Sorry–my title does not refer to Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry but rather to two elementary schools on either side of the Atlantic Ocean: the Witchcraft Heights Elementary School here in Salem and the Warboys Community Primary School in Cambridgeshire, England. There has been some discussion in Salem about renaming Witchcraft Heights after a recently deceased city councillor, during which the School Committee member who proposed the change commented that the term “witchcraft” could cause confusion about “what type of school it is”. Never mind that the proverbial cat has long been out of the bag regarding witchcraft terminology and iconography in Salem and the fact the school is situated in the city’s Witchcraft Heights neighborhood, this little flurry reminded me of a somewhat similar debate in Warboys. Here are logos for the two schools in question, first Salem’s, then that of Warboys:
Look familiar? Well, both communities are products of their history, and the marketing of that history. A century before the Salem Witch Trials there was another sensational trial involving apparently possessed adolescent girls throwing fits and naming names. The sensational “Witches of Warboys” case began in 1589, when the five daughters of local baronet Sir Robert Throckmorton demonstrated signs of a hysterical demonic affliction, and cast blame for their states on a poor neighbor, Alice Samuel, and her family. The Samuels were powerless to prove their innocence, and found guilty and executed for witchcraft in 1593. The circumstances of the trial, involving the lurid testimony of the girls, captured the attention of the kingdom and ultimately led to the publication of a very popular pamphlet and the passage of a much stricter English Witchcraft statute in 1604.
Sound familiar? Well, there are lots of similarities between the Warboys and Salem witch trials but that is not the subject at hand. Flash forward to the twentieth century, when both towns began employing witchcraft emblems for some (or in the case of Salem, ALL) of their public institutions. Warboys, which is much smaller than Salem, certainly did not turn itself into Witch City, but the witch logo above was adopted for the primary school in 1946, and 60 years later the school governors began to question it, fearing that it might have been “putting off” prospective teachers and students. A counter-campaign to keep the witch ensued, with the end result of a newly designed logo incorporating several aspects of Warboys’ history: the witch, the tree for which the village was named, an open book (and crossed pencils) representing learning, and the village clock tower. The children of Warboys designed and approved the new symbol for their school, which might be a good solution for Salem.
The previous residents of the street where I live periodically dressed up in “colonial” costumes and opened their houses to the public in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s–as late as the 1970s, I believe. These were “Chestnut Street Days”, and various variations of this event occurred all over the country in the first half of the twentieth century. For lots of cultural and historical reasons (patriotism, the desire to escape the dark days of depression and war, the constant drive to define what is “American” in an increasingly diverse nation, perhaps it was just fun), Americans loved to dress up in colonial costumes in the last century. Below is a photograph of Chestnut Street Day in the 1940s from The National Geographic Magazine:
All this dressing up was probably inspired by several specific developments. No doubt the “living history” museum movement had an impact, with the establishment of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s, Salem’s own Pioneer Village in 1930, and Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation in the 1940s. The popular works of Alice Morse Earle, including Customs and Fashions in Old New England (1893), Home Life in Colonial Days (1898), my favorite Curious Punishments of Bygone Days (1896), and Two Centuries of Costume in America (1903) must have been influential as well, because they were so popular and because they shifted the historical focus from big events to “daily life”.
Alice Morse Earle images: a 1907 edition of Home Life in Colonial Days with a photograph of a young boy in colonial clothing playing a colonial game, and the punishment for drunkenness from Curious Punishments of Bygone Days.
The other major motivator for colonial dress up days must have been Wallace Nutting (1861-1941), as his hand could be seen everywhere in the first hand of the twentieth century, to which anyone who has browsed a flea market or lower-end antiques store can attest. Nutting was a retired New England minister turned photographer/antiquarian entrepreneur and author, whose hand-colored (by the 200 colorists whom he employed at the height of his career, in the 1920s) “colonial” photographs were distributed everywhere, individually and in publications like his “States Beautiful” series; by his own estimation he sold ten million images over his career. Here are several of Nutting’s colonial ladies from photographs he published in the 1910s and 1920s in the collection of the Library of Congress; the last one is titled the “Salem Sea Captain’s Daughter”.
I find these photographs a little odd, perhaps haunting, even creepy, but people seemed to like them a century ago, and well into the last century. The photographs of everyday people from that time dressed up for occasions like parades and parties rather than staged somehow seem a bit more natural even though they are in colonial costume in the midst of twentieth-century settings. These men below, marching in a parade in Chicago heralding America’s entry into World War One, look like they’re recreating Archibald McNeal Willard’s The Spirit of ’76, which is probably more design than accident.
