Recommended Reading  
Articles About Wallpaper
Wallpaper Items
Bob's Anatomy
Wallpaper Links  
Consulting & Installation Services  
Resume and CV  

Wallpaper Scholar
65 South Prospect St.
Lee, MA 01238

(413) 243-3489

Comment on "How to Paper a Room "

This is rough and ready papering. Though the advice seems generally sound, there are some clues that the writer is not entirely familiar with the subject. For example, it is suggested to boil the wheat paste to thicken it, but the usual trade counsel is to mix the flour with water, then pour boiling water on the mixture.

Using a bench longer than the paper is also not standard practice. Most other sources say to use a table shorter than the strips of paper, so that the paper can hang over the edge, which makes the pasting easier.

It's when we start hearing about the "cheap paper" that we get an insight into what was happening in the market in 1872. Though now barely acknowledged or remembered, the use of straw to make paper was a huge industry in the mid-19th century, particularly for the types that needed less processing and strength, like wrapping paper, and hanging paper. The latter is of course the product that is made into paper hangings.

It apparently began in 1828, when William Macgaw of the Philadelphia area invented a process turning straw into paper. There is said to be a patent but I have yet to find it.

The following quotes are from "Paper Making at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in the Cumberland Valley", by Ralph Snell, in the Paper Maker, Vol. 3, # 1, 1934, pg. 11 and following. Snell appears to be quoting from a letter or recollections of Macgaw.

"....also, a small lot [was] manufactured into wallpaper by Mr. Longstreth in Third Street above Market and [he] had - [the] hall of his residence in Arch Street below Fifth papered with the same. Both ground work and figures looked remarkably well. that time in preparing v. straw and potash...I abandoned making rag paper, and devoted my mill exclusively to manufacturing of straw paper for some months. In Nov. 1829 I visited East to see a cylinder mill put in operation in Springfield, Mass by Messrs. Ames. On my way I accidentally met with Lafflin of Lee Mass....and engaged him to build for me a small cylinder machine at Hollywell Paper Mill near Chambersburg. This was certainly the first machine...ever operated ........."

In The American Builder, pg. 231, from Dec. of 1869, an article titled: "House Furnishing and Decoration: Wall Paper" states: "...the lowest grade of wall paper is made entirely of straw, the next higher grade of straw and wool mixed; the best from manilla hemp, and the best qualities of cotton or linen rags".

This assertion that the cheapest papers were made of straw was sometimes modified to "mainly" or "partially" in subsequent references in encyclopedias and the like. But however much was actually used, there does seem to be evidence for the widespread use of straw. We must remember that machine-printers, faced with a growing market and a maturing technology, would have been looking for any way to cut costs. Wholesale wallpaper bills around 1872 confirm that wallpaper was cheap indeed; in 1871 an Albany firm sold 50 rolls Buff for 9 1/2 cents each, and in 1873 the Henry Smith company of New York sold 50 rolls Oak for 10 and 1/2 cents each.

In her study of the Berkshire County, Massachusetts, paper industry, Judith McGaw found that, in volume, straw ranked second only to hemp as an additive to rags in making paper stock in the mid-19th century(1).

And Chuck Friday, in his study of the straw paper industry, documents hundreds of straw mills, and says that the leader in New York state was undoubtedly Columbia County, where there were 27 mills active at one time(2). Straw paper production was almost exclusively a local affair, but could be somewhat regional in scope. For example, the mills in Columbia County were supplied largely with straw from the Mohawk Valley.

In Week's history of papermaking we find that "...just prior to the civil war the demand for straw paper was not large...from 1862 to 1870 there was a boom. Paper could not be produced fast enough to supply the demand and new mills were rushed up in a hurry while the old ones were enlarged...but the fall came. Manufacturing was inflated, prices could not be maintained and rye straw could no longer be bought cheap. the early seventies the production of straw-paper was well established in the western states and it was not long before that section had the monopoly of that kind of paper-making..."(3).

Knowing all of this about straw paper puts the comments in the "How To Paper" article in a better context. It makes perfect sense that in putting the cheap sort of wall paper on the wall one could find that " will often fall to pieces in the hands...". Though we can understand the writer's distress at the rough fillers used to bulk up the paper stock, it seems likely that what he refers to as "cow-dung" was actually an equally familiar, and less disgusting, product; namely, straw.


(1) McGaw, Judith, Most Wonderful Machine, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1987, pg. 198.
(2) Friday, Chuck, Fields of Reams: The Hannacroix Creek Paper Mills, self-published, Ravenna, NY, 2006.
(3) Weeks, Lyman Horace, A History of Paper-Manufacturing in the United States, Lockwood Trade Journal Company, 1916, pg. 260-1.

Back to top of page

Wallpaper Scholar |  65 South Prospect St. Lee, MA 01238  |  (413) 243-3489
© 2006-2013