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Old Time Wall Paper

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE records of many old-time features are scanty in detail, and, in consequence, their meaning is differently and often wrongly interpreted. Even one who has spent years in delving into the past secures facts that differ materially from those obtained by some one else who has spent a like time in research, and thus accounts of varying dependency are propounded for reference. This is especially true in tracing the origin of the old picture wall papers that, with the revival of colonial ideas, are again coming into vogue.

One may prate about the papers of to-day, but they cannot compare either in style or in effect with these early types, which show designs patiently and carefully worked out by men who were masters of their craft, and who, while lacking the advantages afforded the designers of the present, nevertheless achieved results that have never been surpassed. This fact is especially noteworthy, and it is wholly to the credit of these old-time craftsmen that their products are today an inspiration to architects and home builders who are seeking the best in the way of interior decoration.

When wall papers first came into use is uncertain, for various authorities with apparently good reason set different times. China claims the honor of having originated them, as does Japan, while Holland boasts the distinction of having first introduced them into other lands. We know for a certainty that wall papers fashioned in strips three feet long and fifteen inches wide were made in Holland centuries ago and introduced into England and France, and latter-day specimens, of similar type, are to be found in the homes of the colonists in our own land.

The printing of these decorative wall papers was at first done from blocks, much as books were printed in early times. While it may not have been block printing, a unique wall hanging of like type was to be seen until within the last few years in a colonial house on Essex Street, at Salem - the Lindall-Andrews dwelling, built in 1740 by Judge Lindall. This wall paper, printed and hung in squares, adorned the parlor at the left of the hall-way, and before its removal a reproduction was made by Bumstead for a descendant of the first owner to use on the walls of a room in her summer home.

Dr. Thomas Barnard, minister of the First Church, who succeeded in arranging for a compromise at the time of Leslie's Retreat, lived in this dwelling during his pastorate, and on the walls of the hallway he caused to have painted by one Bartol of Marblehead, father of Dr. Cyrus Bartol, a series of wonderfully realistic pastoral scenes, that have never been removed and are still to be seen, although their brightness has been dimmed by time.

Pictorial wall paper did not come into general favor in Europe until the eighteenth century, the period that marked the adoption of the long roll still in vogue. To be sure, this type had been used much earlier by the Chinese, but machinery for its fashioning was not invented until the latter half of the eighteenth century. Up to this time, wall paper was made in small squares and laboriously hung, a fact that made it expensive and accordingly prohibitive to all but the wealthy classes.

Jackson of Battersea in 1744 published a book of designs taken from Italian scenes and bits of sculpture. These were pictures done as panels and printed in oils, and resulted in the adoption of printed wall paper throughout England. From that time on, as their cost grew less, wall papers were extensively used in the motherland, which fact accounts for the general adoption of this type of wall hanging by the colonists, as the new land grew richer, and square, substantial homes were built.

In the early days of the colonies, there were few mechanics who were able to furnish settings for the new homes, and consequently the home builders were forced to depend on foreign lands for most of their furnishings. Among these, wall hangings were not included, due partly to the fact that there was no place for them in the rude cabins of early times, and partly because they were not then in general use. Wall papers were first brought to this country in 1735, though, owing to their expensiveness, they were not used to any extent until many years later. The frugal housewife preferred to paint the walls either in soft gray tones, with a mixture of gray clay and water, or with yellow paint, ornamented with a hand-painted frieze of simple design, often supplemented by a narrow border stenciled above the chair rail. The earliest examples of this work depicted the rose, the poppy, the violet, or the pink, followed later by depictions of human interest, such as Indians, wigwams, forest scenes, etc. This idea has been carried out in the recently renovated Kimball house at Georgetown, Massachusetts, where the mistress of the home has used for wall adornment hand-painted friezes of soft-tinted flowers and emblematic designs.

