Monthly Archives: November 2017

Hidden Wallpaper in the Sitting Room, Another Mystery

To our surprise, we found more unusual wallpaper in the sitting room at the Akin House. While it hasn’t been closely examined, nor photographed to the best effect, this recent discovery begs many questions about the origins of the practice of applying wallpaper in an area that is seldom seen. The fact that it was found in a cupboard would indicate perhaps another room or the existence of an open and larger storage area at one time. This particular cupboard is on the left side of the fireplace, abutting the stairs to the second story. The remarkable artistry of this decor was never noticed by those of us who worked on the preservation of the house for over a decade.

A view of the corner cupboard, above left of the fireplace in the sitting room. Note the staircase to the second story.

Photos of the wallpaper taken from the depths of interior of the cupboard.

We again consulted with Sally Zimmerman, Senior Preservation Services Manager of Historic New England (HNE).

She noted that it was not the first time she has seen wallpaper in a place under the stairs and hidden. She added that it could have been used as a liner, albeit a decorative one, for the cupboard, or possibly for some other space, if there was a different floor plan. “That was the case at [an]other place, in Maine, where it was found in an area under stairs and in a closet which might have opened into another space at one time. We never nailed down that other cupboard and its paper so maybe just a mystery!”

We also looked at American Decorative Wall Painting–1700-1850, the New England Edition by Nina Fletcher Littler, published in 1989 by E. P. Dutton. We found a similar decorative feature on a staircase

While this rendition is free-hand hand-painted in brown on a gray background, as the caption indicates, it is striking in its resemblance to our wallpapered stairs.

About the Dutton House

According to the Shelburne Museum website, the Dutton House portrays the home of an 1820s New England entrepreneur and his family. The house was built by Salmon Dutton in Cavendish, Vermont in 1782 and served as both as family residence and—at various times in its history—a tavern, an inn, and office space for several different enterprises. Dutton House was moved to the [Shelburne] Museum in 1950 when a road-widening project threatened the structure. It was the first dwelling relocated to the grounds. Check out the slide show of the Dutton House.

Back to the Akin House

Several years ago, the late architectural historian, Anne W. “Pete” Baker speculated that it was possible that the staircase was not original.  In any case, we have yet to find the original. But this discovery opens up some new possibilities about the origins of this wallpaper, hidden in plain sight in the cupboard. This finding creates another research project.

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The Mystery Behind the Early Wallpaper in the Sitting Room: Part 2

An extraordinary room revealed

This unremarkable sitting room turned out to be a rare example of early decorative wall coverings that no one could have expected or even imagined. In fact, we were astounded by what we found underneath the 20th century features and materials predominating the room. The Akin House surprised us yet again!

What’s the mystery?

The early decorative wall coverings came to light in August 2017. No one knows for certain when the original wallpapers were last seen. It appears that when the owners made changes to this little house, they just kept adding and covering. The first reveal of this room as it might have been in the late 18th century was nothing short of impressive.  The ghosts of this house had reappeared in the guise of the decorative arts of that time.

We consulted with Historic New England (HNE) to determine if similar wallpapers were to be found in their collections.

HNE’s Sally Zimmerman suggested that I speak with the folks at the Center of Painted Wall Preservation.

Although the Center specializes in historic painted walls such as murals and stencils, and not wallpaper, Director Linda Lefko was intrigued by our findings and agreed to embark on the research.  She contacted the Center’s experts in the hope that someone might be familiar with this type of wall decoration.

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Mystery Solved!

Following consultations with members of the Center’s advisory panel, this is what they learned. Arsenic was a significant clue.

In Lucinda Hawksley’s book Bitten by Witch Fever–Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home, published in 2016 by Thames & Hudson, Ltd., London, she writes “In late eighteenth century England, the physician Thomas Fowler concocted a solution of 1 per cent potassium arsenic (‘liquor mineralis’) for the treatment of fevers and headaches.” She notes that Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish/German chemist introduced arsenic to green pigment to create what became known as Scheele’s green. She goes on to write “It is understandable that the use of white arsenic pigments, beginning with Scheele’s green in 1775, was not immediately perceived as a health hazard.”