When you put Japan and America and Spring together you automatically get cherries, right? I have these cards in my ephemera file (under “fruit people”, a surprisingly large category) and was never sure what to do with them or how to tie it them to anything I’ve been writing about, but then I realized (from the Library of Congress’s Today in History site) that this weekend marks the anniversary of the first planting of the Japanese cherry trees in Washington in 1912, so there you go. I love the sentiment on the first card (Cheer Up! Cherries are Ripe) and it is clear from the last two that cherries make everything better, even cough syrup.
At about the same time that drug and beverage companies were adding cherry flavor to their recipes (the first “organic” additive) thousands of Japanese cherry trees were planted in Washington. I’ve seen the spring cherry blossoms in Washington several times, and they are beautiful. You would think that a gift of friendship from Japan to the United States would be a simple and somewhat spontaneous gesture but apparently it took some time to germinate. The woman behind Washington’s cherry trees was Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, one of many Americans who travelled to Japan during the Meiji Restoration, fell in love with its landscape and culture, and wanted to take something back home (I wrote about another here). It took Miss Scidmore, a writer, photographer, and the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, several decades to bring about the planting of Japanese cherry trees in her native Washington. The key moment came when she was able to convince First Lady Helen Herron Taft of this necessity, and on March 27, 1912 Mrs. Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador planted two Yoshino cherry trees on the Potomoc River’s Tidal Basin bank, the first of over 3000 donated to the United States by Japan in that year. In 1965, another 3800 trees were sent over by Japan, further identifying the American capital with cherry blossoms.
The Tidal Basin in the late 1920s, Theodor Horydczak photograph, Library of Congress
Crowning the Queen of the Cherry Blossoms (the daughter of the Japanese Ambassador) in 1937, Library of Congress
Miss Scidmore was not the only westerner entranced by Japanese cherry trees. More locally, Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, employed intrepid “plant hunter” Ernest Henry Wilson to find just the right Asian cherry tree varieties for the park. The two men are pictured below in 1915, before a flourishing specimen. Salem’s famed horticulturist Robert Manning was also an admirer and cultivator of cherry trees, though more of the “English” variety (brought to England from the Continent by Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century) than the Asian ones.
Cherries from Robert Manning's Book of Fruits, 1838
Of course, the other reason why Miss Scidmore wanted cherry trees installed in Washington was their connection to its namesake, the first President. All forms of popular culture from the period make it clear that Washington the man was inextricably intertwined with the cherry tree he cut down as a boy (thus revealing his truthful nature): what better way to compensate for this mistake than by planting thousands of replacements in Washington the city?
Washington trade cards and Journal magazine cover from New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Washington cherry jell-o advertisement, Duke University Library Ad* Access Collection.
Today marks the birthday of Salem’s most renowned artist, Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951). Benson is perhaps best known as an American Impressionist, whose plein-air paintings captured New England summer and family life around the turn of the last century, but he worked sucessfully in several mediums over his long career. Benson loved painting children, usually his daughters, out in the sun and by the sea, and these are the paintings that remain his most popular and representative. Below is Summer, 1909, the image most associated with the Peabody Essex Museum’s recent exhibition Painting Summer in New England, along with Children in the Woods and Two Little Girls, which recently sold at auction for nearly 2.1 million dollars.
Summer, 1909, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design
Children in the Woods, 1905, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Two Little Girls, 1903
Benson was born in a house on Salem Common and lived in Salem his entire life, the last twenty-five years in an imposing Greek Revival house on Chestnut Street. With his lifelong friend and fellow artist Phillip Little, he also maintained a studio on the street. He spent his summers in New Hampshire and Maine, but always returned to Salem. Many of his paintings with interior settings, including The Black Hat below, feature architectural and material details of Salem houses and the products of the China trade.
Frank W. Benson in 1895, Smithsonian Institution
The Lee-Benson House in a Frank Cousins photograph from 1891 and (below) today
The Benson-Little "Studio" on Chestnut Street
The Black Hat, 1904, Providence Museum of Art
Benson’s artistic career actually began with an etching of Salem Harbor, made while he was a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and he would return to that medium later in life after gaining fame as one of “The Ten” American Impressionists who exhibited their works together from 1898-1918. From about 1920 on until the end of his life, Benson specialized in nature and sporting scenes, rendered as etchings, drawings, and watercolors. His two most important public commissions, completed at either ends of his long career, also represent his versatility: the “Seasons” murals at the Library of Congress (with a close-up on “Spring”) and the 1935-36 Federal Duck Stamp.
