If these walls could talk...

By Deborah Holmes
Photos courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum


The Baldizzi ApartmentWhen itcomes to the florid roses and ivy trellises of the mass-produced wallpapers from1880s on, "stripping" is typically paired with"wallpaper." But aNew York City museum is taking a fresh look at the humble,machine-produced wall coverings that became part of the history of so many oldhouses.

Preservationists from The Lower East Side Tenement Museum are meticulously excavatingthe layers of wallpaper in the museum's building at 97 Orchard Street.The results are a flip book in the life of a tenement built in 1864.

Style for the masses

By 1890, wallpaper was no longer a luxury only for wealthy homeowners. Hand-printed papers, silks and murals were still the province of the well-to-do. Butmachines now produced roll after roll of paper imitations -- for as littleas four cents a double roll.

For New York's immigrants, theinexpensive wallpaper represented a chance to add a pleasing, personal touch todreary, crowded tenement apartments. On some walls, the museum has uncovered 23 layers of wallpaper -- evidencethat not only suggests the affordability of wallpaper, but the high turnover oftenement dwellers, and frequent redecoration.

In the 71 years from its erection in 1864, 97 Orchard Streetwas home to an astonishing 7,000 immigrants from 70 different countries. Tenants often took it uponthemselves to adorn their own apartment walls, says the museum, either becauseof landlord neglect or a tenant's desire to express personal tastes. Wallpapersdiffered from apartment to apartment, and from room to room.

(The following photos and captions come from the LowerEast Side Tenement Museum.)

A wallpaper excavation, layer by layer

Layer 1: Removing the paper

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Wallpaper was soaked, then carefully removed in small patches foranalysis.

These samples, some with faint designs, and others with maker's marks,were then examined on-site or taken to a lab for analysis.

Layer 2: Preserving the paper

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Many of thepapers had deteriorated considerably, as a result of age andwater damage. To preserve the samples,most were taken to a lab for cleaning and repair. Each sample was then stored in the TenementMuseum's archives.

Often the greatest obstacle to preservation was the type of paper itself. Papers that hadbeen originally laminated proved to be the simplest to remove and study.

Layer 3: Origins of the paper

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Wallpaper probably made its debut at 97 Orchard Street in the 1890s.While the art of wallpaper steadily increased in popularity in the 1870s and80s, it was not until the 90s that it reached the masses.

In that decade,thirty-four wallpaper manufacturers competed in the hot New York City market,resulting in a total of 200,000 rolls of paper produced annually and affordableprices for almost any consumer looking to decorate "on the cheap."

Layer 4: Four cents a roll

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In 1898, the New York Timesreported that the average grades of wallpapers ranged in cost from four cents totwo dollars per roll. Because of the size of a tenement apartment (325 squarefeet), it was conceivable that an entire home could be papered for less than adollar.

Manufacturers knew their market and advertised accordingly. Patternbooks were distributed, offering everything from simple floral designs toswirling arabesques and medallions.

In many cases, these patterns mimicked and even rivaled those available towealthier consumers. A 1913 Sear Roebuck catalogue advertised a textured bronzesample for fourteen cents per double roll. This, along with silver ground paper,matching borders and ceiling papers, made high class home decorating in thetenements very affordable.

Layer 5: The industry

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At least eight manufacturers supplied wallpaper to 97 Orchard Street, almost all of which were members of the National Wallpaper Company. The National Wallpaper Company's main tasks were to provide a forum through which manufacturers could communicate with one another and to promote wallpaper as an artistic, elegant way to beautify the home.

The company went to great lengths to promote wallpaper as a form of modern art, going so far as to exhibit at the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition. These "art" papers, as they were called, were often made with heavy, high-grade stock and featured designs inspired by the new, wildly popular "Arts and Crafts Movement" that swept New York just after the turn of the century.


Layer 6: The landlord

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It is likely that the landlord wasresponsible for keeping the apartments fashionably up-to-date, at least atfirst. In fact, Lucas Glockner, who built the tenement and lived in it with hisfamily until 1886, seems to have painted the walls and stained the woodwork ofall of the apartments regularly throughout his ownership of the building.

