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Wallpaper Manufacturing in 1860's America

By the 1860's, in America, it may be safe to say that almost all paper used to print newspapers on was machine made. One notable exception is when newspaper editions were printed on wallpaper. Wallpaper, while a percentage was machine made in this period, the majority of it was handmade. The initial steps to produce sheets for wallpaper were much the same as in the making of other paper.

For those not familiar with the process of handmade paper, after the ingredients were ground into a thick pulp -- something like the consistency of cooked Cream of Wheat or oatmeal -- the "syrup" was spread evenly over a wire screen mesh called a "deckle." The mesh consisted of extremely thin wires pulled tight across a wooden frame. The thin wires were strung in both directions to form a wire screen. In order to add support and strength to the mesh, after every so many thin wires, a thicker wire was also strung in both directions. It is these thicker wires that form the deckle lines or impressions. Handmade wallpaper from the Civil War era will bear deckle marks in both directions spaced anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 inches apart. Do not confuse these with crease lines created when the paper was folded long ago but later flattened out -- fold lines would more than likely be spaced further than four inches apart and not form a checkerboard pattern.

While the process of making paper by hand was the same for all grades of paper, the ingredients used to make wallpaper differed significantly. The lowest grade of wallpaper was made entirely of straw ground into pulp; the next highest grade was made from a mixture of straw and wood pulp; the next grade was made from Manilla hemp; and the best qualities were made from cotton or linen rags.

To make the sheets into a wallpaper roll, Individual sheets of the handmade paper were mashed and glued together end-to-end to form a length of 1500 feet. The long rolls were then placed on a special printing press to apply the colored design.

All mechanical wallpaper printing was done on a special cylinder press which had a large central drum made of metal that was covered with either canvas or thick rubber to make a slightly soft printing surface. The other cylinder had the engraved image to be printed. The long roll of paper to be printed was wove through a series of small wooden rollers that served to keep the tension even on the paper. As the paper passed between and around a series of cylinders the design was printed on the paper.

Each color to be printed required two cylinders -- one with the canvas or rubber padding and the other to bear a design element and color. The cylinder with the design was not like a traditional printing plate. Instead, design elements were made from a thin but hard metal bent into the shape desired and then pounded into the soft brass cylinder surface. Each leaf, flower, etc. had to be formed and hammered into place in this manner.

Next, the retaining walls were filled with a felt pad cut to the same size and shape. It is these felt pads that absorbed the ink and printed. In some cases the felt pads were thicker in height than the retaining wall and, therefore, a fuzzy edge was formed; if the pads were even in height with the wall, the edges were crisp.

Each cylinder was continuously inked with a specified color out of a trough of the liquid dye which was below the cylinder. In this trough a small roller constantly revolved to keep the color mixed. A continuous porous cloth, called a sieve cloth, which was stretched over two or three rollers, passed through the maze unceasingly carrying the dye up to the printing cylinder. In this manner, the printing cylinder was in contact with the always freshly moistened cloth on one side, taking color from it, and with the steadily moving paper on the other side, applying the color.

Wallpaper in this era would fit into one of three general design patterns: floral, geometric (scrolls, diamond shapes, stripes, etc.) and scenic which fell into two subcategories; wall murals comprised of full-wall scenes like a forest and small scenes perhaps 2 or 3 across and then stacked along the roll.

American-made wallpaper was predominately of the floral and geometric variety. The floral designs, however, tended to be more geometric than realistic. Colors were limited to twelve and usually only 6 to 8 different colors in a design. Some small scenics were American-produced but they tended to be flat with little shading to give them a 3-D effect.

The colors on American-produced wallpaper were actually thinned-down dyes that gave it an appearance of a stain rather than bright colors -- much like a water color painting. (In fact, the job title in America was called "Paper Stainer".) Because of the limitations of how large a felt piece on the mechanical press could adequately hold the ink without gumming up or falling off, the design elements had to be quite small -- about the same area for each element (leaf, flower, etc.) than would fill the surface of a quarter.

French-produced wallpaper, however, usually had 20 or more colors and were highly detailed and realistic. Extensive shading of elements was predominant -- a single petal, for example, would bear a darker shade of red on the bottom and a lighter shade on the top side. Also, unlike American-produced, the leaves in French floral designs would usually bear numerous veins.

French scenics were also highly detailed with much shading. Their scenics were primarily of the full-wall mural variety were highly intricate and look much like an old master's painting. (Although not of the era discussed in this article, in one scenic produced in 1815, the entire wall looks as if there were covered drapes of white silk with green-striped swags and gold ornaments hanging there while in reality it is block printed wallpaper.) Colors on all French wallpaper were brilliant in hue and retained the look of an oil painting.

Almost all of the French wallpaper was block printed by hand rather than mechanical press. For this reason, the French were able to produce designs with larger elements -- a single flower could be life size and thus cover an area larger than a baseball. To block print, rather than carving a design into a cylinder, as the term implies, the design was carved into a block anywhere from 8 to 12 inches square. A 20 color design, for example, would require 20 such blocks -- one for each color. To assure proper alignment from one color to another, the unprinted wallpaper bore tiny pin holes that corresponded to pins on each corner of the block.

English-produced wallpaper bore floral, geometric and small scenic designs for the most part. Their colors, while not as brilliant as French, were brighter than American. The amount of detail fell midway between American and French.After the paper was finished being printed, the next step was to cut the 1500 foot roll into shorter rolls. The standard size of American-produced wallpaper was 18 inches by 8 yards; French, 18 inches by 9 yards; and English 21 inches by 12 yards in length.

According to statistics I found in an 1879 issue of The Furniture Gazette, an article related that "The people of the United States spend $8,000,000 per annum for wallpaper, their requirements being about 57,142,860 rolls or about 457,142,400 yards." The article also indicated that during this same year the retail price for wallpaper was 25 cents a roll. By these figures, it is clear that wallpaper manufacturing was a major industry in 1860's--1870's America.

Example pattern/coloring from 1860's American wallpaper
Example pattern/coloring from 1870's American wallpaper
Example pattern/coloring from 1880's American wallpaper
Example pattern/coloring from 1890's American wallpaper


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