By the late 18th century, wallpaper manufacturers soon added arsenic to create the bright colors embraced by the public. By the late 19th century, its toxicity could no longer be ignored, regardless of William Morris’s protestations to the contrary.

While the Center for Painted Wall Preservation didn’t actually date our wallpaper, the arsenic in the wallpaper explains the unusual effect of the design, some of it left intact even after about 250 years. Insects were repelled by arsenic. It is not farfetched to suggest that the wallpaper in our sitting room is very early. Did anyone fall ill or die because of this toxic decor, we may never know.

The Center’s report (below) solves the mystery and shows an example of this phenomenon by a fellow conservator in a 1830 house in Topsham, Maine. Richard Nylander, retired senior curator of HNE and a wallpaper specialist also noted “The block foliate pattern, probably of the 1840s, is typical of wallpaper designs of the 1845-1860 period.”, also pictured in the Center’s report.

Please read on:

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We thank HNE and the Center for Painted Wall Preservation without whose help, this mystery might yet to be solved.

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The Mystery Behind the Early Wallpaper in the Sitting Room: Part 1

The above image was photographed in 2003 showing the sitting room as found during the examination process of saving this house.
Please note that this article is in two parts. This is Part 1.


It’s always important to provide context when discussing historical subjects and objects. In this case, our subject is antique wallpaper, and to we contemporary folk historic and worth studying.  Used as an important feature to enhance the walls of a room, it can transform a drab and uninteresting space to a decorative marvel. Wall coverings capture a realism of a past societies and their homemaking cultures.
We are fascinated by the history of wallpaper, especially all wall coverings prior to the 20th century. The wallpaper we found at the 1762 Akin House has engendered a great deal of curiosity.
When were wall coverings applied over the whitewashed boards in the sitting room? Soon after occupancy, several years or decades later?

[Please refer to other articles about wallpaper in our 2017 archives. We will discuss the original features in other rooms and the lives of the inhabitants in later blogs.]

A little background

Just imagine the feeling of the rooms when Job Mosher and his wife Amie Akin (Elihu’s niece) moved into their brand new but modest house in 1762.  In that time, the pine and oak wall panels would have been whitewashed, applied for utilitarian purposes such as to deter vermin, and to brighten up the living spaces, especially at sunset when firelight and candlelight were the only sources of light. Perhaps sparsely furnished with braided rugs and homespun textiles covering the windows, these are likely the characteristics of the original home. We cannot know for certain what this young couple could afford  in creature comforts or how much help in the way of a dowry that Amie received.

Given its size, the sitting room or small parlor was probably used for intimate family gatherings. We can imagine life in the 18th-19th century in that room–a rocker, a candle stand, a bookcase or small desk with chair, and a couple of soft chairs over an area rug, a small pile of firewood in the corner. The fireplace would have generated some heat for warmth even in the uninsulated cold winters.

This use of this room by 20th century tenants also remains a mystery although our hope is that someone will come forward with photographs and anecdotes of life during those decades.

Why is the sitting room so important now?

During the initial stages of preservation and restoration planning, this room never held as much attention when compared to the rest of the house. The presence of ghosts was not as acutely felt. Equipped with a fireplace and cabinets on either side of the hearth, the room’s 20th century wallpaper was an attention-getting red pattern style that added a pleasant enhancement. This room didn’t show as much wear and tear as the other rooms. By that time, the fireplace was covered with board. During house tours, this room was filled with display tables for visitors; at other times, it was used for storage.

The images below show the room in the 21st century.

This summer, the preservation and restoration work required that we remove most of what is seen in the above photographs.

Now on to Part 2.

