus prepared is extremely useful and cheap, and is indeed almost the only yellow used for common purposes, either for grounds or paintings.

The logwood wash may be made by boiling a pound of logwood in two gallons of water, till one half the fluid be washed away, and then straining it through a flannel bag, while of a boiling heat, adding to it afterwards about a dram or tea-spoonful of pearl ashes, and evaporating so much of the remaining fluid as may render it of proper strength of colour.

When this purple is desired to be redder, half a pound of Brasil wood, or of Campeachy (called Peachy) wood, may be added, and the quality of pearl ashes diminished to a one-fourth of a tea-spoonful. The gum Arabic must also be added, as to the yellow berry wash, where it is necessary. This is not, however, of so much importance as the yellow wash; for the stain not being either very strong or bright, it does not produce a very great effect, as it is laid on the white ground, and is itself transparent.

Where hangings of more delicate designs and greater value are to be painted, particularly those in imitation of the India paper, carmine may be occasionally used. But it must be laid on with the pencil, and employed sparingly, otherwise it would too much enhance the expence.

The colours used in varnish may be the same as those used with water; but such as are above directed to be had to the makers in a moist state, must for this purpose be had dry. Verdigrise, and, for nicer purposes, the crystals of verdigrise, (commonly called distilled verdigrise) are with advantage used in varnish, though not proper to be commixt with water. A tincture of tumeric in spirit of wine gives a very good yellow, for using along with the other colours, in varnish; but it must be used only on varnished grounds, as it will otherwise spread itself out of all bounds, and even run through the paper.


2 Of the vehicles for the Colours used either for Painting, or forming Grounds, for Paper Hangings.

THE VEHICLES for the colours, as before observed, are such as are either formed of water or varnish. When water is used, it must be inspissated with size and gum Arabic, or Senegal. The proportion of the size must be adequate to the occasion, for if the different parcels of the size differ greatly in strength, no positive rule can be laid down. When the mixture is made for grounds, the water shoud be made as strong of the size as will admit its being commixt with the whiting, and, to save expense, the gum Arabic is sparingly used, or almost wholly omitted in this case. But for the colours designed for painting, a larger proportion must be allowed; though, in this case, that of the size must be diminished; for the mixture must not be too thick and glutinous, as it would prevent the sharpness and clearness of the outline when the colours are laid on either with the print [wood block] or stencil.

In nicer cases, where pencil-work is required, the management of the colours, with respect to the vehicles, must be the same as with the miniature painting for which ample instructions will be found in the first volume of this work.

When varnish is used, it must be formed of oil of turpentine, and the resins and gums which will dissolve in that menstrum.

For common purposes, the following composition may be employed:

“Take of white resin half a pound, of sandarac and mastic each four ounces: Powder them, and then add two pounds of oil of turpentine, and place the bottle in which the mixture is put in a warm place, where it must remain till the resins, &c. be perfectly dissolved. The varnish may be rendered thinner, where necessary, by increasing the proportion of the oil of turpentine.”


3 Of white and coloured Grounds for Paper Hangings.

THE COMMON grounds laid in water are made by mixing white with the size prepared as above directed, and laying it on the paper with a proper brush in the most even manner. This is all that is required, where the ground is to be left white, and the paper being then hung on a proper frame, till it be dry, is fit to be painted. When coloured grounds are wanted, the same method must be pursued, and the ground of whiting first laid, except in paler colours, such as straw colours or pinks, where a second coating may sometimes be spared, by mixing some strong colour with the whiting. But where a greater force of colour is wanted, the pigment or colouring substance used must be tempered with the proper vehicle prepared as above directed, and then spread over the white coat.

Yellow grounds are best made by the yellow berry wash, which being prepared as above directed, must be spread in the most even manner with a brush on the coat of whiting. If once going over [sic] do not produce a colour sufficiently deep, the operation must be repeated till the due effect be produced; the paper being hung till it be dry on the frame betwixt each colouring.

Purple grounds may be in the same manner made by the logwood wash, prepared as above directed, where a strong colour or great brightness are not required.