Layer 7: The tenant

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As successive layers of paint and paper were removed from 97 Orchard Street, it became clear that tenants often took it upon themselves to adorn their own apartment walls.

Either because of landlord neglect or a tenant's desire to express his or her own personal tastes through decorative treatments, wallpapers eventually differed from apartment to apartment. In some cases, up to twenty-three layers of paper were found on the walls, suggesting that the affordability of wallpaper, as well as the high turnover of tenement dwellers, led to frequent re-decoration of the apartments.

Layer 8: Applying the wallpaper

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The preservation of so many layers of wallpaper samples for modern-day archival use was helped along by an historical irony: it was nearly impossible for a tenant to remove old wallpaper, so it was necessary to paper over it in order to upgrade to a new design.

While an effective technological method for wallpaper removal was developed in 1905, most tenants were left to their own devices. One method was to douse old layers with hot water and scrape them away with a knife; another was to simply rip off portions that were loose and paper over the rest.

Layer 9: Other decorations

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Wallpaper was clearly one of the most inexpensive ways of making the home a happy escape from the hubbub of everyday life on the streets of the Lower East Side.

Even so, tenants displayed plenty of other decorative items throughout the home. When they had the money to purchase decorations, tenants would cover the unsightly elements of their spaces with more pleasing ornamentation. Lace doilies, Currier and Ives prints, and hand painted stenciling were simple, cost-effective ways to ensure that a tenement apartment exuded as much warmth as the apartments of wealthier New Yorkers.

Layer 10: Jacob Riis, documenting tenement conditions

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One of the leading social reformers ofthe early twentieth century was writer, photographer, and activist, Jacob Riis.With camera in hand, he documented the most reprehensible, disturbing elementsof tenement life. Critics of Riis have taken issue with his readiness to stagehis photographs to depict -- often unfairly -- the most extreme conditions.

His photographs, however, do provide strong evidence of the contrasts thatexisted in these buildings. Within his image of a disheveled man seated at a"black-and-tan dive" at the turn of the century is a clear view of anintricately embellished wallpaper. Even in the most unseemly of tenementsettings, attention to decor was hardly ever overlooked.

Layer 11: Tenement reforms

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Jacob Riis wasn't the only one concerned with life in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Social reformers poured into the area between 1890 and the 1910s, organizing groups to improve the lives of families and often attempting to impose what were deemed "American" values upon them.

Many reforms were of great help to tenants: "dumbbell" tenements were built, which created airshafts for previously unventilated rooms; toilets were required for every floor of a tenement building.

However, other reforms were more of a headache than a help. One of these was the restriction of wallpaper.

Layer 12: Results of reform

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The Tenement House Department enacted legislation in 1906 that would "eliminate the problems" created by the purported diseases, germs, and insect infestations introduced to tenement apartments by wallpaper.

Because most layers of paper were difficult to remove and were, on occasion, left dirty prior to the application of new layers, reformers felt that grimy tenement walls were an open invitation to vermin of all kinds. In addition to these layers, adhesives made of flour and water were often used to attach the paper - also a treat for hungry insects, the reformers complained.

Though there was scant evidence to prove that wallpaper was actually creating these problems, the Department banned the use of wallpaper. The suggested replacement was yellow or white paint. Tenants at 97 Orchard Street, like tenement-dwellers throughout the city, offered up an apt response: they ignored the law and continued to paper their walls.

Layer 13: Telling the story of tenement life

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Perhaps the greatest difficulty in telling the story of the Lower East Side is the lack of material culture that has survived for contemporary analysis. Items like clothing, furniture, jewelry, toys, wall-coverings and rugs have all but disappeared into junk-piles. A hundred years ago, no one saw the worth of preserving the stories and material possessions of the urban poor.

Today, we are fortunate to have 97 Orchard Street, with its peeling walls and rusty gas fixtures, as a physical record of the lives our ancestors led in this country. Not only does it give us a sense of the struggles fought by immigrants in the past, it gives us a fresh perspective on the equally powerful stories of immigrants coming to the U.S. today.


Photos of 97 Orchard Street ->

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