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This book presents over 600 historical images and introduces newly discovered artists of tramp art. Made from society’s discards, primarily wooden cigar boxes and wooden crates, tramp art is the story of the common man, unschooled in the arts, taking a simple tool to carve a legacy from the heart for all to enjoy and celebrate.
                                   
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Beauty and Strength from Paper
by Bob Brooke

 


When someone says papier-maché today, most people think back to the days in school art classes when they soaked strips of paper in mixture of flour and water and made a variety of shapes, including puppet heads and fruit, and weird sculptures. But papier-maché had a much more elegant past that’s little known today. During the early 19th century, every household had a least one useful object made of papier-maché.

The Chinese invented papier-maché soon after they invented paper in the second century. In Europe the industry developed in France in the 1650s with small decorative objects, such as boxes made of used paper gathered during the night by billboard strippers. By the early 1760s, Germany had its first papier-maché factory. Russia gained world renown for its lovely hand-painted papier-maché boxes, decorated with landscapes, peasants and scenes taken from Russian folklore.



The term papier-maché is French and means crushed paper. Papier-maché consists of several layers of thick damp paper and vegetable matter pressed together into sheets in an iron mold and then oven dried. After workers took it out of the mold, they coated it with multiple coats of varnish—a process called “japanning,” thus waterproofing it and making it ready for decoration. After artists decorated the item, they applied a final coat of clear varnish to protect it.

In England the papier-maché industry quickly followed the introduction of paper making around 1690. At first people used the pulped paper for interior decoration and architectural ornaments because it was a less expensive than other building materials. Then they applied it to picture and looking glass frames and small ornamental moldings. By 1766, John Taylor of Birmingham had begun to make buttons and snuff boxes.

Papier-maché Panels
n 1772 Henry Clay, also of Birmingham, patented a process for making heat-resistant, hand-smoothed panels of papier-maché. These stronger panels could be sewn and dovetailed just like real wood and were perfect for making furniture.

Clay pasted 10 sheets of unsized rag paper on both sides with a mixture of cooked glue and flour. He then pressed this into a metal mold, smoothing it to remove air bubbles. Finally, he trimmed the edges and drenched the sheets with linseed oil for waterproofing. Lastly, he dried the panels at 1000° F.

The result was a rigid material that could be worked like wood. The use of paper panels came to be known as the "best" papier-mache as opposed to the common papier-mâché made from pulp.

Clay first used this new material for panels on sedan chairs and coaches, where lightness was critical. Next, Clay also used his new panels to manufacture trays. Tea trays, in particular, were the main item produced in great numbers, thanks to the spread of tea drinking among the English middle class. Unfortunately, his patents ran out in 1802.



n 1816, Aaron Jennens and T.H. Bettridge purchased Clay’s factory, which had become the top producer of high quality papier-maché. Jennens developed a technique in which panels could be softened with steam to enable manipulation into a heated metal mold. Workers then screwed a counter mold into position and heat-dried the steam-molded panels. The result was a hard, pre-shaped product of even thickness. By reducing the number of steps and the amount of time required to mold furniture, Jennens revolutionized the process and opened the door to mass-production.

Jennens and Bettridge expanded the traditional repertoire of salvers and snuff boxes to include suites of chairs and even piano casings. Although the new papier-maché was sturdier, furniture makers still considered it wise to build chairs around a wooden frame.

Jennens and Bettridge began to produce papier-maché household furnishings on a larger scale for the English Victorian home and eventually expanded to showrooms in Belgrave Square in London. The firm also became the training school for papier-maché workers, and most men in the industry worked for them at one time.

Trays, however, helped create popularity for papier-maché and were Jennens and Bettridge’s main product. They and some other manufacturers sold them in sets of three.

Japanning
True lacquer comes from the resin of a tree of the sumac family indigenous to the Orient, and in the Far East this resin dries quickly upon exposure to sunlight. Since the lacquer didn’t set properly in the wet English climate, its effect had to be duplicated by various varnishes in a process referred to as "japanning."

Japanning is a British imitation of Oriental lacquer, pioneered by Henry Clay. He dissolved resin in alcohol, then added sizing from boiled parchment along with a whitening material. He applied this to a wooden base, then polished and decorated the surface..

From the beginning, makers of papier-maché housewares japanned them. At first the decoration was simple, with a black or red ground embellished with a guilt border. But in the 1790's, they began to decorate the entire surface. Not surprisingly, Chinese scenes were popular.

Decoration
During its early days, makers of papier-maché items decorated them with metal powders and alloys, applying them with a swab, rather than a brush. Typically, most pieces have a painted floral decoration on a black ground, a characteristic look of Victorian papier-mâché,

Jennens and Bettridge changed the way they decorated their papier-maché, especially with the extensive use of mother-of-pearl as an in-lay material. Inlaid mother-of-pearl then became the most popular method of decorating papier-maché items, along with painting and gliding.

Mother-of-pearl is an iridescent material that lines the shells of some mollusks. The main sources are the pearl oyster found in the tropical seas of the Far East, the freshwater pearl mussel from the United States and European rivers and the abalone from the Pacific Ocean. At first, workers painstakenly cut the mother-of-pearl into various shapes and sanded them smooth until paper thin. They then cemented them into place.

