Idiosyncrasies of Regency Paper-Hangings — Cleaning

Last week, I wrote about the idiosyncrasies which were typical with the installation of paper-hangings during the Regency. This week I am going to tell you about the idiosyncrasies regarding the cleaning of paper-hangings during the Regency. Today, most wallpapers can be wiped down with a damp cloth or sponge to clean them. That was not an option for our Regency forbearers when they cleaned their paper-hangings. In fact, their most important cleaning implements were found on the hearth and at the local bakery.

If you should chance to have historic paper-hangings in your home, you might find this information very useful. However, if you have more modern wallpapers on your walls, you might be very glad you do not need to employ these old methods to clean them.

Before we get to the actual cleaning of the paper-hangings, a note about a popular design motif of the period. From the mid-eighteenth century well past the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a particular motif which was found on a great many light-colored paper-hangings. This motif was made up of many tiny specks, usually black, though they might also be very dark brown, and even occasionally dark green or blue. These areas of small specks quite commonly comprised the background on thousands of white, cream or pastel paper-hangings. The overwhelming popularity of this speckled background on pale paper-hangings had little to do with fashion and almost everything to do with the fact that the window screen did not become commercially available and affordable until the late 1860s. In the warmer months, it was necessary to open windows to help ventilate the house. But without screens on the open windows, much more than air entered the house. Insects, particularly flies, made themselves right at home, and commonly did their business on the walls. The tiny specks which were incorporated into the backgrounds of light-colored paper-hangings would serve to camouflage the specks left by the flies and other insects at a time when paper-hangings were extremely difficult to clean. The specked background helped to lengthen the useful life of the paper-hangings without embarrassing the lady of the house, since most fly specks would be unnoticeable by her visitors in between cleanings.

As noted in last week’s article, the paper-hangings available during the Regency were typically colored with distemper paints, which were water-based and ran easily if they were exposed to too much moisture. Therefore, they could not be washed down with soap and water, or even with a wet cloth. Another popular, and expensive, paper-hanging type was the flocks. These papers were made by applying an adhesive to the treated paper, typically in a design similar to damask cloth. Then very finely chopped wool or silk fibers would be blown over the paper, adhering to the adhesive areas of the design. These papers were also extremely difficult to clean, as they could easily be damaged by scrubbing with a wet cloth. Though the paints used on Chinese papers were not quite as vulnerable to moisture as distemper paints, they would still have been damaged by cleaning with soap and water, as would the French Scenic papers.

Occasionally, some of the more expensive paper-hangings were finished by a coat or two of varnish. However, this treatment could just as easily smear the colors as protect them. Though if it were done carefully, the papers could be more easily be cleaned. But this was not a common practice, and was not usually done by the paper-stainer unless upon the request of the purchaser. "Sanitaries," specially treated paper-hangings which could be washed with soap and water, were introduced in England in the early 1870s, and were very popular. But they were not even an idea in a paper-stainer’s design studio during the years of the Regency.

When it was getting to be time to clean the paper-hangings during the Regency, the first stop was the local bakery. It was there that one acquired the only reliable implement for cleaning the fragile papers. But this shopping trip had to be planned very carefully to ensure the implement was fully functional for the purpose. The implement which was needed from the baker was a quartern loaf of bread. A quartern loaf was made from a quartern of flour, which is one quarter of a stone, about three and a half pounds. The finished loaf would have weighed a little over four pounds. Most loaves of bread available in the supermarket today weigh about a pound, so a quartern loaf was quite large. Most quartern loaves would have been roughly the shape of a loaf of modern-day Italian bread, but more cylindrical and much larger. Each loaf was probably between 24 to 26 inches long, and about 9 to 10 inches in diameter through the center. Instructions of the time state that this loaf must be precisely two days old, "  … neither be newer nor staler."

Of what possible use can a loaf of bread be in cleaning paper-hangings? It is the primary cleaning implement. The two-day-old quartern loaf was to be cut lengthwise into quarters, then each of those would be cut in half crosswise, yielding eight half-pound bread "sponges" for use in cleaning the paper-hangings. The other tools needed were a good pair of bellows and a sharp knife. Instructions from the period state that the bellows were to be used to blow off all the dust from the paper to be cleaned. Beginning at the top of each section of paper the bellows would be directed to blow the dust and dirt downwards, one section at a time, until all the paper-hangings in the room had been cleared of loose dust. One can only assume that a careful housekeeper would have first covered all the furniture in the room with dust covers. In households with servants, many times a strong footman was given the chore of wielding the bellows to blow the dust from the paper-hangings as this chore required a great deal of strength.