Later, wall papers were brought here in quantities, and while a number of these rare old hangings have been removed and replaced by others of modern type, yet there are many left, each rich in memories of bygone days. The stories connected with them will never be known, save the legends which have been handed down from generation to generation, and which the present grandames love to repeat, as they sit at twilight by the open fire, and the roaring of the logs recalls to mind the olden days.

Much of the wall paper brought here was made to order from accurate measurements, and much was carefully selected in accordance with previous instructions. Often special patterns were purchased for a new home by a young lover, and into their selection went fond and happy thoughts of the bride-to-be.

Even to this day one occasionally finds, stored away in some old attic, rolls of priceless paper which had been brought here years ago and never used. To the student and dreamer such a discovery is rich in association, and even to the practical home maker it is fraught with suggestions. There is something genuine about it, a touch of quaintness and simplicity that, for lack of a more accurate term, we call colonial.

From one such attic, not so very long ago, were brought to light rolls of rare old paper, which had been hidden away under the eaves for forty years. Upon investigation this was found to be the Don Quixote pattern, one of the three rarest types known, depicting the story of this quaint character from the time of his leaving his home accompanied by his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, to the time of his return, a sadder and wiser man. The scenes are worked out in soft gray tones, wonderfully blended, providing a harmonious and attractive ensemble.

On the walls of a third-story room in the Andrew house on Washington Square, Salem, is shown a wonderful wall paper, representing an old-time English hunt. In the first picture of the series the soft green of the trees furnishes a contrasting background for the red coats of the hunters who, on prancing steeds, with yelping hounds grouped about, are ready for the start. Then follow the run over hill and dale, past cottages where wondering peasants gape in open-mouthed admiration at the brilliant train as it flashes by, and the bringing of the fox to bay, ending with the luncheon upon the greensward, showing the huntsmen and their ladies fair enjoying a well-earned repast.

When this dwelling was first built, the parlor, at the right of the hallway, was papered in a rare old hanging, that was removed when defaced, the owners at the time giving little thought to its value. In the room, since its erection, has hung a great, handsomely framed mirror, occupying an entire panel space. Behind this mirror, a short time ago, when the room was to be repapered, a panel of the first wall covering was discovered, as distinct in coloring and detail as the day it was placed there. It is one of twelve panels, consisting of twenty-six breadths each five feet seven inches long by twenty inches wide, fifteen hundred blocks being used in its printing, depicting the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche's lack of faith, and the sad ending of the romance, and is a pattern that is numbered among the most noted designed. The panel found here has been preserved, and the old mirror hung in place hides it from view.

Such papers are a keen delight to lovers of the colonial, for they convey their meaning clearly and attractively in well-chosen and harmonious coloring. Contrasted with present papers, depicting designs figured or flowered, they show their worth, and it is little wonder that architects have discovered their fascination, and are having old ideas in new dress depicted on the walls of many modern dwellings.

The colonists understood harmony in home decoration, and their wall hangings as well as their furniture were carefully chosen. They purchased papers to suit their apartments, and the colors were selected with a view to the best effect, so that the soft white of the woodwork might be in keeping with their pictorial value. Consistency is the keynote of the colonial interior, and it is this feature that has given to homes of this type that touch of distinction that no other period of architecture possesses.

The old wall papers all represent foreign scenes, those of France and England predominating, the latter in a greater degree than the former, though the French papers were more highly finished than the English. When the colonist became prosperous, and the newest fashions of the motherland were eagerly copied, wall papers of both types were imported ; many of these are still preserved, showing shadings done by hand with the utmost care, and colorings of lovely reds, blues, and browns, all produced by the use of from fifteen to twenty sets of blocks.

One of the most exquisite of French papers is shown in the Knapp house at Newburyport, Massachusetts, built by a Revolutionary hero, at the time of the erection of the Lee Mansion at Marble-head. This paper is thought to have been fashioned in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and in type it is like that found on the hall of the "Hermitage," Andrew Jackson's residence near Nashville, Tennessee. It is produced in wonderful shades of soft green, red, peacock blue, and white, all undimmed by time, and it represents scenes from Fenelon's "Adventure of Telemachus," a favorite novelty in Paris in 1820.

