In defense of wallpaper: an exploration of nineteenth century design and the whitewashing of modern aesthetics

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By Louise Lo Bello

The Ghost of Wallpaper’s Past

The other day I was strolling through the trails of Watchung Reservation when I stumbled upon the “Deserted Village”, a ghost-town deep in the woods of Watchung Reservation and currently maintained by the Union County Park System. The history of the village goes something like this: In the eighteenth century, Peter Willcocks settled on the area and used the land for his sawmill and farm which later turned into the print-making town of Feltville. In the late ninetheenth century, the skeleton of Feltville was transformed into a summer resort called Glenside Park. The tenement-like apartment buildings of Feltville were repurposed as luxury cabins for the resort and their wooden corpses still remain in the woods of Watchung Reservation.

In between smacking away mosquitoes, I tiptoed over the crumbling porch of one of Glenside Park’s converted cottages to get a closer look. I peered through a dusty window and managed to get a glimpse of the interior. As expected, there wasn’t much to see: An empty parlor with splintering floorboards, a central hearth with a paint-chipped, chalky white mantel, and my personal favorite, faded sage paisley wallpaper. A friend of mine commented, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but this place is definitely haunted.” A warranted response, but I envisioned what the cottage once was: A cozy place to return to for a few nineteeth century middle class vacationers after a long day out in nature. I laughed imagining how a rustic escape to the wilderness for Victorians still involved wearing long, heavy dresses and returning to a charming wallpapered cottage, sealed off from the elements. I kicked a mosquito off of my exposed left leg, smearing mud in the process.

Abandoned Glenside Park cottage in the Deserted Village, Watchung Reservation

I’ve been thinking about the solemn, cozy mood of that aging old parlor in the woods. What stood out to me most was the faded wallpaper that was completely torn off in spots and starting to peel in others, but for those who used the parlor over 100 years ago, it must have perfectly complimented the natural color palette of the outdoors. Nineteenth century design did not hold back from pattern and clutter and I expect that this aged wallpaper once played an important role in the overall experience of vacationing at the resort.

The Janeway Wallpaper Businesses: New Brunswick, NJ

A few months before my Deserted Village adventure, I received a reference inquiry at Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives from Bo Sullivan, antique wallpaper enthusiast and founder of Arcalus Period Design and Bolling & Co. He was working with a client who was in the process of renovating a historic house in Ohio. During the project, they came across remnants of antique wallpaper that was still stuck to the original wall. In a corner of the wallpaper it said “Janeway,” referring to a New Brunswick wallpaper company operating in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In an effort to restore the room to its original design, the renovation group and Bo contacted Rutgers SC/UA looking for wallpaper samples from Janeway & Carpender from the late 1800s, hoping to find a match. So I began my search. In the process, I developed a brief timeline of the Janeway wallpaper history of New Brunswick.

Janeway & Company, one of the oldest American wallpaper companies, was founded in 1844 and prospered until 1914 when William Janeway, head of the business, decided to retire. The factory was located on Water Street in New Brunswick, right along the Raritan River. In the early hours of February 7, 1885, two freight trains carrying oil collided on the bridge over Water Street. It ignited a series of fires in the area, including the Janeway & Company factory which was completely destroyed. The company eventually rebuilt and relocated to a stronger structure nearby. Jacob J. Janeway, of another branch of the Janeway family tree, worked at Janeway & Company from 1865 to 1872. He then partnered with Charles J. Carpender to develop Janeway & Carpender, based in New Brunswick. Jacob Janeway eventually bought out Carpender’s shares and the company continued to thrive well into the 1900s. Janeway & Carpender had factory buildings in the areas of Paterson, Schuyler, and Church Streets in New Brunswick and eventually expanded to Chicago and Philadelphia. They too, suffered the effects of a destructive electrical fire in 1907. Within two hours, the factory burned to the ground and for a year following, the site was reportedly still smoldering. The company built a new factory across the Raritan in Highland Park and at the time, it was the largest wallpaper wallpaper factory in the country.