Salem Harbor, 1882
"The Ten" American Impressionists, 1908, Smithsonian Institution
Despite the fact that it’s not exactly New England’s shining season, I love spring. It’s my favorite season by far; I even get a little glum when it turns into summer. It’s just such a hopeful time, and so dramatic; one year I watched the grass turn green in an afternoon. There are signs of spring in the garden (goldfish awakened from their states of hibernation, little green buds on shrubs and trees), but we sustained so much tree damage this past winter that I kind of dread going back there for long, yet. I did put a pot of hellebores—my harbingers of spring–on the front stoop, but that’s the extent of my spring “gardening” so far.
Instead of tending to my garden, I’m going to welcome spring in my closet by indulging in a biannual ritual: the changing of the clothes. I’m also putting together a series of lectures on the “consumer revolution” of the seventeenth century this week, and am consequently indulging in another passion: perusing the works of Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77).
Hollar escaped war-torn central Europe and ventured to England with Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel, to document the “Collector Earl’s” large and growing collection through his amazingly-detailed etchings. Hollar’s work did not end with Lord Arundel’s collection; he went on to document many aspects of his adopted country’s society and culture in over 2700 etchings, most of which were printed. Hollar’s focus and images are so varied that he really transcends the role of artist and becomes a “photographer” of sorts, capturing the street life, architecture, and events of his age. It’s not just Hollar’s range, though, it is the details, and the texture, that he infuses into every work that makes his images so captivating. My students love them, and so do I.
Hollar’s skill at capturing surface detail is particularly apparent in his depictions of clothing, which two of his print collections, The Severall Habits of English Women and The Seasons, do so vividly. So here is Spring, represented by a fashionable young noblewomen in mid-seventeenth century England and several seasonal pastoral scenes, all from the Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection at the University of Toronto:
I really tried, but my pictures of last night’s “supermoon” looming over Salem did not turn out very well; all you see is a bright orb, it could be a street light. Too bad, because it was really beautiful, especially over the harbor earlier in the evening peaking through dark clouds. This was more of a global event than a local one, however, and fortunately there are professional news service photographers out there whose more skillful photographs of the very large,very bright,very proximate perigee moon have been posted on the web. Here are my two favorites, of the moon over Washington and East London, both demonstrating a good frame of reference which is precisely what my pictures did not provide:
The moon has always been the most intimate of the “heavenly bodies” beyond the earth, never more so when it is full. In the medieval period, the moon was often perceived as heaven, as in the case of Dante’s Divine Comedy when Dante and Beatrice visit the “heaven of the moon” and the souls that reside there. For religious, medical, and alchemical reasons it was necessary to chart the moon’s movements and phases and because of its proximity it was possible to do so. The moon was never scary, and almost familiar, or as familiar as an entity that was not of this earth could be. Most importantly, knowing the Moon was a way to know God.
British Library Egerton MS 943, Dante,14th century
The Moon in hand, British Library Harley MS 4940, 14th century
Phases of the Moon, British Library Yates Thompson MS 31, 14th century
The big transformative moment in man’s perception of the moon came with the publication of Galileo’s Starry Messenger in 1610: through Galileo’s telescope it was revealed to be an orb with very “earthly” imperfections rather than the smooth, perfect “heavenly” body it was perceived to be before. Soon it seemed possible to map the moon, just as one might map earth, and perhaps even to go there.
Illustrations from the Starry Messenger, 1610
Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687), Map of the Moon, 1645
Francis Godwin, The Man in the Moone, or, A Discourse of a Voyage thither, 1638. Early English Books Online
In the modern era, the moon gets increasingly familiar and metaphorical, the stuff of political cartoons, nursery rhymes and advertising, as well as scientific endeavors. It was first photographed in the 1850s, and over the next century it appears in nearly every form of popular culture: painting, theater, music, literature, and above all advertising. Sometimes the moon is the focus, sometimes it is a metaphor, sometimes it’s just setting the scene. Below is a photograph taken by John Whipple in the collection of the Library of Congress, along with an 1890 illustration from London’s Punch Magazine, a 1909 play-bill and a song sheet from the same year, all from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery:
Collectible cigarette cards are among the most popular genres of advertising in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and hundreds of them have moon motifs, both emblematic and realistic. Many were clearly marketed to children (strange for cigarette advertisements, but true), while others are more topical, like the World War I-era card below where the “old” moon is shining on both the home and battle-fronts.
