A coffee pot, a water pump, a cast iron stove, and fish are just some of the things scattered along the length of this border. They are done in a strong graphic style, and they float haphazardly against a collection of irregular polygons in yellow, green, brown, and red, the same colors used to highlight the objects themselves. The background of the paper is a pale green. The paper is overall quite cheerful with the colors bold but not overbearing and the various food and utensils providing a nice homely touch. The irregular geometric shapes in the background give a nod to abstract art and modernism without being too avant-garde.

A paper like this would have been quite at home in a kitchen, and not simply because of the depiction of rolling pins and food. The American kitchen had not always been a source of wallpaper. Most early wallpapers were printed on paper using water-soluble inks, meaning they would have been ruined if they got dirty or wet. However, fully washable wallpapers, chemically treated after printing, first began to emerge in the 1930s and became standard in the US by the 1950s, making papers in the kitchen a new possibility. But even with the practical considerations removed, why would someone want wallpaper in the kitchen?

In many ways, the development of the nuclear family and the open plan house made the kitchen a public space in a way it had not been before. With houses now designed so that the kitchen opened into the living and dining rooms and was easily seen, the house decorator would have felt the pressure to keep the kitchen as well-decorated as any other part of the house. The house decorator, of course, would have been the wife, and since the kitchen was her domain, it was expected to also bare the marks of her feminine touch and decorating skills. The housewife was expected to transform the home into a paragon of domesticity, where husband and children could escape the outside world of rapid technological and cultural change. Said husband and child could come into the kitchen, perhaps to eat with the rest of the family, and would see a wallpaper like this filled with images of comfortably old-timey stoves and water pumps. Apart from being pleasant on the eyes, this paper with its nostalgic elements would underline the role of the kitchen and its mistress as preservers of traditional family values, ideals of domesticity, and retreat from the new, unfamiliar postwar world.

Nicholas Lopes is a student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies graduate program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.

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