Visitors to the Gibson House Museum often first notice the wallpaper in the grand entryway. It has become the most iconic symbol of the Victorian Era home, which is why I used it as the background for this blog. In this post, I decided to explore the origins of the wallpaper, and the international political context in which it was imported to the United States.
Japan closed itself off from Western trade in 1639. It wasn’t opened up again for another two centuries. The re-opening of Japan began in 1853, when American Commodore Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Harbor with an intimidating naval force. This action led to political negotiations between Japan and the United States. In the next few years, the Japanese government decided to open up trade willingly, in anticipation of being forced to do so anyway. This led to the Harris Treaty of 1858, the first commercial treaty between America and Japan. In 1868, a revolution in Japan put political power back in the hands of the emperor. Under this leadership, it became Japanese policy to assimilate to Western technology, so as to avoid being usurped by it. One result of this policy was the establishment of a factory for kinkarankaragami.
Westerners first saw large quantities of Japanese goods in the London International Exhibition of 1862, which prompted a craze for them. Among the items displayed in the exhibition were wallpapers called kinkarankaragami (which translates to “golden foreign-origin leather paper”). We call this Japanese leather wallpaper, because the paper is meant to resemble leather. This effect is achieved by placing moist paper on carved wood, then beating it with a brush until the design is embossed. After the paper dries, it is then painted, gilded, and treated to render it waterproof.
The paper soon became popular, and easily accessible, in the West. Rottmann, Strome, and Co. was a London-based company that established themselves as primary dealers of the paper through a hefty contract in 1884. They had a showroom in New York, but the paper could also be bought through other suppliers in Boston, and presumably elsewhere in the States. The paper could be bought in pieces 12 yards long by 1 yard wide.
In the late 1800s, the dark and heavy interior styles associated with the Victorian era were being replaced by the lighter style of the Aesthetic Movement, which sometimes highlighted Japanese goods. This movement was in full swing when Rosamond Warren Gibson redecorated the Gibson House in 1890. Naturally, she chose Japanese leather wallpaper for the main entryway of the house. As our curator, Wendy Swanton, writes, “It was modern, and lightened up the space, giving it the rich glow that it still has today. The background color is a pale green, and it contrasts with the dark woodwork in the hall while highlighting it and emphasizing its simple lines. Visitors to the Gibson home would see that they were successful and fashionable.”
The 1890 Japanese leather wallpaper is still in the main entryway of the Gibson House today, although slightly worse for wear. The Gibson Society recently received a grant from the Amelia Peabody Charitable Trust to restore the wallpaper. The process will take place in early February, during which time the museum will be closed.. Check back for future posts with updates on the process and progress of the restoration!
by: Katie Schinabeck, Former Museum Guide