Cleaning Wallpaper at the Turn of the Century

Around the turn of the century, cleaning was a task that required more time and effort than even the all-day job of cooking. The soot and smoke from coal and wood burning stoves constantly dirtied drapes and carpets. Gas and kerosene lamps also left furniture and curtains covered in black soot. Papered walls weren't spared from the grime either, and were in constant need of a wash to keep them from looking dingy.

There were many folk remedies for cleaning wallpaper back then, but most were extremely laborious, as well as risky. Washing with an antiseptic, or fumigation with sulfur were two methods, but these often bleached the color from the paper. A varnish was occasionally applied to the wallpaper in an attempt to make cleaning easier, but the results were never quite worth the effort. In the end, many frustrated homemakers threw out the cleaning altogether, and instead opted to just cover the dirty paper with a new, clean layer. While some believed this method to be unsanitary, covering the old wallpaper with new was a common choice given the alternatives.

Those who were not fortunate enough to have rolls of wallpaper readily available for layering had to resort to other  clever, but controversial, deep cleaning methods. Here is an interesting one from 1839 that was published in “The Good Housekeeper” – cleaning wallpapers with bread. Housemaids would use a clean, dry cloth to sweep dust off the walls, and then rub the cloth on a thick slice of stale bread, and repeat the procedure.

After researching this method a little, I found detailed instructions for this cleaning procedure: Cut a large loaf of bread (two days old) into eight pieces. Blow dust off the wall and, beginning at the top of the room, rub downward with a piece of the bread in half-yard strokes. Continue until the upper part is cleaned, and then go around again, repeating until all has been rubbed down. If done correctly, with every spot touched, the paper will look almost new. Dry cornmeal applied with a cloth may also be used as a substitute for the bread.

Interestingly enough, this advice is not as out-dated as you may think. Before this post, I had never experienced the "bread method" either. However, it seems this advice is still being shared today for cleaning delicate or non-washable wallpaper. That means this method is at least nearly 200-years-old. Can we venture to say, then, that it's a time-tested method for cleaning wallpaper? Probably so.


I Buy and Sell Vintage Wallpaper

It's a bittersweet feeling to sell rolls from my collection of vintage wallpaper. Selling wallpaper, of course, means my business is doing well, so I'm happy to make a sale. But on the other hand, as I ship them off, I'm always sad to see the last of my favorite patterns disappear.

Because of this, I am not only a seller, but a buyer as well. I am always on the lookout for pre-1960s wallpaper, including flocked and mylar, and I will buy one roll or a thousand rolls. I recently received a few leads on some wallpaper that all happened to be located in the same general area. So, my husband and I took advantage of the opportunity and shuffled off to Buffalo (anyone know that John Fogerty tune?), while making a few stops along the way. I found some beautiful patterns and will be adding them to my website within the next few weeks!

Here I am with a few hundred rolls.

I love this pink rose pattern!

A matching plain pattern.

A lovely children's pattern.