Thursday, November 27, 2014

Antique Wallpaper

Salvage showing "Union Made" wallpaper
Did Isaac Werner have wallpaper on any walls in his house?  I don't know, but wallpaper has existed for centuries.  The Chinese are known to have glued rice paper to the walls of their homes by 200 B.C.  In 1481, we know that King Louis XI of France had wallpaper painted for him by Jean Bourdichon.  A guild of paperhangers was established in France in 1599, and a fragment of wallpaper dating from 1509 was found in Cambridge, England.

The arrival of wallpaper in America is dated to 1739 when Plunket Fleeson began printing wallpaper in Philadelphia.  Toward the end of the 18th century, scenic wallpaper became popular, on which panoramic scenes were depicted.

In the homes of early settlers on the prairie, some families pasted newspaper sheets on their walls to minimize the cold air entering through the cracks.  The old joke about this practice was that the newspaper on their walls gave them something to read!

Undisturbed wallpaper under sheet rock
During the recent remodeling of our home built around the turn of the last century, some walls were stripped down to the studs, removing lath and plaster.  In that process, one wall that had been covered over the plaster with sheet rock revealed old wallpaper I had never seen.  Perhaps the wallpaper was the choice of my grandmother, but more likely it was chosen by my mother when they moved to the farm about 1944 after my grandfather's stroke resulted in my grandparents moving to town.

On the selvage of one strip of wallpaper a series of letters and the words "Union Made" appeared.  With a little research, I learned that in 1883 the Wall Paper Machine Printers Union was founded in NYC, with a charter from the Knights of Labor in 1885.  My family home was built in the late 1890s (See "A Solid Foundation, 10-23-2014 in the blog archives), but the addition doubling its size was constructed in 1907.  In 1883 the Wall Paper Machine Printers Union was founded, chartered by the Knights of Labor in 1885.  (The Knights of Labor were part of the progressive movement, which included factory workers, miners, and farmers like Isaac.)  In 1902 the union became the National Association of Wall Paper Machine Printers and Color Mixers, with a charter from the American Federation of Labor.  The National Print Cutters' Association merged with them in 1923 to become the United Wall Paper Craftsmen and Workers of North America.  That bit of history seemed to resolve the mystery of the initials in the selvage of wallpaper we found.
Older border

Looking at samples of wallpapers found online, the old wallpaper we discovered appears to be the style of the 1940s.  Perhaps all that my mother could initially afford was a wallpaper border, for a different border was found under the border that seemed to match the full papered wall.  (If you look closely you can see at the bottom of the image where the newer pattern appears overlapping the older border.)  Both patterns featured red, a color Mother would have chosen.

Perhaps since the first printer of wallpaper in America began in Philadelphia, it is Pennsylvania State University Libraries that house the archives of the Wallpaper Craftsmen and Workers.  To read more about the information I have shared, you may visit and

Border on top of older border
Judging from Isaac's indebtedness incurred first to buy a horse and worsened to buy equipment, it seems unlikely that he had sufficient funds to wallpaper his house.  I do know that he sometimes stored his grains and other produce in barrels and bags in his kitchen, another reason that fancy wallpaper seems unlikely.  He was also hired to strip and apply new paint to a buggy, and he brought that buggy into his kitchen to do some of the work, another indication that his kitchen wasn't too fancy.  Yet, I believe he would have imagined wallpaper for the future Victorian home whose newpaper image was glued in the cover of his journal.  (See "A Solid Foundation" image titled Isaac's Dream House, 10-23-2014.)  Sadly, his health did not allow him to build that dream house.

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