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 1⁄4 inch thick. Each horizontal course of lath was spaced about 3⁄8 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.
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!