The varnish grounds are made much in the same manner, by mixing the proper colour with the varnish, and spreading it on the paper, which is the only method usually practiced. But a beautiful yellow, much brighter than any at present done, may be made by laying first a white coat of white lead and varnish, and then spreading it over with a tincture of tumeric made in spirit of wine, which may either be used simply, or prepared, and when to be used as a laquer, according to the recipe in p. 336 of the first volume of this work.

A much brighter pink ground then any at present made may likewise be obtained, by parallel means, from the using the Indian lake, improperly called safflower, which dissolves in spirit of wine and will tinge the white coat laid in the most strong and beautiful manner.

Varnish grounds are sometimes made where the paper is to be painted with colours without flock, particularly where green is desired, as that colour cannot be produced of equal brightness by water; but they are most frequently where the figure is to be made by flocks. The reason why it is not oftener practiced to make this kind of ground for the painted paper without flock, (considering it is more beautiful in many cases, and always more durable than the grounds laid in water) is the expence, which is much greater to the manufacturer than where grounds are laid on with water.

ROSAMOND D. HARLEY in Artists' Pigments c. 1600–1835 (New York: American Elsevier Publishing Co., 1970) compiled copious information about the nomenclature, chemical components, and history of the colors listed by Dossie and by other writers who described early wallpaper manufacturing methods. In Appendix A, p. 485, Wallpaper in America gives notes on Dossie's colors derived from Harley's work.

Robert Dossie's Handmaid to the Arts was known in this country, and his appendix on wallpaper was extensively mined for The Cyclopaedia or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature edited by Abraham Rees and published in a first American edition by S. F. Bradford of Philadelphia and P. A. Mesier of New York between 1810 and 1824. In Volume 27, part 1, entries under subheadings for “paper,” including “Flock” and “Hangings,” reproduce much of Dossie's text.

About 1830, Sebastien le Normand first published in Paris a description of the manufacture of wallpaper based on the practices he observed in the factory of Defour et Leroy, leading Parisian manufacturers of the period. His Nouveau Manuel Complet du fabricant de Papiers Peints went through several editions. I used an edition of 1856 at the Victoria and Albert library. In the first chapter Le Normand describes in detail the choice of paper, the trimming of the individual sheets that made up rolls, the pasting together of those sheets to form rolls (he mentions in a note the newly-available endless paper), and the application of a base coat or ground of color. In the discussion of “grounding” he notes that:

Les couleurs qu'on emploie pour les fonds sont ou terreuses ou liquides; nous en ferons connaîitre plus bas la composition. Les couleurs terreuses sont celles qui sont faites avec des terres telles que les ocres, ou avec des oxydes tels que le blanc de plomb, le minium, la céruse, etc., que l'on réeduit en poudre impalpable en les broyant avec de l'eau, et que l'on mèle ensuite avec de la colle, de la mème manière que le pratiquent les peintres en bâtiments pour l'intérieur des appartements. Les couleurs liquides sont, à proprement parler, des teintures qui sont extraites des racines ou des bois colorants, par une plus ou moins ébullitioebullition, ou mieux par la vapeur….

If “les couleurs terreuses” were to be used, no preparation of the paper was deemed necessary, because they were prepared with so much glue. But for “des couleurs liquides” it was required that one brush over the paper “une décoction de colle de Flandre bien liquide.”

Le Normad describes a process called “lissage,” the smoothing out of the ground color by brushing, as well as “satinage,” the literal polishing of the finish with a brush, using “la craie de Briançon très-fine, que l'on nomme talc, dans la langue des ouvriers.”

In his second chapter, Le Normand describes in great detail how flocking and gilding are accomplished, specifying that gold leaf and silver leaf are used. He devotes a third chapter of seventeen pages to “des Couleurs qu' emploie le Fabricant de Papiers Peint” again marking as the big distinction that between “terreuses” and “liquides.” His remarks on white are interesting for his dismissal of the use of zinc white, which Le Normand describes as currently used for painting buildings, but no longer used for making papiers peint, as it is too thin and does not cover enough. For white, he mentions the use of “le blanc de plomb, la céruse, le blanc de Bougival, et le blanc de craie.”