Once the loose dust and dirt had been blown away, then, again beginning at the top of each section of paper, the person cleaning the paper held the bread "sponge" by the crust and lightly wiped downward with the crumb against the paper. A straight stroke of about eighteen inches was recommended, until all the upper part of the hangings were cleaned all the way around the room. A second circuit of the room would be made, beginning at the bottom of each just cleaned area. Again wiping downward only, with light strokes of about eighteen inches, repeating this process until the paper-hangings were cleaned from the ceiling to the floor. In houses with servants, this chore might be performed by either maids or footmen, or sometimes both, working together, typically at the direction of the housekeeper.

The sharp knife was used to trim away the soiled part of the bread crumb as it picked up the dirt from the paper-hangings, though some of the soiled portion would fall away as crumbs along with the dirt. The crumb would be trimmed as needed until there was nothing left but the crust. Then a new bread "sponge" would be used. Please note that I have used the word "crumb" (singular). That word had a different meaning to those living in the Regency than the word "crumbs" (plural) when used to described bread. Though it is not commonly used today, "crumb" referred to the soft inner part of the bread, the part that was not the crust. "Crumbs" refers to the particles of the crumb which have crumbled off the cohesive inner part of the bread. There are references to cleaning paper-hangings with bread crumbs in some scholarly sources on historic paper-hangings, but it seems fairly clear this mistake was made by researchers who did not understand the meaning of the word "crumb" as used by those living in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bread crumbs would have been useless for cleaning, while the intact bread crumb was perfect for the purpose. That also explains why a two-day old loaf was specified. The crumb of a fresh loaf would have been too moist, thus smearing the paper. It would also have been too soft, causing it to tear as it was pressed against the paper. The crumb of a loaf more than two days old would have been too dry to be of use in cleaning as it would not have the moisture to attract the dirt. In addition, this very stale bread would have been hard enough to damage the papers as it was pulled over them.

Below are the instructions for cleaning paper-hangings from pages 154 – 155 of The New Family Receipt-Book, published in 1810:

314.   Easy Method of cleaning Paper Hangings

Cut into eight half quarters, a quartern loaf two days old; it must neither be newer nor staler. With one of these pieces, after having blown off all the dust from the paper to be cleaned by means of a good pair of bellows, begin at the top of the room; holding the crust in the hand, and wiping lightly downwards with the crumb, about half a yard at each stroke, till the upper part of the hangings is completely cleaned all round. Then go again round, with the like sweeping stroke downward, always commencing each successive course a little higher than the upper stroke had extended, till the bottom be finished. This operation, if carefully performed, will frequently make very old paper look almost equal to new. Great caution must be used not by any means to rub the paper hard, nor to attempt cleaning it the cross or horizontal way. The dirty part of the bread, too, must be each time cut away, and the pieces renewed as soon as at all necessary.

This book ran to several editions over the course of more than twenty years, and these same instructions can be found in various recipe and household management books well into the nineteenth century, in both England and America. The knowledge of the use of bread to clean paper-hangings survived even longer. I mentioned the discovery of these instructions to a friend and was surprised that she was not surprised. She explained that her grandfather had been a professional painter and paper-hanger. She remembered when she was a young girl that her grandfather had advised her mother to clean the wallpaper in their dining room with bread, which she helped her mother to do. This occurred in New England in the late 1950s.

Today, cleaning modern wallpapers is a relatively simple process, certainly compared to how paper-hangings had to be cleaned in the Regency. The next time you have to clean the wallpaper in one of your rooms, think about how paper-hangings had to be cleaned during the Regency. That should make your chore seem so much easier.

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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5 Responses to Idiosyncrasies of Regency Paper-Hangings — Cleaning

  1. Pingback: Some Secrets of Sash Windows | The Regency Redingote

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  3. Sarah Waldock says:

    I’ve done this with an old dollshouse wallpaper, and it does work surprisingly well. Wholemeal but not wholegrain seems to work better than white bread, though modern white bread tends to go from too damp to totally stale without anything in between which I suspect reflects on the modern cooking processes.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I suspect you are right about the difference in the way bread was baked centuries ago as compared to today. I do some baking myself, and the crust on home-made bread is much thicker, which may be why it does not go stale as quickly as commercially baked bread with its noticeably thinner crust.



  4. Pingback: Fireplace Furniture:   Furnishing the Focus of the Regency Room » The Beau Monde

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