JAIC 2004, Volume 43, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. 91 to 110)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2004, Volume 43, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. 91 to 110)

INVESTIGATION, ANALYSIS, AND AUTHENTICATION OF HISTORIC WALLPAPER FRAGMENTS

FRANK S. WELSH



2 SEARCHING FOR EVIDENCE

Wallpapers, like water-soluble distemper paints, are fragile in nature and can be categorized into a general class of removable decorative finishes. During a redecoration, they may be scraped or washed off the walls with little, if any, trace evidence left behind. Only occasionally did homeowners (or restorers) repaper over existing paper, thereby preserving valuable evidence.

Because of the ease and frequency of wallpaper removal, evidence is elusive. Careful attention must be given to identifying and investigating key locations within a house where fragments or fibers of old paper may be found. Examples of such locations include concealed areas behind radiators, light switch cover plates or altered walls, in closets or service passages, inside shutter pockets, and on the top, side, or bottom edges of or behind door and window architraves. The least obvious locations are sometimes the most fruitful. Traces of evidence or even large fragments often remain in these discreet areas and could be overlooked without meticulous examination and repeated sampling. Sometimes the search is as easy as removing a light switch cover plate (fig. 3).

At Kenmore (1775) in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a more rigorous investigation was needed to locate two fragments of early wallpaper—one datable to the 18th century and the other to the early-to-mid-19th century.1 In this case, a doorway pilaster was removed, and the fragments were found on a return edge (fig. 4).

A similar location bore fruit at Adena (ca. 1807), a mansion designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe for Thomas Worthington in Chillicothe, Ohio, where removal of later door trim revealed a long strip of the original wallpaper encapsulated in ca. 1829 when the doorway was cut through and trimmed out (fig. 5).

Closets and wall cabinets may also hide and protect papers that once decorated the walls of a room. At the 1880s home of Paul Laurence Dunbar, renowned African American author and poet, in Dayton, Ohio, the very best surviving evidence was an early-20th-century yellow-and-blue paper patterned to imitate Delft tiles found inside a lower

Fig. 3. Removal of the cover plate on this 1939 light switch revealed evidence of the original red wallpaper (arrow).
Fig. 4. Tiny wallpaper fragments were concealed and protected by a doorway pilaster at Kenmore (1775) in Fredericksburg, Virginia. After removal of the pilaster, a meticulous search of the edge (arrow) revealed fragments of two early papers (see figs. 22–24).
Fig. 5. Original wallpaper and a matching border were covered and preserved behind the trim of a ca. 1829 door-way at Adena (ca. 1807) in Chillicothe, Ohio. Photograph by Neal Hitch, Ohio Historical Society
wall cabinet in a second-floor bathroom (fig. 6). A scrap surviving on a wall under a shelf indicates that the paper once covered all the walls of the room in the early 1900s, when Dunbar lived in the house. The walls of the southeast Parlor at Verdmont (early 1700s) in Smith's Parish, Bermuda, were also wallpapered in the past but are now bare wood boards. In that room, evidence of wallpaper use was verified by the existence of numerous fragments still adhering to the undersides of windowsill moldings (fig. 7).

Sometimes wallpaper can leave a ghost of its pattern, apparent if the paper has been removed, on the bare plaster. During a mid-20th-century restoration of Monticello (1809), under the guidance of Milton L. Grigg, FAIA, a ghosted wallpaper was discovered in the North Octagonal Room. The pattern was so clear it could be compared to a fragment archived in the collection at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which it matched. That confirmation, coupled with the knowledge that Thomas Jefferson ordered a trellis-patterned paper and complementary border from Paris in 1790, assured restorers and led to the paper's reproduction and rehanging. In 1990, subsequent analysis for color and composition of the paper at Williamsburg led to a second reproduction and rehanging. The pattern of

Fig. 6. This early-20th-century shellacked wallpaper, patterned to imitate Delft tiles, was found inside a wall cabinet at Dunbar House (1880s) in Dayton, Ohio.
Fig. 7. A search of the undersides of the windowsill moldings (arrow) of the southeast Parlor at Verdmont (early 1700s) in Smith's Parish, Bermuda, revealed numerous wall-paper fragments. Photograph by Steve Conway, Bermuda National Trust
the associated original festoon border ordered by Jefferson was not found because it would have been applied to the underlying paper and, therefore, could not ghost through to the plaster.


Copyright 2004 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works