And finally, an illustration (from a 1918 article in Cosmopolitan Magazine entitled “The Future of the Earth” in the Library of Congress) of an extremely adjacent moon and earth by Polish-American artist W.T. Benda. I don’t think the moon was quite this close-at-hand yesterday.
The Morgan Museum & Library in New York City has a great exhibition (among several) on entitled The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives which features a range of seemingly-private journals, from the first printed edition of St. Augustine’s Confessions to Bob Dylan’s record of his 1974 concert tour, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Queen Victoria, Albert Einstein and Tennessee Williams (among others) in between. Taken together, the collection raises questions about the motivations behind diary-keeping in general and reveals lots of little personal details about public figures in particular. Two nineteenth-century Massachusetts authors figure prominently in the exhibition: Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Actually it’s the Hawthorne family who are featured in the Morgan exhibition. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, together kept journals which were not so private; they shared them with each other, made responsive comments, and later their children added illustrations. The end results were Hawthorne marriage and family journals. Both the Hawthornes were great diarists, giving us insights into his years toiling as a public servant in Boston and Liverpool and her views of Civil War-era Concord, but the diaries in the Morgan exhibition are unique because of their collective nature. The first joint Hawthorne diary is also available in published form, as Ordinary Mysteries. The Common Journal of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, 1842-43, edited by Nicholas R. Lawrence and Marta L. Werner.
Diary of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, Purchased by Pierpoint Morgan, 1909. Morgan Museum & Library
Despite their focus on the family, the Morgan diaries do reveal insights into Hawthorne’s creative process, including his idea for a story about “the life of a woman, who, by the old colony law, was condemned always to wear the letter A sewed on her garment, in token of her having committed adultery”. Notes for A Scarlet Letter, published this very week in 1850. Below are two daguerreotypes taken of Hawthorne and two of his children at just about that time, and a postcard of t 14 Mall Street, the Hawthorne’s last Salem house, where he wrote his first bestseller.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, c. 1848-1850, Library of Congress
Julian and Una Hawthorne, c. 1850. Boston Athenaeum
No graceful transition here–from the crisis in Japan to St. Patrick’s Day! I can’t help it; it is St. Patrick’s Day and I continue to be amazed at the timely productivity of the nineteenth and early twentieth century greetings card industry. The only holidays that we still recognize with cards today are Christmas and Valentine’s Day, but a century ago every single holiday had a card: New Year’s Day, George Washington’s Birthday, Easter, July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and most definitely St. Patrick’s Day. I think the major difference in greeting between then and now (besides the telephone and the computer) is that today we have blank cards, as well as cards to express sympathy and mark other personal milestones, whether joyful or sad. People in the past wrote actual letters, expressing their personal sentiments, rather than relying on a card. I’ve got all these monogrammed notecards but I seldom use them; instead I just run out and buy a pre-written card.
St. Patrick’s Day is a perfect day for greeting-card manufacturers (like Valentine’s Day) as it’s not a particularly solemn holiday and it has associations with imagery that is both cute and colorful. The postcard seems to have been the most popular form of St. Patrick’s Day greeting: below is a sampling from the 1890s and 19 “aughts”, from the large collection of cards at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
These postcards are frivolous, but other forms of St. Patrick’s Day commemoration carried a more serious message. The celebration of the day (and the Saint) seems to have been interwoven with other movements and messages in the nineteenth century, most emphatically the temperance movement and nationalism–both Irish and American. Popular songs seemed to be particularly focused on rallying the troops, for conflicts both in America and “back home”. There was obviously fierce pride among the Irish Americans because of their participation in the Civil War, and equally fierce hatred of the English occupiers of their native land. The rather militant lyrics of the song “St. Patrick’s Day no. 2”, published in New York in the later nineteenth century, are a good example of the latter sentiment:
Duke University Library Digital Collections, American Song Sheets
The last stanza reads: So now let us all attend to the call. Of our Country. Who thus to her sons seem to say: The time has come now; so come with a vow. To drive out the Saxon, on St. Patrick’s Day.
