JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 2, Article 7 (pp. 165 to 176)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 2, Article 7 (pp. 165 to 176)

THE HISTORY, TECHNOLOGY, AND CONSERVATION OF ARCHITECTURAL PAPIER MÂCHÉ

JONATHAN THORNTON



2 HISTORY AND DEFINITION

The term “papier mâché” may well have originated in England and was used with various creative spellings from then on to describe three-dimensional objects composed of paper fiber, whether layered up in sheet form or cast as a beaten pulp (Oxford English Dictionary 1971). The modern term “cast paper” as used for the latter technique was not recognized as a distinct method but only as a variant encompassed by the same term. Since the craft was carried on away from paper mills, recycled sheet paper was the raw material in any case, whether repulped or layered with an adhesive.

The origin of the commerical production of papier mâché is unresolved and perhaps unresolvable. It is interesting to not that a French writer stated in 1788 that “the English cast in cardboard (“carton”) the ceiling ornaments that we make in plaster: they are more durable; break off with difficulty or if they do break off the danger is nil and the repair cheap” (Bielefeld 1850). The trade seems to have developed in London during the 1740s and was carried on by craftspeople or probable Huguenot extraction such as Peter Babel and René Duffour, whose advertisements survive. One unsubstantiated account states that William Wilton, father of the noted English sculptor Joseph Wilton, established a papier mâché factory and employed “people from France.” This account seems credible in view of the facts that Wilton was a decorative plasterer active by 1722 and a manufacturer of apparent means who could send his son to study in France and Italy. Perhaps it was Wilton's laborers who subsequently set up their own businesses and gave the trade a French name and association that was to continue.

By midcentury, the manufacture of architectural papier mâché was well developed and its use becoming commonplace (Cornforth 1992). Papier mâché was an ideal material for export abroad, and extensive documentary evidence attests to the concurrent popularity of this stylish material in the American colonies. Such notables as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin ordered it for their houses. While most it was either bought through the commerical representatives or “factors” of the wealthy or from middlemen dealers in the colonies, limited evidence indicates domestic manufacture. A Mr. “Minshall, Carver and Gilder,” stated in 1769 that he “makes Paper Ornaments for Ceilings and Stair Cases, in the present Mode” in New York (quoted in Gottesman 1938). Nicholas Bernard, “Carver,” also advertised his “Paper Machine for ceilings” in the same city and year. Although Bernard may have been a dealer only, his trade suggests otherwise.

Despite the popularity of this material, relatively little of it either survives or has been correctly identified. A complete ornamental ceiling survives in Philipse Manor in Yonkers, New York, dating from the 1750s or 1760s (Waite 1972), and papier mâché fillet survives in the Governor Wentworth House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (Nylander 1986). By far the largest concentration of extant and restored papier mâché is present in the Miles Brewton House in Charleston, South Carolina. The papier mâché in the Brewton house may have been imported from England by the contemporaneous Charleston dealers Charnock and King (South Carolina Gazeteer and Country Journal 1765) or John Blott (South Carolina Gazette 1765). The remainder of this paper will concern the examination, conservation, and restoration of this material.


Copyright © 1993 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works