Idiosyncrasies of Regency Paper-Hangings — Installation

This is the next in my series on paper-hangings and how they were used during the Regency. This week I want to tell you about some of the curious installation practices which were commonly employed with Regency paper-hangings. Practices that we are unlikely to use with our modern-day wallpapers, which we would probably find rather absurd, yet those living in the Regency took them for granted and frequently employed them.

Would you consider following the same practices as our Regency ancestors when installing wallpapers to decorate your own home?

During the Regency, as it had been since paper-hangings were first introduced, the easiest way to get them on the walls was to hire someone to do the work. Most paper-stainers had paper-hangers working directly for them, or could contract with them when an affluent customer purchased papers for their home. But what of those who lived in the country, where there were few professional paper-hangers, or if the purchaser simply could not afford to pay someone to hang their papers? Then they would have to hang them themselves. But there were a number of impediments to that effort during the Regency.

If the paper-hanging budget was small, one might buy plain, uncolored papers which would be painted in the color of their choice after they had hung them. Such papers were available from most paper-stainers and some stationers. They were prepared by the paper-stainers just as were all paper-hangings, with the base coat, but they were left white, uncolored and unprinted, merely rolled for sale. Purchasing such papers to be painted was a common practice for those ladies who were planning a print room, as it gave them the opportunity to have exactly the color they wanted for their special room. By doing so much of the work themselves, they could also afford a better quality of paper.

But there were others who might have to paint their paper-hangings once they were on the walls. Most paper-hangings were colored with distemper paints. These paints were water-soluble, which meant if the paper got too wet, the color would run, or in some cases, it would fade when the paper dried. In the Regency, one could not just go down to the corner hardware store to pick up a container of wallpaper paste. When someone had papers to hang, they had to make their own paste. The ingredients for paper-hanging paste were water, white flour and alum. First, the flour was mixed with enough cold water to form a stiff "batter," which was beaten until it was very smooth and all the flour was completely moistened. Slowly more cold water was added to thin the paste a bit, and the alum was then added. This mixture was then beaten until it was completely blended. At this point boiling water was added, poured in "gently but rather quickly" one recipe explained. The trick was to add just enough hot water, stirring quickly, to make a sticky paste of the right consistency, neither too moist or too dry.

Too much hot water would make a very thin paste. This paste would still eventually adhere the paper to the wall, but it would have to be left standing in order for some of the water to evaporate before it could be used. If the too-thin paste was applied immediately to the back of the paper roll, it could easily over saturate the paper, causing the water-soluble distemper paints to run. Professional paper-hangers were experienced at making paste of just the right consistency, and made it in large volume, so they seldom had this problem. But home-owners who made their own paste could easily add too much water without realizing it, and that watery paste could cause the color on their papers to run or fade. President George Washington recorded his own recipe for paper-hanging paste in his journal at Mount Vernon and gave orders that that recipe should be followed exactly whenever paper-hangings were hung in his home. When Benjamin Franklin‘s wife, Deborah, wrote to him in London that the color on the new paper-hangings he had sent her had run because the paste was too wet, he advised her to repaint the paper to even out and darken the color.

The rolls of paper-hangings available during the Regency were made up of single sheets which had been pasted together end to end to make a roll, which was then decorated. For people who could not afford to purchase their paper-hangings in rolls, even uncolored, there was a less expensive, if more labor-intensive alternative. They would purchase single sheets of untreated paper, which they would fashion into paper-hangings on their own. Some might paste the ends together to make their own rolls, which they then pasted to the walls. Others chose to simply paste the sheets to the walls until the area they wanted papered was covered. Because paper was so expensive at this time, this was a common option for those with a very limited income. They could buy a few sheets at a time until they have enough to cover one wall, or keep making those small purchases until they could do the entire room.

Once the untreated paper was pasted to the walls, it would be treated very much like rolls of paper in the paper-stainers’ manufactories. First, the paper would be given a coat or two of gesso to even out the surface and as a ground for the color. Some of these papers might then be decorated with home-made wood-blocks, if the home-owner had the talent and the time. But in most cases, the walls would be painted with a solid ground color. When that had thoroughly dried, a particularly talented and ambitious amateur might choose to paint fashionable motifs on the paper. They might follow their own designs or imitate something published in a book or magazine. But the most likely decoration for such walls was stencilling, which would enable someone with little artistic talent to produce simple, easily repeatable motifs to enliven their room. An alternate decorative scheme would be to use the plain painted paper as the base for a print room.