Perhaps because of the perception that Irish Americans were more attached to their native land than their adopted one, a series of popular prints and cards were published from the 1870s on that emphasized dual loyalties, illustrated by the prominent placement of intertwined American and Irish flags. The message was: It’s St. Patrick’s Day IN AMERICA.
I’ve been thinking about Japan since the March 11 earthquake, as of course we all are. I’ve got two friends there, and two Japanese students who have family and friends back home, but everyone is in the South and safe and sound, or relatively so. I always like to get some historical perspective on big events, whether good or bad, and the twentieth century appears particularly dynamic and destructive for Japan: since 1891, there have been 8 earthquakes measuring more than 8.0 on the Richter scale and there have been hundreds of earthquakes measuring over 6.0 in the modern era. Earthquakes must be woven into the very psyche of Japanese culture.
The most destructive earthquake in terms of mortality was the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 which killed between 100,000 and 150,000 people and devastated Tokoyo and its surrounding region. There are several photograph archives of this disaster (Library of Congress, Brown University Library), but I prefer to showcase the works of contemporary woodblock print artists. The works below are from the online auction site artelino.
Kancho Oda, 1923
Tekiho Nishizawa, 1924
Shiun Kondo, Tsunami at Suji
The traditional woodblock printers of Japan worked feverishly to document the Great Kanto earthquake, but perhaps even more intensely to capture its longer-term impact, including the rapid rebuilding of the capital city. It’s this resiliancy that is so impressive about Japan and the Japanese people. The next great earthquake after Kanto occured ten years later (just after the reconstruction was completed) and was accompanied by a terrible tsunami that swept away thousands of homes. Just months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan experienced the Nankaido (8.1) earthquake. In 1995 the Great Hanshin earthquake destroyed the port of Kobe and killed over 6000 people. And then Sendei, last week and ongoing.
Nearly every man I know hates wallpaper while most of my female friends love it; I wonder if this gender division existed in the past? I hear from the paper-hating men that wallpaper is too “busy”, “distracting”, and “floral” (even if flowers are far from the central motif). They seem predisposed to dislike a wall-full of images and more inclined to focus on just one (or maybe two). We have some really ghastly wallpaper in our front hall which I’m sure my husband hates but I find strangely comforting in a grandmotherly sort of way. Neither of us are inclined to do anything about it as it covers two stories’ worth of wall, but he must have to shield his eyes everyday.
Wallpaper can reveal more than gender preferences; it can also reveal the cultural values of society at large (if you are prepared to engage in gross generalizations, which I obviously am). Relying heavily on my favorite historical design books (primarily Judith & Martin Miller’s Period Details and Period Design & Furnishing), and a few other sources, I’m going to attempt a social history of wallpaper, beginning with Tudor Age.
The fragment of sixteenth-century block-printed wallpaper above was preserved as the lining of a deed box and is part of the collection of the British National Archives. It is typical dark and dense decoration; the Tudors loved embellishment of all kinds, but particularly natural motifs. Here you see royal insignia, the emblem of St. George (the patron saint of England) and the ever-present Tudor rose. The grotesques look a little medieval to me; I’m not sure what they’re doing there. On to the seventeenth century.
This is a fragment of later seventeenth- century scenic wallpaper in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. In the middle part of the seventeenth century, the Puritan-dominated Parliament prohibited the production of things as frivolous as wallpaper (and theater!), but after the monarchy was restored in 1660, people demanded entertainment and embellishment. Restoration wallpaper seems to have developed as a middle-class form of decoration, as it was a relatively cheap way to mimic more expense tapestries, embroidery, and plasterwork, which were featured in more aristocratic homes.
Things get lighter in the eighteenth century, due to the influences of the “Chinese style” (the example above is from the vast collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum) and the new textile, cotton. Production became more complicated, due to the increasing popularity of flocked papers with raised textures, and scenic (even panoramic) papers. Great Britain was of course an empire, and one of the best examples of later eighteenth-century wallpaper (still on the walls, and recently restored) is right here in this former colony, in the 1768 Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The Lee Mansion has both rare hand-painted murals and block-printed papers still in place, and the former have been reproduced in decoupage form by Neptune Studios, also based in Marblehead. Of course, I snapped them right up and here they are on one of my mantles:
Thanks to Salem’s own photographer-entrepreneur Frank Cousins (who I referred to in an earlier post), we have a photograph of another local example of early mural wallpaper, in the dining room of the Samuel McIntire’s Cook-Oliver House (1802-3). The French-made wallpaper depicts the world’s four climate regions, and is still hanging.