Other fine examples of this type of paper, which have never been hung, are still preserved in the home of Major George Whipple at Salem, having been imported about 1800. These show different scenes, including representations of gateways and fountains, with people in the foreground.

Natural scenes were favorite themes with many designers, one such example being a Venetian scheme still shown on the walls of the Wheelwright house in Newburyport, a fine, colonial dwelling, built a hundred years ago by an ancestor of William Wheelwright, whose energies resulted in the first railroad over the Andes. This paper is found in the drawing-room, and another, illustrative of a chariot race, is shown in one of the chambers.

The Bay of Naples was another favorite theme with designers ; in fact, it was numbered among the best-liked subjects. Its faithfulness of detail and exquisite coloring are no doubt responsible for this popularity, and then, too, no other subject could better bear repetition. Other favorite views were scenes of France, more particularly of Paris, and these types were in great favor during Washington's administration and that of John Adams, though later they lost caste.

The new landscape papers suggest the old ones, though they are unlike them in tone and character, except in cases where specimens have been taken as models and copied with faithful exactness. Such instances, however, are rare. The best examples of old specimens of this type date from twenty-five years prior to the Revolution up to about fifty years afterwards.

Fine examples of such paper are still to be seen at the Lee Mansion at Marblehead, now the home of the Marblehead Historical Society. These, like many others, were made to order in England by accurate measurements, proof positive of this fact being gleaned a few years ago when the panel between the two windows in the upper hall was peeled off, and on the back was found the following inscription, "11 Regent Street, London. Between windows, upper hall." They are all excellently preserved, and constitute probably the most remark-able set in America. For the most part, they are done in gray, outlined in black, and depict old Roman ruins, set like framed pictures, in alternation with strange heraldic devices, like coats of arms. In some of the rooms the papers are in sepia tones, showing castellated scenery, sailboats gliding over lakes, and peasant figures loitering along the shore.

Another interesting wall paper is found at Hillsboro, New Hampshire, in the home of Governor Pierce, father of Franklin Pierce, fourteenth President of the United States, which is now used as an inn. The room that it adorns is set apart, and the pattern depicts galleys setting sail for foreign lands, while to the music of the harpsichord, the gentry dance upon the lawn. In its prime this estate was one of the show places of Hillsboro, with beautiful gardens surrounding the house, and interesting features in the way of peacocks that proudly displayed themselves to the gaze of admiring guests.

Unlike these old-time papers, and yet equally as distinctive, is the wall covering in the hall of the Warner house at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This is a series of paintings, extending the length of the staircase, and constituting the most unique wall adornment in the country. Ever since the hall was finished, there has been displayed at the staircase landing, in the broad spaces at either side of the central window, life-sized paintings of two Indians, highly decorated and finely executed, thought to be representations of fur traders of early times ; but the rest of the series was lost to view for a long time until about sixty years ago, when the hall was repaired. During the process of renovation, four coats of paper that had accumulated were removed, and as the last coat was being torn off, the picture of a horse's hoof was disclosed. This led to further investigation, and soon a painting of Governor Phipps, resplendent in scarlet and yellow, seated on his charger, was brought to light, followed by the representation of a lady carding wool at a colonial spinning-wheel, who had been interrupted in her task by the alighting of a hawk among chickens. Next came a Scriptural scene, that of Abraham offering up Isaac, followed by a foreign city scene, and several other sketches, covering in all an area of between four and five hundred square feet. The entire paintings today are presented in their original beauty, and they lend to the fine hall an atmosphere of interesting quaintness.

But whatever their type, the old wall hangings are always attractive. Sometimes it is the subject that most strongly appeals, again it is the coloring, or it may be the effect, but in any event each and every one serves the purpose for which it was intended, and a room hung with old-time wall paper is undeniably beautiful, affording a setting that modern effects rarely equal.

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