Newspaper clipping and photographs of the 1885 fire and the damage to Janeway & Co. factory (New Jersey Views and New Brunswick Vertical File):

 

Before and after the 1907 fire of Janeway & Carpender (New Jersey Views and New Brunswick Vertical File):

 

Wallpaper and Design

Amidst my research, I came across a few beautiful 1911 sample books from Janeway & Carpender in the Sinclair New Jersey Collection. They all include a trifecta of a border with coordinating backdrop wallpaper and ceiling pattern. The designs varied from page to page, but what stood out to me the most was the richness of the colors and the bold design. For example, some of the vibrant red and green patterns were shockingly intense. I questioned why nineteenth century folks sought for their rooms to look like Christmas just exploded all over their walls, but after awhile the Christmas-couture look started to grow on me. In fact, all of the pages were absolutely stunning. I thanked the wallpaper gods that they were not lost in a papery flame, since tragic fires seemed to be a trend for New Brunswick wallpaper factories.

All wallpaper samples from the Janeway & Carpender Express Books.

Although the sample books in the collection unfortunately did not reveal a perfect match in design to the found samples in the historic house, they did pique my curiosity into nineteenth century wallpaper culture. What were the social implications of wallpaper? How did it compare to the other decorative arts during the period? And why is it no longer an interior design staple?

Prior to the early nineteenth century when wallpaper began to stick its patterned tendrils onto the walls of Western middle-class homes, it was not very popular. In contrast, Eastern countries had been using patterned rice paper as wall decoration for quite some time. In the West, wallpaper was generally associated with lack of wealth, imitation, and falsity. After all, if you intended to decorate your walls, why not go for a richly embroidered tapestry made of a fabulously expensive material? A true mark of high taste was the real, authentic thing and wallpaper was an imposter material, trying to be like its cooler, richer cousin. I can’t help but think of the tacky imitation-marble wallpaper that currently lines the bathroom walls of my family home and how it pathetically hangs off of the wall in places, like a child’s Halloween costume after a long night of trick-or-treating.

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a fresh crop of laborers that operated new machinery. This led to an improved economy and a rising middle class in the mid-nineteenth century. As the economic classes became much less disparate, more people could acquire art and décor and experiment with interior design moreso than even before, igniting a consumerist boom. Additionally, the development of machine printing and a repealed tax on paper products allowed for folks to more readily choose to decorate their homes with wallpaper, a more affordable option than expensive fabrics and tapestries.

 

The Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts Movements in the latter half of the nineteenth century pushed back against industrialization and mass produced goods, emphasizing an “art for art’s sake” mentality. Designers like William Morris and C.F.A. Voysey were important figures in these movements, looking to non-Western countries and nature for design inspiration and abstracting traditional imagery into two-dimensional patterns. They also encouraged slower, handmade techniques of production such as block printing, as seen in Japanese prints. This non-Western influence also spurred collectors to purchase exotic pieces of furniture and other ornamental objects to decorate their homes.

The Deserted Village serves as a useful microcosm of the social and economic change over a few centuries of American history. Its humble beginnings as a farm and sawmill turned industrial factory town in the mid 1800s, and then, as if the spirit of William Morris himself breathed through the village, rebelled against the industrialized lifestyle and transformed into a summer resort, looking back to nature.

Less is (not always) more

Over the last century, the use of wallpaper has decreased in popularity. Design trends have shifted toward minimalism with white or neutral colored walls, glass panels, and a few quirky or “exotic” statement pieces. In my opinion, a general algorithm for any trendy interior includes whitewashed walls, an Eastern inspired tapestry (perhaps featuring a mandala or a hamsa) hanging loosely over a mid-century modern style sleek couch, complete with a lush green plant on the floor, for what I can only guess is to add some sign of life to the staleness of the space. I like to call this aesthetic the “blogger home”. Minimalism with a pop of color or texture and an interesting handmade basket from your most recent trip to South Africa makes for great Instagram content. In other words, it increases your social capital.

