Wallpaper Memories

Prior to modern drywall, the walls and ceilings in houses were covered with plaster and lath.  Laths are narrow strips of wood nailed horizontally across the wall studs and ceiling joists.  The lath was typically about one inch wide by four feet long by 14 inch thick. Each horizontal course of lath was spaced about 38 inch apart.

To make lime plaster, limestone is heated to produce quick lime.  In the 1800s this was done in a kiln.  Heat causes the limestone to disintegrate.  It is then ground into a powder.  Water is then added to produce slacked lime, which is sold as a wet putty or a white powder.  Sand is mixed into the lime to make plaster.  If the plaster has too much sand mixed in it is coarse and crumbly.  One of the binding agents used to hold the plaster together was horse hair from the manes and tails.  If you’ve ever removed old plaster, you’ve seen the hairs.

Because plaster walls were often uneven and rough they were usually covered with wallpaper in the 1800s.   Wallpaper was used by the wealthy as far back as the 1500s.  By the 1700s improvements in wallpaper manufacturing technology reduced the price and allowed the upper middle class to use wallpaper in their homes.

The development of steam-powered printing presses in Britain in 1813 allowed manufacturers to mass-produce wallpaper, making it affordable to working-class people. Wallpaper enjoyed a huge boom in popularity in the nineteenth century, and became the norm in most middle-class homes until the widespread use of drywall began with the post World War II housing boom.

Having lived all my life in old houses and also having remodeled several rental houses through the years, I have removed a lot of wallpaper.  Peeling off the layers and seeing the various patterns emerge always interests me.  Just as styles in furniture, clothing, etc. changed with the decades, so did wallpaper patterns.

Removing wallpaper in the south upstairs bedroom June 2015.
Removing wallpaper in the south upstairs bedroom June 2015.

 

 

This was the top layer of paper.  My Mother hung this about 1968.  I liked the pattern and the color, but the paper was not in very good condition.  Sorry to see it go.
This was the top layer of paper. My Mother hung this about 1968. I liked the pattern and the color, but the paper was not in very good condition. Sorry to see it go.
Mom hung this ballerina wallpaper about 1959 when the room was Agnes' bedroom.
The second layer of paper.  Mom hung this ballerina wallpaper about 1961 when the room was Agnes’ bedroom.  Agnes got to pick out this pattern.
The third layer of paper.  Mom hung this about 1939 after she had torn down the original plaster and our Dad had replastered the room.
The third layer of paper. Mom hung this about 1939 after she had torn down the original plaster, which was in bad condition,  and Daddy had replastered the room.
In 2003 I replaced the wallpaper in the "front room" as we called it.  In the late 1950s - early 1960s textured paper without a decorative pattern was the "modern" look.  This beige/brown was in our living room during my and Agnes' teenage years.  This same pattern in pink was in my downstairs bedroom and a similar one in grey in the south stairs and hallway.
In 2003 I replaced the wallpaper in the “front room” as we called it.   In the early 1960s textured paper without a decorative pattern was the “modern” look. This beige/brown was in our living room during my and Agnes’ teenage years. This same pattern in pink was in my bedroom and a similar one in grey in the south stairs and hallway.  I never liked these wallpapers.  They were too plain for my taste.  The decorative strip at the top was the border which ran along the ceiling.
The second paper layer I the front room was this green and white pattern.  Mom hung this sometime in the 1940s.
The second paper layer in the front room was this green and white pattern. Mom hung this sometime in the 1940s.
the third front room layer was this peach with white ferns.  Martha Trausch Preissler who lived with her brothers Bert and Charles, may have hung this between 1934 and 1937 when the room was used as a bedroom.
The third front room layer was this peach with white ferns. Martha Trausch Preissler, who lived with her brothers Bert and Charles, may have hung this between 1934 and 1937 when the room was used as a bedroom.
Fourth front room paper layer.
Fourth front room paper layer.  The dots are raised gold.
Fifth front room paper layer fragment.  This paper has gold and silver lines which do not show in the scan.
Fifth front room paper layer fragment. This paper has gold and silver lines which do not show in the scan.  I found only a few scraps of this pattern and they were very fragile.  It is possible this was a wide border to the above pattern as I found it only at the top of one wall.  This pattern is from the 1910-1920 era.
Sixth front room paper layer fragment.  I found only a few fragments of this paper.
Sixth front room paper layer.  I found only a few fragments of this paper.  This Arts and Crafts era pattern could have been hung shortly after the house was built in 1893.  Vertical stripes were very common 1890-1910.