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Whitewashing Practices when the Akin House was Built

The featured image of whitewashed wall boards is located in a part of the house that may have been a small bedroom or birthing room, off the kitchen/gathering room. By the 20th century, this wall and others had been covered with a variety of materials, the last being wood paneling popular in many homes in the 1960s and 1970s. The original whitewashed boards and beams are a wonder to behold, transporting you to a different time.

We like to consult with Historic New England (HNE) on all matters related to historic properties. Sally Zimmerman, Senior Preservation Services Manager, has provided invaluable assistance and resources on the many questions we’ve posed about the Akin House, looking for similarities to other 18th century houses.  To members of HNE’S Historic Homeowner’s program, the wealth of information available from their collections and experience in managing a variety of historic properties across New England is second to none.

The ancient techniques of whitewashing are no exception and the Akin House offers very fine examples.

Sally Zimmerman of HNE has shared a pretty straightforward tutorial which explains the formula and process clearly, and in some detail.

This enlightening exchange with HNE has reinforced our plans to reveal the whitewashed walls, post and beams in situ at the Akin House. We are also considering a whitewash treatment of the newly installed post and beams. There will be no mistaking the original with the new and will fulfill our mission to educate on historic techniques that continue to serve a purpose today.

Once our preservation and restoration work is completed, DHPT plans to host a “Tom Sawyer” whitewashing how-to event at the Akin House in partnership with HNE, deemed of great interest to historic homeowners. Twenty-first century owners still use whitewash on barns and chicken coops, as well as whitewashing contemporary wall, ceiling, and furniture, introducing the historic to modern homes.



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Selecting a Historic Period for Preservation and Restoration

The life of this pre-Georgian cape style house spans centuries. As with our past preservation and restoration work which included stabilization from the foundations up, we approached phase three guided by The Department of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The time had come to select a “historic period.”

By 2003, the existing conditions of the unoccupied house suggested to many that this building should be demolished. Guided by our belief that every historic house can be saved, we [2003: Waterfront Historic Area League; 2007: DHPT] forged ahead. Historic preservation projects require many champions, over many years.

Looking past the mess and the rot as seen in above photos, we discovered and uncovered architectural features and materials representing a wide range of periods.

The inhabitants made repairs and improvements for their times, introducing layer upon layer of changes.

The initial preservation and restoration planning suggested that we might interpret various architectural and socio-economic periods up to and including the 20th century. Over the past several years, our interpretive tours encompassed historic narratives about the lifespan of the house and its cultural history. But, this made for a limited visitor experience. Reminiscences about the recent past, indeed nostalgic tales of 20th century tenants in a really old house, overshadowed the deepest early history.

We learned that the intrinsic value of this extant 18th century house, with few such houses remaining in this community, heightened its rarity as an irreplaceable cultural asset. The longer this house was able to survive, in any condition, the more significant it became.

This little house with a big story to tell informed our decision. We started the third phase of restoration in August 2017 with careful deconstruction to its original and early features, previously hidden from view.  The historic period for restoration revealed itself. Those early materials and architectural features that remained viable were left in situ or stored until reinstallation later in the project.

These discoveries spoke loudly about the historic period most significant to this house, both in their rarity and historical connections. Erected before the Declaration of Independence, this building survived the pre-Revolutionary War period, the September 1778 invasion by the British and Tory Loyalists which destroyed the Akin holdings on the harbor, leaving Elihu Akin to seek refuge on his property on Potter’s Hill, located at 762 Dartmouth Street known as the Akin House.

[The experiences of the entrepreneurial Akin family and other settlers who started life in the colonies as British subjects and who became “patriots” for independence from British rule are well documented and included in this site.]

Our plan to restore the house selectively to its colonial period through the early 19th century turned out to be the best approach to showcase this house and its heritage as a living history cultural center. Mid to late 19th and 20th century features which included materials such as wallpaper fragments, wallboard, plaster/laths, were either discarded or saved for use as didactic displays.

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