Image from Unsplash (https://unsplash.com)

It is no new critique that a highly decorated Victorian household could be reflective of a colonizing worldview. Hand-picked trinkets and souvenirs from various countries and cultures were used to elevate one’s social status by appropriating them as their own. In many ways not much has changed in today’s design style. An interesting perspective on this whitewashed aesthetic is that it reflects something specifically tied to white-Americans. Young, professional hipsters are most often displayed in the media with quirkily decorated white-walled homes. Indeed, this style is not just centralized to American home design (the Scandinavians and Moroccans are just some of those who have been doing it for much longer), but there is still something to say about the bleaching of tonality and pattern, speckled with interesting trinkets to add a little “culture” to a home. In many ways, the only difference between some of today’s interiors and a Victorian interior is that the walls have now been scrubbed clean. Maybe we can learn something from the evolution of interior design, that evolution does not necessarily imply improvement.

Despite my criticism of this aesthetic, I acknowledge the benefits. White walls reflect light and help make a space look larger. They also allow for people to focus on beautiful objects and decorative pieces and allows them to move more easily without the risk of clashing with wall design. However, not all hope is lost on the wallpaper front as there seems to be a slow shift of reintroducing wallpaper into homes as accent walls. Rather than using it as a backdrop, wallpaper is now a point of focus in a room. And maybe this is what interior design needs. Nineteenth century wallpaper companies like Janeway & Carpender and designers like Morris and Voysey considered their product not merely as a cheap decorative backdrop, but as a work of art. Perhaps now, after the rise and fall of its popularity, the value of wallpaper can once again be elevated and provide a much needed element of mood and character to a room.

Where is our Glenside Park window into wallpaper history?

Looking to the design styles of the past can reveal a lot about the environment and people of a certain era. It is therefore important to maintain a record of the decorative arts, but wallpaper tends to present a preservation issue. Its very nature is ephemeral, discrete enough to be painted over or scraped off when one grows tired of it. It is easily damaged, stained, defaced, and replaced. Not many records of the wallpaper still remain, and if they do, they might be peeling off the walls of an abandoned summer resort in Union County, NJ, a historic house in Ohio, and even in my parent’s bathroom. In other cases, wallpaper preservation can be much more deadly. Some nineteenth century wallpapers were known to use pigments traced with arsenic, particularly the color green. One such book owned by Michigan State University has been practically shrink-wrapped by cautious librarians to prevent people from directly coming in contact with the arsenic-laden pages. Well-preserved wallpaper sample books are not only fantastically entertaining to flip through but they are brilliant artifacts of varying aesthetics, social changes, economic disparities, and personal preference across a period of time.

If you are interested in looking at the Janeway & Carpender wallpaper books at Rutgers Special Collections or learning more about the companies, you can search our holdings and Sinclair New Jersey Collection in the EAD finding aids, and contact the reference desk with any questions.

Resources:

Arcalus Period Design. http://arcalus.com

Bolling & Co. https://bollingco.com

Deserted Village, Union County, NJ. http://ucnj.org/parks-recreation/deserted-village/

Manufacturers’ Association of New Jersey. (1919). Manufacturers’ Association bulletin. Manufacturers’ Association of New Jersey. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiug.30112064282780

New Brunswick File Collection. NJ014. Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University. http://www2.scc.rutgers.edu/ead/snjc/nbverticalfileb.html

New Jersey Trade and Manufacturers’ Catalog Collection. NJ009. Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.

Scannell’s New Jersey’s first citizens and state guide. (n.d.). Paterson, N.J.: J.J. Scannell,.

Bonney, Grace. The White Wall Contraversy: How the All-White Aesthetic Has Affected Design. http://www.designsponge.com/2016/05/the-white-wall-controversy-how-the-all-white-aesthetic-has-affected-design.html

Victoria and Albert Museum. A Short History of Wallpaper. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/short-introductory-history-of-wallpaper/

Zawacki, Alexander J. (2018). How a Library Handles a Rare and Deadly Book of Wallpaper Samples. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/shadows-from-the-walls-of-death-book

 

 

Admiring the New Brunswick view in 1838

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View of New Brunswick by lithographer J.H. Bufford, seen from the Rail Road hotel on the other side of the Raritan River

By Helene van Rossum

Pencil sketch copy of lithograph by J.H. Bufford with caption "View of the City of New Brunswick, N.J.: Taken from the Rail Road Hotel at East Brunswick."
Pencil sketch by C. C. Abeel, based on a lithograph by J.H. Bufford (view)