 

Dining room September 1965. Agnes' 15th birthday.  The wallpaper is still on the walls.
Dining room September 1965.   Agnes’ 15th birthday. The wallpaper is still on the walls, and I still like it.  I was about 12 or 13 when this paper was hung.  Mom and I scrapped all the paper off down to the plaster.  I remember there were some beautiful old patterns underneath.  I wish we had saved some fragments.  While we were working on the walls, Mom was nearly electrocuted when she knelt on damp ground and touched a radio ground wire.   Mom’s sister, Rita, came and finished hanging the paper.                                                                                                                                  Catherine, Edna, Bert, Agnes holding Christina Renschler who was six weeks old.

 

 

Dining room wallpaper about 1958.  The paper was grey with pink flowers.  I don't remember the occasion, but do remember the dress.  I loved that dress.  It was a hand-me-down from my cousin, Amber Trausch who lived in California and had beautiful store-bought dresses.
Dining room wallpaper about 1957. The paper was grey with pink flowers. I don’t remember the occasion, but do remember the dress. I loved that dress. It was a hand-me-down from my cousin, Amber Trausch, who lived in California and had beautiful store-bought dresses.

 

Kitchen paper from the 1960s when "Colonial" patterns were popular.
Kitchen paper and border from the 1960s when “Colonial” patterns were popular.  The kitchen was the room that was repapered the most often.  We lived in the kitchen, especially in the winter when it and the bathroom were the only rooms that were heated.  A combination of  cooking grease (lots of meals were fried then) and soot from the wood-burning heating stove soiled the paper quickly.

 

 

Kitchen paper from the 1940s.  This paper was in the pantry before it was turned into a bathroom in 1950 when we got electricity and running water.
Kitchen paper from the 1940s. This paper was in the pantry before it was turned into a bathroom in 1950 when we got electricity and running water.

I asked Agnes to write about our parents hanging wallpaper.  These are her memories.

Wallpapering is never easy, but when I was a child it was even more of a difficult and laborious task than with today’s vinyl and pre-glued paper. The wallpaper then was true paper that when wet with glue was heavy, easily torn and hard to align on the walls. If the paper wasn’t put on exactly right the first time it had to be pulled back from the bottom and adjusted. This meant there was always a chance of rips or wrinkles in the finished product.   Long tables were required to lay the cut strips of wallpaper face down to apply the glue on the back with a brush.   The long wet strips were difficult to manage and usually required at least two people to put up.

Two people – two adults. In our house when I was young that meant Bert and Edna. I understand my mother’s point of view because I’m much like her when it comes to wanting things to be done right. She was always willing to work hard and do more than her share of the work, but she was demanding of herself and of anyone else working with her. It. Needed. To. Be. Done. Right.  Enter Bert who 1) didn’t understand why anyone would bother themselves by putting up new wallpaper and 2) didn’t really care how it looked when it was done. Oh, the arguments! It was a good time to stay out of the way and out of earshot.  I think I assumed all couples argued like that when wallpapering (and maybe they did).   Usually Mom and Daddy worked and argued until Daddy got tired of the whole thing and left Mom to do the finish work. At least it got more calm then.  I remember once Mom teased Daddy for at least a week prior to the job by asking him if he had his “fighting clothes” on.  Things went more smoothly with much less fighting that time. Reverse psychology works even when wallpapering!

 

One thought on “Wallpaper Memories”

  1. Hi all, very good, just like an archaeologist, digging down thru the layers of time! Uncovering clues to the past and how people lived at those times. Much more interesting than just repainting the walls. We had lath and plaster in the old house built in 1919 by Nick Theisen when he retired to Dubuque. Thanks, Karl

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