I recently had the opportunity to look at the museum’s collection of curtain papers, a lesser known group in the Wallcoverings department. A visiting paper conservator from the UK’s National Trust was researching curtain papers and while in New York on a courier trip stopped by to see Cooper Hewitt’s examples.
Not much is known about how or why curtain papers were used. The papers are all printed with decorative patterns and given a very fine embossing which would facilitate draping. They were styled and hung like regular fabric curtains. The size of the panels vary greatly, from a few feet in length, up to twelve feet. Multiple widths of paper were sewn together to make wider panels, and all the outer edges were seamed. No hardware remains but a cloth tape sewn along the top edge retains evidence of being pleated. The sets also came complete with tie-backs.
The larger panels could only be used for exterior windows, and the ephemeral nature of paper begs the question “why paper curtains?” My thought has been that these curtains were maybe used in country houses, or possibly put up in the summer months when the heavier drapes were being cleaned. But if you left your window open and it rained, your curtains would be ruined.
There are also surviving examples of curtain papers being used for bed hangings, which makes more sense. There they would be more protected from the elements and less prone to fading. It is one such example in the National Trust that prompted this conservator’s research.
One of the earliest mentions of curtain papers appears in The Boston Recorder in 1842. An advertisement from wallpaper manufacturer, J. Bumstead & Son, listed “window curtain paper, textured both sides, variable widths.” The Jeffrey & Co. sample can be dated to 1872 by a Registered Stamp printed in the selvedge.
Greg Herringshaw is the Assistant Curator in Wallcoverings.