THE HISTORY, TECHNOLOGY, AND CONSERVATION OF ARCHITECTURAL PAPIER MÂCHÉ
Of the materials commonly used for interior relief decoration during the 18th century—carved wood, plaster, and papier mâché—papier mâché offered several advantages to both manufacturer and customer. The ornaments could be produced at a central plant and, except for mold making and gilding, by relatively unskilled workers. Available patterns were easily disseminated by catalogs, and the lightweight ornaments could be shipped anywhere and mounted by local craftsmen. This ease of installation clearly gave the larger relief schemes imitating plasterwork a ready market where skilled plasterers were few or nonexistent. It is also clear that the gilded or white papier mâché borders would have undersold the carved wood equivalent although “liable to harbor vermin” (Prime 1969, 224) as a contemporaneous Charleston wood carver stated.
Indeed, surviving papier mâché has become extremely brittle due to the depradations of insects, the degradation of the glue and linseed oil components, and their deleterious effects on the paper substrate. Reproducing this material allowed me to appreciate its properties when new: it is tough, flexible, capable of fine detail, and, due to its absorptive nature, somewhat easier to gild and burnish than gessoed wood. To hold a strip of border that looks like polished gold yet weighs next to nothing tricks the senses. These qualities of novelty and contradiction must also have appealed to elite educated dilettantes of the 18th century.
The restored Miles Brewton House is a unique example of the extensive use of a versatile material, popular in its own time, which has since been virtually forgotten. It is my hope that this extensive restoration will help papier mâché take its proper place in the history of 18th-century materials and techniques.