Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: Where's the Wallpaper?

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Why are the parlors of 97 Orchard Street’s apartments wallpapered, while the kitchens are not?

Collection of the Lower East Side
Tenement Museum, (c) 2010
While it is not certain when wallpaper made its debut at 97 Orchard Street, a rough estimate places its arrival in the early 1890s. Although evidence of wallpaper was found in the kitchen of apartment 11 on the fourth floor, extant layers of wallpaper were found only in the parlors of the remaining apartments at 97 Orchard Street.

While it is not known why the landlords of 97 Orchard Street chose to apply wallpaper only to the building’s parlors, a possible explanation may rest with room use. Despite the necessity of using space for multiple functions in cramped tenement apartments, historian Lizabeth Cohen has documented the prevalence of parlor-making among working-class immigrants, who defied the pleas of social reformers for simplicity by decorating their parlors with wallpaper, carpets, and a variety of Victorian knick-knacks. Papers designs to cover walls in a parlor featured patterns similar to those at higher-end retailers.

Interestingly, department store catalogs such as Montgomery Ward and Sears advertised a “granite” style paper that was “perfect for the kitchen.” According to the catalogs, the primary selling point for consumers was that the “granite” style paper would hide marks and stains. When advertising wallpaper with flower patterns, manufacturers claimed they were suited best for the bedroom.

Collection of the Lower East Side
Tenement Museum, (c) 2010
Judging by the number of vibrant patterns with colorful flowers used at 97 Orchard Street, tenement landlords seemed to have bought into advertisements with slogans claiming that wallpaper “brightens up a room with low light." But they also defied the advertising jargon by hanging these papers in the parlor, not the bedroom spaces.

1 comment:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.