Visitors to our new website may recognize the image in the top right corner as the yellowed pencil sketch in our recent exhibit Rutgers through the Centuries. Nothing is known about the artist C.C. Abeel, but we do know the original lithograph on which his drawing is based: J.H. Bufford’s View of the City of New Brunswick, N.J. taken from the Rail Road Hotel at East Brunswick. The lithograph, which can be found in our Pictorial Collection, was published about 1838 with a helpful list of the sites depicted. In this blog post we will have a closer look.

Advertisement for the newly established hteol titled "Accommodation House at the Rail Road Depot, East Brunswick" by R. Witty
New Brunswick Daily Times ad for the Rail Road Hotel, June 7, 1837

 

The railroad and the Rail Road Hotel

The Railroad Hotel was established shortly after the opening of the railroad from Jersey City to New Brunswick by the New Jersey Railroad and Transportation Company in 1836. The line ended at the terminus on the eastern bank of the Raritan River in what was known as East Brunswick (now Highland Park). Passengers to New Brunswick had to go down steep stairs from the tracks and take a carriage across the Albany Street bridge. Some passengers, however, went to the Railroad hotel instead, advertised as “a most desirable retreat during the summer months” for its “beautiful location” (right). It was from this hotel that the young artist and lithographer John Henry Bufford (1810-1870) drew his View of New Brunswick shortly after the building of the railroad bridge, which put an end to the East Brunswick terminus.

 

Detail of the litograph depicting bridge over the RaritanRiver  and horse back rider on the river bank
Left part of Bufford’s “View of New Brunswick” with the Albany Street Bridge

The Raritan River and sloop canal

As Jeanne Kolva and Joanne Pisciotta describe in Highland Park: Borough of Homes the new two-tier railroad bridge, which carried pedestrians, carriages and wagons on its lower level, caused competition for the old Albany Street bridge. The wooden toll bridge, built in 1794 (#2 on the left), was left to deteriorate and was ultimately demolished in 1848. Parallel to the Raritan (#1) on the New Brunswick side of the river was the newly dug Delaware & Raritan Canal or, in Bufford’s words, “Sloop Canal” (#4). One of the major engineering feats of the era, it was created between 1830 and 1834 for three million dollars, dug by immigrants, mainly by hand. Canal boats carrying freight were towed by mules along the canal, but in Bufford’s lithograph there are only one-masted sailboats (sloops). To complete the picture of New Brunswick as a transportation hub, Bufford drew a steamboat from New York, one of the many managed by Cornelius Vanderbilt or one of his competitors (#3).

 

Detail of the lithograph depicing railroad bridge with train and Rutgers College in the distance
Right part of “View of New Brunswick” with railroad, Rutgers College and canal lock

Railroad bridge and view to the right

The new bridge, built in 1838, was the first railroad bridge across the Raritan river.  Bufford’s depiction of the lower tier (#7) makes the noise and darkness experienced by passengers and horses easy to imagine. To the north of the new railway bridge was the canal lock that allowed boats to move from the upper to the lower level of the Raritan & Delaware Canal at New Brunswick.

Detail of a colored map showing Raritan River and rail road bridge
Canal lock and water power plant to the north of the Rail Road Bridge, 1837 (view)

Bufford drew the canal lock as well as structures that he listed as “Water Works & Mill seats” (#8). Maps of New Brunswick from our Map Collection shed light on what Bufford depicted. While a map of 1837 only displays the water power plant behind the lock, a later map reveals an adjoining saw mill and paper and cotton factory. In the distance Bufford drew Rutgers College, founded as “Queens College” in 1766 (#9). The first cornerstone of the building, presently known as “Old Queens,” was laid in 1809 but it was only expanded to its present size in 1825 after financial support was received from various sources, including the philanthropist Henry Rutgers, who also donated the college’s bell.