In 1825, Jennens and Bettridge received a patent for improvements in the process of mother-of-pearl decoration. Their process by-passed the need for skilled craftsmen to inlay decoration. Workers ground and polished the mother-of-pearl pieces to a thickness of 0.2-0.4 mm. They then stenciled these thin sheets of material with asphaltum and dipped them hydrochloric acid. The acid dissolved all the shell not protected by the asphaltum, leaving pearl pieces corresponding in size and shape to the stencil pattern. As soon as the japanned surface had been varnished, workers adhered the pieces to it, using the tacky varnish as the adhesive. They then coated the areas of decoration repeatedly with varnish and polished it until the surface was completely smooth, giving the appearance of intricate inlay produced by skilled craftsmen.

Manufacturers used many subjects for decoration, such as landscapes, flower designs, animals and insects. Geometric motifs were also very popular. Artists hand-painted miniature portraits and pictures of castles and famous buildings on some pieces of papier-maché, especially small snuff boxes.

Decorations varied almost as much as the many articles made from papier-maché. Not all papier-maché was made in black, although it appears to be the most common color. Some papier-maché items had green, red or yellow backgrounds, but these are hard to find today.

A Variety of Products
One of the earliest and most popular papier-maché items was the snuff box. The habit of taking snuff began in England in the 17th century and by the beginning of the 18th century over 7,000 shops in London sold snuff.

Papier-maché was an ideal material for snuff boxes because it was cheap and maintained the snuff at the correct humidity. The earliest boxes had no rim, but makers added them later, making a frame for the decoration. They were rectangular or circular in shape, and many snuff boxes had hand-painted ' decoration, usually scenes from famous paintings. Top quality ones came from the workshops of Samuel Raven, who signed most of his work on the inside of the lid.

By the late 18th century, papier-maché trays had become popular. Before long, middle class families didn’t think their homes were complete without a nest of papier-maché trays. Jennens and Bettridge presented a set of three elaborately decorated trays to Queen Victoria on her marriage to Albert in 1840.

The great interest in papier-maché trays resulted in the development of new shapes with a variety of elaborate designs. Shapes were rectangular, octagonal, oval and a form called Gothic. One variety of the Gothic, known as the "parlor maid tray," had one side curved to fit the maid’s waist for support when the tray was heavily laden with tea service items. George Wallis of the Old Hall Works at Wolverhampton created an oval scalloped tray which he called the "Victoria" in honor of the young queen.

Letter writing was of great social importance during the Victorian period, and a complete set of writing materials was provided in the guest rooms of wealthy homes, often made of papier-maché. Lap desks were popular with Victorian ladies. The writing board lifted up to expose stationery and compartments for ink bottles, pen and postage stamps. When the user closed the beautifully decorated cover, the compact lap desk could be kept anywhere as a decorative piece.



Inkstands were also frequently made of papier-maché. They usually had a box for sealing wax placed between two crystal ink bottles with a slot for pens in front. Other papier-maché items used for letter writing were blotters, desk-folio's and letter racks.

In addition to producing decorated papier-maché products, some firms sold blanks to outside decorators. One of the most famous, Samuel Raven, specialized in snuff and tobacco boxes during the first three decades of the 19th century. Amateurs also took up the craft, and it became a popular hobby for English ladies during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Jennens and Bettridge also exported their products to America. In 1850 the Litchfield Manufacturing Company in Litchfield, Connecticut, began producing large quantities of papier-maché, becoming known for its daguerreotype cases, as well as some exquisite clock cases. Their firm's characteristic design was a single rose with hand-painted leaves and stems.

Papier-maché Furniture
Papier-maché cabinets, made to serve the dual purpose of holding both writing and sewing materials, opened on top to display a satin or velvet-lined interior in which ivory or mother-of-pearl sewing tools were kept. Two doors in front covered small drawers made for writing supplies.

While some furniture makers made their pieces entirely of papier-maché, Jennens and Bettridge, however, found their pieces would be more durable if they combined the papier-maché with wood or iron. Although quite rare today, tables, chairs, beds, wardrobes, cabinets and even piano casings can be found made from papier-maché. The papier-maché cabinet desk was especially popular with women.

Jennens and Bettridge also produced a variety of other items from papier-maché, such as fireplace screens and fans, used to protect the ladies delicate complexion from a blast of heat from the open fire. These panels came in pairs and often had elaborate shapes. Fans came mounted on ivory, ebony, or gilt-wood sticks.

Papier-maché items also graced the Victorian table. One of the most unique, called a "voider," was a japanned basket into which servants placed dirty plates and silverware after each dinner course.

Papier-maché calling card cases appeared as early as 1826, becoming more popular later in the 19th century. While some had hinged lids, others came in the folio style, both lined with silk or velvet to keep the cards clean and smooth.

Papier-maché products retained their popularity from 1830 to 1860. As the center of trade shifted from Birmingham to London, the quality declined. By the last quarter of the 19th century, many items of papier-maché were gaudy and displayed shoddy workmanship, causing its popularity to decline.

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