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



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.


Copyright © 1981 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works