The Cook-Oliver House, Federal Street, Salem. Photograph by Arthur Haskell, Historic American Building Survey, 1938. Library of Congress
Frank Cousins' photographs from his "Pageant of America" series, New York Public Library Digital Gallery
So shortly after the American Revolution, Captain Samuel Cook (or his wife) probably preferred to install French wallpaper in his home rather than English, as a native industry had yet to develop. But French designs and designers dominated the industry everywhere in the early nineteenth century. French emigres to the United States, most prominently the Philadelphia wallpaper printer Henri Virchaux, produced scenic and neoclassical papers for the homes of America’s new elites. Below are two examples of papers produced for Messrs. Virchaux & Co. in 1815, from the collections of the Library of Congress. Adelphi Paper Hangings produces licensed reproduction papers of Virchaux designs (as well as those of other nineteenth-century manufacturers) and has lots of period patterns on their website.
Even though French designs were preferred by upper-class consumers on both sides of the Atlantic, the British wallpaper industry was still extremely profitable, due to both new industrial techniques and marketing strategies. The wallpaper industry was showcased in the Great Exhibition of 1851, featuring over 100,000 objects on display and attracting 6 million visitors, both by the officially licensed wallpaper featuring the Exhibition’s symbol, the Crystal Palace, and this prominently placed advertisement by one of Britain’s largest manufacturers, Townsend, Parker & Townsend:
National Archives, United Kingdom
New York Public Library Digital Gallery
After 1850, machine printing replaced the hand block-printing process and wallpaper became a more egalitarian form of embellishment. Lots of large floral patterns, produced for mass consumption; perhaps this is when wallpaper became a dirty word for men! I’ve taken my share of Victorian wallpaper off walls, but when looking for mid-nineteenth-century wallpaper to put back on the walls of my house I turned to Waterhouse Wallhangings. Dorothy Waterhouse became an advocate for early American papers after she discovered subtly colored prints underneath “ugly” 1890s papers in the process of restoring her 1799 house on Cape Cod in the 1930s. She wrote and spoke about her love for hand-printed papers, people sent her samples from up and down the east coast, and she started a reproduction historic wallpaper company which is still in business. Historic New England possesses and licenses wallpapers from the Waterhouse archival collection, and you can see the collection in its entirety (along with thousands of other samples) at their website; below is the Waterhouse wallpaper that I have in my library and dining room. It’s actually two variations and colorways of the same 1850s background pattern, and of course my husband dislikes it.
Because the Victorian era is so long, it encompasses many different, often contradictory, design styles: naturalistic and mechanistic, traditional and modern, simple and complex. Two men with divergent styles but an equally influential impact on wallpaper design were Christopher Dresser and William Morris, both working in the later nineteenth century. Dresser is among the first “industrial designers”, who sought to take advantage of the mechanized production process by incorporating repetition and standardization into his designs, while Morris was a steadfast naturalist whose (more expensive) papers were still block-printed by hand.
Christopher Dresser Wallpaper (1876), New York Public Library Digital Gallery
William Morris woodblock print wallpaper, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections
The dialogue between machine-made and man-made, combined with increasing globalization, created a golden era for design in general (and wallpaper in particular). So we see the aesthetic movement, the arts and crafts movement, the art nouveau movement, and the art deco movement, before the transition to full-scale modernism, in the early decades of the twentieth century. I’m not sure how any of these styles affected the average consumer; when you look at the material evidence for the twentieth century what you see are such a variety of papers produced, with traditional (though more cheerful!) florals, and a new emphasis on the pictorial, and the novelty: popular culture on the walls. If you search through the online collections catalogue of the largest repository of historic wallpaper in the United States, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (over 10,000 samples!) you will see an amazing variety of twentieth-century papers: Gibson girls, all sorts of literary characters, cowboys, love letters, college memorabilia, all forms of transportation, anything to do with children, Andy Warhol cows.
Some of the most popular twentieth-century patterns have been reproduced by Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers, including an art deco “aeroplane” paper, pictured here in blue, and the mid-century “gee gee” paper in sage. Finally, back to the future: two modern takes on a classic French toile: Harlem Toile (in two colorways) and London Toile. Today there’s a toile for everyone and everywhere.