 

Detail of the lithograph depicting hikers sitting on a tree trunk admiring the view
Middle part with hikers, horse rider and man with dog and gun

Admiring the view

As described in Views and Viewmakers of Urban America businesses greatly benefited from the portrayal of their cities as bustling centers of industry, commerce, and progress. In stark contrast with the novelties of the canal, railroad, and bridge is the tranquility of the scene at the front. Seated on a tree trunk is a company of wanderers (5), admiring the view, which includes the sloops on the canal (#4) and the spires of the Dutch Reformed Church (6, left) and Christ Episcopal Church (6, right). On the left is a horse rider following the path along the river; on the right we see a man and a dog, hunting birds. They all look like they will soon have refreshments at the Railroad Hotel.

 

With thanks to Al King, Manuscripts Curator.

 

Further study

 

Hungry in the Hub City

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By Catherine Babikian

When it comes to eating, Rutgers students have always had plenty of options, from pubs and taverns to diners and ice cream parlors. Today, we’ve dug into our archives to get a glimpse of what Rutgers students in the 1980s had to eat.

Shelly’s Ice Cream on Easton Avenue served sandwiches, subs, and most importantly, ice cream sundaes and milkshakes. Students really craving ice cream could order the “Heavy Chevy”: four scoops of ice cream, two sundae toppings, whipped cream, nuts, and sprinkles!

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Shelley’s Ice Cream, 1980s. Sinclair NJ Restaurant Menu Collection.

And students looking for Sunday brunch only needed to look to Stuff Yer Face for egg, bacon, or mushroom stromboli–or perhaps a frittata?

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Stuff Yer Face, 1980s. Sinclair NJ Restaurant Menu Collection.

The Rusty Screw Tavern offered standard pub fare along with live music and film screenings. In 1984, the restaurant welcomed the Rutgers class of 1988 to campus with a free concert, featuring the new wave band The Resistorz.

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The Rusty Screw Tavern, 1984. Sinclair NJ Restaurant Menu Collection.

Later in the semester, students could stop by the Rusty Screw for a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Big Chill.

Snow in the City

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By Christie Lutz

With the first snowstorm of the season approaching, we reflect on the Great Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane. The storm buried the East coast from Maryland to Maine as well as the Eastern provinces of Canada.  The following images of New Brunswick during the storm are from our New Brunswick Views photograph collection.

George Street
George Street

 

George Street, looking north towards Albany Street.
George Street, looking north towards Albany Street.

 

Northwest corner of George and Bayard Streets, south of Church Street.
Northwest corner of George and Bayard Streets, south of Church Street.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Congregation Poile Zedek, New Brunswick

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Sketch of Poile Zedek
Sketch of Poile Zedek

 

By Ron Becker

We at Rutgers University Libraries were saddened when on October 23rd, we learned that Congregation Poile Zedek suffered a terrible loss when fire ravaged their beautiful historic synagogue building damaging the structure and its contents including the loss of most of their sacred Torahs. Founded in 1901, Poile Zedek was part of a once thriving New Brunswick, NJ Jewish community centered in the downtown Hiram Market area. Poile Zedek was one of four synagogues in the neighborhood which included Ahavas Achim, Etz Ahaim, and Ohav Emeth. In their early years, each had a predominance of members who hailed from different parts of Europe. Poile Zedek was Polish, Ahavas Achim was Russian, Ohav Emeth was Hungarian, and Etz Ahaim was Sephardic (Spain and Portugal).   The other three congregations are now centered in Highland Park where the majority of the New Brunswick Jewish community migrated. Ahvas Achim suffered a similar tragic fire and rebuilt in 1987 in Highland Park.

Poile Zedek minutes written in Yiddish
Poile Zedek minutes written in Yiddish

We at the Rutgers University Libraries extend our best wishes to the members of Poile Zedek in their desire to rebuild in the wake of this tragedy. One very small consolation is that they had the foresight to donate their congregational records to Special Collections and University Archives in 1987.   Consisting of the Constitution, minutes of meetings, financial documents, building committee files and other memorabilia, the materials date from 1917. All the early records are in the Yiddish language. The public is invited to visit our repository to examine this material which is described in detail through the finding aid which can be accessed at

http://www2.scc.rutgers.edu/ead/manuscripts/poilezedekf.html