Friday, April 17, 2009

From The Archives - Peeling Back the Layers

This week, we're taking a look at the artifacts in our permanent collection.

The first staff members to set foot in 97 Orchard were shocked to find wallpaper covering the living room walls of each apartment. They'd assumed that tenements were drab places of squalor, where saving money to move out took priority over investing in home decoration. Luckily for residents, their landlord took charge of the building's aesthetics, hiring contractors to paper the walls with attractive prints every 2 to 3 years (most likely when new tenants were about to move in) and raising rents to cover the cost. We don't know exactly how much he spent, but invoices for a contractor working in the East Village at the end of the 19th century show that entire apartments could be papered for $24 to $32. According to other records, a decorator charged $1 to complete a parlor in Alphabet City. Wallpaper was difficult to remove, so contractors simply added new patterns over previous layers. Using water and a paint knife to scrape off samples, a paper conservator we hired in 1990 discovered a total of 18 - 22 layers in each apartment. Scraps, like those below, were added to our permanent collection.

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