Although the chapter on color is too long to include in its entirety here, it is noteworthy that in the 1856 edition of Le Normand, which could possibly duplicate that of 1830 which I have not been able to use, the then relatively new colors Scheele's Green and Schweinfurt Green are mentioned. These colors are described by Rosamond Harley, who notes that Scheele's Green is Copper arsenite, a manufactured copper green which was discovered by a Swedish chemist, Scheele, in 1775. Instructions for its manufacture were not published until 1778. In 1812 a process for its manufacture was published in England. Schweinfurt Green is copper acetoarsenite which, according to Harley, was first produced commercially in Schweinfurt, Germany, in 1814. She records that the first publication of a method for making the color followed in 1822.

Researchers working on early wallpapers by Dufour et Leroy might find Le Normand's chapter especially helpful. A photocopy of it is on file in the library of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

Andrew Ure's Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines, published in 1863 by D. Appleton of New York in two volumes, had first been published in London in 1839. Ure credits the factory of Jean Zuber in Rixheim as the source for many of his descriptions of printing techniques including what he calls “the fondu or rainbow style of paper-hangings” and the shading of flocked areas by over-printing, which “dyes the wool in its place.” Although Ure's article on wallpaper making is very short, it includes the following succinct report of colors in use in the late 1830s.

The colors used by the paper hangers are the following:

  1. Whites. These are either white-lead, good whitening, or a mixture of the two.
  2. Yellows. These are frequently vegetable extracts; as those of weld, or of Avignon or Persian berries, and are made by boiling substances with water. Chrome yellow is also frequently used, as well as the terra di Sienna and yellow ochre.
  3. Reds are almost exclusively decoctions of Brazil wood.
  4. Blues are either Prussian blue, or blue verditer.
  5. Greens are Scheele's green, a combination of arsenious acid, and oxide of copper; the green of Schweinfurth, or green verditer; as also a mixture of blues and yellows.
  6. Violets are produced by a mixture of blue and red in various proportions, or they may be obtained directly by mixing a decoction of logwood with alum.
  7. Browns, blacks, and grays. Umber furnishes the brown tints. Blacks are either common ivory or Frankfort black; and grays are formed by mixtures of Prussian blue and Spanish white.
All the colors are rendered adhesive and consistent, by being worked up with gelatinous size or a weak solution of glue, liquefied in a kettle. Many of the colors are previously thickened, however, with starch. Sometimes lakes are employed.

Chrome yellow, which appears for the first time here among our lists of colors used in manufacturing wallpaper, was derived from chrome ore, and although discovered in 1797, became widely available only after quantities of chrome ore were discovered in the United States in 1820, after when it became cheap, according to Rosamond Harley.

A mid-nineteenth-century German wallpaper-making manual is preserved in the library of the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology in Washington. It is the tenth volume in a series entitled Neuer Schauplatz der Kunst und Handwerke Mit Verucksichtigung der neuesten Erfindungen published by Voigt of Weimar in 1848. The volume of paper-staining was written by Christian Heinrich Schmidt and is entitled Die Papier-Tapeten-Fabrication oder fassliche Unweisung. I have not studied it, but it may prove useful.

An unsigned article on the “Manufacture of Paper-Hangings” appeared in a London magazine The Decorator for September, 1864 (Vol 1, no. 8, pp. 74–77). It summarily describes both wood block and machine printing with rollers and seems to rely heavily on Ure's list. The 1864 article notes:

The whites used are French chalk, good whitening; and, in some works, white lead is mixed with the latter. The yellows are chrome yellow, terra de sienna, yellow ochre, and when vegetable extracts are used, Persian berries. The reds are afforded by decoctions of woods such as Brazil wood, &c. The blues are artificial ultramarine, Prussian blue, or blue verdila. Some colours are produced by mixtures, such as Greens from blues and yellows, and Scheele's green is also used. Violets, browns, blacks, and greys are produced from various vegetable and mineral sources, and from mixtures. All colours are rendered adhesive and consistent by being worked up with gelatinous size or a weak solution of glue.

