When we are recording a standing structure we might be lucky enough to discover wallpaper hidden behind plasterboard or tucked under skirtings. In some houses we can find layers of wallpaper, each revealing a stylistic period. While many of the patterns and styles may be out of favour today, these ‘paper hangings’ and their application offer an insight about previous occupants and how they lived.
Wallpaper in New Zealand during the 1820s and 1830s was a rare thing. Many dwellings were often crudely constructed from pit sawn timber and were, at best, lined with canvas or sacking. By the 1840s wallpaper production in England had been mechanised. As the population grew in New Zealand wallpaper became readily available for many as a way to make a basic dwelling homely. Local newspapers started to advertise paper hangings at the general goods store, from the latest ship to have arrived in port.
In the early 1850s in Lyttelton and Christchurch, merchants would advertise in the newspapers and from records we can see firms such as Tippetts, Silk & Heywood, Longden & Le Cren and J Ballard of Lyttelton, all selling wallpaper (Lyttelton Times 1851). By the 1860s we start to see specialised trades advertised, and it is these painters and decorators who advertise papers and scrim. Samuel’s Paper Hanging Depot in Gloucester Street, Christchurch, is a frequent advertiser (Press 21/1/1863).
Wallpaper was used not only for its decorative effect but also had a functional purpose: to stop draughts coming through walls. This application of wallpaper had varied success. Some pasted it directly to the sarking, which, even with taping, split the paper with the natural board movement. So the practice of sticking wallpaper to calico, canvas or newspaper developed. Newspapers and magazines were also used for decorative effect as wallpaper, people favouring the illustrated pages of publications. When recording properties these early reminders are often in the linings of cupboards or wardrobes while the walls of the room have updated coverings. If people had read Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge (1980) they might not have been subjected to their wallpaper cracking and would have been able to avoid choosing poisonous wallpaper…
To be fair, Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge was not published until 1883, so the early settlers could be forgiven for their experimentation with whatever materials were to hand. Brett’s guide is a compendium of practical advice drawn from the experiences of early colonists, resulting in a cyclopedia of guidance for new settlers to New Zealand (Brett and Thompson 1980).
We are particularly interested in the advice it offers on paperhanging, as it provides an insight into how the wallpaper examples we are finding were hung. Brett’s advised that hessian scrim should be tacked tightly to the walls in preparation for the wallpaper. Old newspaper was often used as a lining paper too. The ‘size’ was mixed with water and heated by the fire before application, improving the adhesiveness of the paper. Old flour and water could be used as an alternative and was mixed with alum or glue (Brett and Thompson 1980).
In my research on wallpaper I found that the type of paper used depended on the room’s function. In wealthier homes, private areas of the house such as the back bedrooms had small floral patterns. The public areas of the home, such as the hallway, parlour and master bedroom, would have the best wallpapers and sometimes a match-lined dado. Marble and satin patterns were also a popular choice in these rooms. Poorer dwellings had sarking with lining and wallpaper.
Brett’s practical advice on wallpaper also came with a health warning. Sounds ominous, but wallpaper has been credited as a silent killer in the home. Contributor to the cyclopedia, John Agnell, listed the warning as No.17 on his list of Health Maxims for the Home. It was to avoid arsenical wallpapers (Brett and Thompson 1980). Green flocked wallpaper (‘flocked’ was a process where finely chopped wool was applied to wet varnish and brushed to reveal the pattern) was the worst as the dusty flock was rubbed, shaken or even flaked off the walls, creating a ‘toxic air’. The green paint was commonly known as Scheele’s Green (acidic copper arsenite) and its successor Paris Green (copper(II) acetoarsenite; Wikipedia 2014). While exactly how toxic these wallpapers were is not known, much has been written about the inclusion of these green pigments in foods and clothing with dire consequences. If toxic wallpaper was not enough, tar paint and white lead paint were also used in early homes, particularly around windows and bargeboards. The Victorian period of innovation led to a few toxic mistakes but by the end of the 19th century an emphasis on cleanliness would see the introduction of ‘sanitary’ wall finishes.
So what types of wallpaper have we discovered in our recording and assessments? Well, it varies. Things to take into account when trying to identify wallpaper are: age of the structure, the function of the room, how many layers of paper are there? What is the base layer? Is it newspaper, scrim, calico, canvas or lining paper? Is the wall lined with rough-sawn sarking, match-lining or lath and plaster?
With the wallpaper things to check are: is it French or English? Most wallpaper in New Zealand during the 19th century was from England, which was known for its mechanised production and variety. French wallpaper was known for its quality and consistency in design. English wallpaper measured 21 inches wide and 12 yards long and French wallpaper measured 18 inches wide and 9 1/2 yards long. Other things to look for are: tax stamps on the back of the paper (wallpaper in England was taxed until 1861; Brett and Thompson 1980), maker’s names on the selvedge and the style of the pattern – does it fit into a definite period or manufacturing process? When we answer these questions and put them together with the history of the building, we start to understand the type of lifestyle the building’s occupants had and what their tastes were when it came to interior decor!
Cracroft House, Christchurch
This property was owned by John Cracroft Wilson. We have mentioned this gentleman on a number of occasions in our posts. The property was built in 1854 and, while fairly simple in design and construction materials, it did have 11 rooms! Both papers below have a similar application method and it is possible that Wilson’s son brought both papers back from overseas in the 1870s.
Message in a bottle house
We have also mentioned this property before, the paper maché dado is very impressive and was preserved behind the plasterboard. It is commonly known as anaglypta (Anaglypta 2014), among other names. This embossed style of paper was designed in 1877 to be durable and easily painted. It protected the lower part of the wall from furniture. Lincrusta is a similar product made from linseed oil and wood flour (Lincrusta 2014). It has a deeper relief and is more brittle than anaglypta but can be painted and gilded.
It has been very hard to keep the word count down on this post as the history of wallpaper is a very interesting topic! In peeling back the layers we get a unique insight into a dwelling’s past occupants. While belongings may be long gone wallpaper reveals information about their interior decoration, wealth and influences.
Anaglypta. [online] Available at www.anaglypta.co.uk
Anon, 1990. The Great Game: Girl Peace Scouts and Girl Guides of Canterbury Province from 1908. The Girl Guides Association, Canterbury.
Brett, H. and Thomson, W.L. eds.,1980. Brett’s Colonists’ Guide Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge. 3rd ed. Christchurch: Capper.
Hoskins, L. eds. 1994. The Papered Wall, History, Pattern, Technique. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: New York.
Lincrusta. [online] Available at www.lincrusta.com
Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
McCarthy, C., 2009. Domestic Wallpaper in New Zealand, A Literature Survey. Victoria University: Wellington.
McCarthy, C., 2011. Before Official Statistics, Fabrications. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, 20 (1), pp.96-119.
New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
NZMuseums. [online] Available at www.nzmuseums.co.nz
Petersen, A.K.C., 2001. New Zealanders at Home. A Cultural History of Domestic Interiors 1814-1914. University of Otago Press: Dunedin.
Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Wikipedia. [online] Available at www.wikipedia.org