Perhaps the most challenging of all paper-hangings to install were the sets of Chinese and French Scenic papers. These papers had to be hung in precise order, in perfect alignment, in order to create the scenes intended by their designers. Because both the better Chinese papers and all the French Scenic papers were quite expensive, their owners typically had them hung by professional paper-hangers. The rolls of Chinese papers were simply numbered on the back of each roll. That was the only guide the paper-hangers had to help them install the papers correctly. Many sets of Chinese papers were actually installed on battens, or wooden frames, over which was stretched muslin or sturdy cartridge paper. The papers were then applied to this prepared "frame." Each frame could then be set in place and the paper-hangings were protected from any moisture or dry rot which might be in the walls. This mode of installation also made it possible to easily move them, should the owner wish to install them in another room, or another house.

The French Scenic papers were sometimes installed on battens, in the same way as the Chinese papers. But this was less common, as the French Scenic papers tended to be a bit less expensive. They were typically installed by professional paper-hangers, but there were a number of home-owners who chose to do the work themselves. The French paper rolls were numbered on the back, just as the Chinese papers were, but each set of French papers also included an engraving or set of engravings, with a diagram of how the finished scene should appear. These were usually numbered with the corresponding numbers for the roll which contained that portion of the scene, making it a little easier to understand the placement of each roll. Most Chinese and French Scenic papers also placed the bulk of the scenes in the lower portion of the paper, leaving as much as a third of the upper part of each roll as sky, which could be cut off to make the papers fit the height of the room with little loss of design.

Both the Chinese and French Scenic paper sets included extra sheets or rolls with additional motifs or scenes which could be cut out to embellish the design, or cover mistakes, once the papers were applied to the walls. There were also many instances when a room was a bit too small to allow all of the rolls in a set to be hung. Wealthy home-owners might simply discard or store the unused papers. More thrifty home-owners might use these paper remnants to decorate additional rooms. There are a number of homes, in both England and America, in which less public rooms are decorated with these leftover paper hangings. Scenes were cut out, often as oval or round medallions, and applied in the center of a wall section which was first covered with a plain colored paper. The expensive full sets of Chinese or French papers would most commonly be hung in a public room, such as a dining or drawing room, so visitors would be aware of the home-owner’s taste and affluence. Private sitting rooms or bedchambers would most often be decorated with scenic paper remnants, thus getting the most possible value from their paper hanging investment.

In the past, including during the Regency, people on a limited budget, or of a frugal turn of mind, who wished to give the impression of greater wealth, have chosen a curious way to do so. In more than one historic house in Britain and America, public rooms, such as drawing rooms, dining rooms, and book rooms, have been found in which the paper-hangings were applied only where they were visible. For example, a drawing room which was hung with several family portraits or large pier glasses had the paper applied to the walls only where there was nothing else covering the wall. If one were to push aside one of the paintings, or the framed looking glass, there would be no paper on the wall behind it. In a book room filled with book cases, only the narrow portions of the wall which were visible were covered with paper. By hanging their papers in this fashion, the home-owner could use an expensive paper, like a flocked damask pattern, and still limit their expenses. This technique would give the impression of luxury, at a much lower cost than if they had covered all the walls of their rooms floor to ceiling and then hung their paintings and looking glasses or installed their bookcases.

Alternately, in some very grand homes, their wealthy owners had their walls fully covered with expensive paper-hangings, fine silk damasks, or even tooled and gilt leather. The nails for hanging paintings, looking glasses or other wall ornamentation were then driven right through these sumptuous wall coverings with no apparent regard for their value. But this practice was much less common than the installation of luxury paper-hangings only where they could actually be seen.

Would you even consider applying rolls of plain paper, or even sheets of paper to your own walls, which you would then have to paint and stencil? Would you be willing to mix your own wallpaper paste, constantly beating the mixture until it was smooth and the right consistency to use? Have you ever considered applying wallpaper to only the portions of the walls which are visible, in a room which has a number of paintings, mirrors or book cases? All of these practices were common and perfectly acceptable during the Regency.

Next week, I will write about the idiosyncratic practices of cleaning Regency paper-hangings. You may very well be surprised by the process and even more so by the materials employed.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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