Here appearing for the first time in the wallpaper literature is another modern, artificially produced color of recent, datable invention: artificial ultramarine, an inorganic blue of soda, silica, alumina, and sulphur. Rosamond Harley identifies it as Na8–10A16 Si6 O24 S2–4 and records that a French color manufacturer said he had manufactured the color in 1826 but did not reveal his methods until 1828, after which it was commercially produced.

A London trade magazine begun in 1873, The Furniture Gazette, ran a series of articles on wallpaper through the 1870s. The magazine can be used at Avery Library, Columbia University. In the article “American Wallpaper” which appeared in the issue for October 18, 1873, the anonymous author describes a New Jersey factory, specifying that earths used in the bodies of the coloring matter came from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and Atlanta, Georgia.

A long article in two installments appeared in 1874, written by the French manufacturers MM Désfosse et Karth: “The Manufacture of Paper Hangings in France,” which the editors note had been translated from Les Grandes Usines by M. Turgan. The Désfosse and Karth article gives a great deal of attention to techniques used in their factory, commenting for instance that:

The colors used to ornament these papers are impasted in a vehicle made of animal glue, composed of shreddings of rabbit skins or old harness leather. They use vegetable glue made from amylum or starch, to prepare the colors before imitating woods, and for the impression of the woodcuts [a final detail I do not understand].

The text continues:

The base of all the ordinary tints is whiting or the common carbonate of lime, known to all the world. The other substances most often employed are the blanc fixe, invented by M. Dauptin, carbonate of baryta dissolved by chlorhydric acid and precipitated by sulphuric acid. This white does not grow yellow like the preceding; glaze paste, aluminous lime white, ocres of every shade; yellow made with chrome, lac yellow, and yellow oak. The greens are Prussian blue, sometimes the Schweinfurt green, made with verdigris and arsenic, sometimes a green from Ultramarine. The reds are lacs, either from woods or from cochineal. The blacks are German black or bone black.

The French manufacturers distinguish three kinds of polished finish for papers. These are achieved by satining—brushing with Venetian talc powder, by lissage—executed by polishing the papers with a hard stone, simple flint or agate, fixed at the end of a counterweighted rod, sometimes using “wax soap either as a mixture in the paste, or to be rubbed gently on the paper in the same way as a polisher rubs his furniture, and by the third polishing method: “simply varnishing”: though only upon glazed papers.2

2MM Desfosse and Karth, “The Manufacture of Paper Hangings in France,” The Furniture Gazette (London), 7 March 1874, pp. 230ff; 14 March 1874, pp. 255–256.

During the 1880s, Scientific American published among its “American Industries” series several descriptions of factories that made wallpaper. Their reporters seemed especially intrigued by the gilding and embossing processes. Unfortunately, descriptions of coloring materials tend toward vagueness in these articles. For instance, the article on the New York City factory of Christy, Shepard, and Garrett which appeared on July 24, 1880, (p. 53) relates:

In the [color] mixing room, however, there may be found nearly every variety of earthy coloring matters, such as raw and burnt umber, sienna, etc, besides a good collection of mineral and vegetable colors, with an extensive assortment of gums and varnishes and the different kinds of clay which form the staple for making the body and carrying the color in every description of wall paper printing. The clay used comes principally from South Carolina and New Jersey. Both kinds are nearly white, and readily divide into a fine powder, but the New Jersey clay has sufficient alum to render it best filled for the second grounding in preparing the paper for “satining” or glossing.

The clay bodies emerge as an important ingredient in all the descriptions of late nineteenth century ingredients used in the manufacture of wallpaper. Many of the later publications about wallpaper making that I have collected take the form of wide-eyed visits to factories, where a chief point of interest is the calculations of the number of times the annual production of the factory in question could be wrapped around the equator. Perhaps further research in company archives like those at the Birge factory in Buffalo, New York, founded in 1818, and/or analysis of late nineteenth century wallpapers would be required to provide lists of coloring matter comparable to the early lists published in craftsmen's handbooks such as Dossie's.

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