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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An Examination of Wallpaper at the Akin House

The inhabitants of our 1762 house, still extant in 2017, would have added decorative details over the centuries. Originally constructed with wide pine panels serving as interior walls and whitewashed, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.

[For more information about whitewashing, please refer to another blog on this subject, under construction.]

When the Akin House property was saved by the Waterfront Historic Area League of New Bedford in 2003 with the use of Dartmouth’s Community Preservation Act funds for its purchase, the house was deemed beyond saving and, frankly, a total mess. With the exception of die-hard preservationists and historians, very few believed it was worth saving.

DHPT took over the preservation and restoration of the property in 2008 and our work continues to this day. Our accomplishments and the history of this house are featured throughout this website.

We found many layers of wallpaper to get to the original pine panels. These layers represent many centuries of decorative enhancements up until the late 20th century. Over the transpiring years of restoration work, we have saved fragments of wallpaper.  While some bits and pieces had greatly deteriorated, as long as it could be identified, we set it aside for future study. We were particularly interested in the layers of wallpaper found in the two parlors. We photographed in situ and set aside the released wallpaper for future use as didactic displays for education purposes.

Below is just a sample. For a closeup, click on the image.

Wallpaper fragments in Large Parlor. The pine panel is visible



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The 1762 Akin House Revealed

Eighteenth Century Caulking Methods

This fragment of linen was discovered in the Large Parlor in between two of the original pine boards or panels, closest to the entryway from the hallway. Was linen used as caulking? Quite possibly.

The featured image represents the only fragment found thus far.  It is rare indeed.

Keep checking our Blog!

For the next several months, we will be posting our findings and research as the structural bones and original materials from the 18th century are uncovered.

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Peel Away the Layers to Reveal the Shadows of History

Phase 3 Restoration

Phase III restoration of the 1762 Akin House has begun with a detailed examination of each room and the removal of centuries of layers (plaster, lath, 19th/20th C wall boards, wallpaper of different periods) to expose the original features.

 “This little house with a big story to tell”

This little house is sharing its history and the culture of its inhabitants in ways we could not have imagined. Let us introduce you to the small parlor, first examined in 2003 with its circa 1960s paneling and boarded fireplace.  We are sharing for the first time the wonders of this room as it might have been in the 18th C or early 19th C, the wide pine boards and unusual wall coverings–no insulation, just the fireplace for warmth.   We are in touch with historic house experts to help us better understand this house, its early architecture, its decorative finishes, and repairs over 250 plus years.  Stay tuned for more images and information as our research and documentation unfold.


Left image: A layer of early covering suggests an unusual stenciling technique.

Center image: The original pine wall boards (small parlor) revealed in August 2017.

Right image: Close-up view of the wall covering, a pattern repeated throughout this room.

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Akin House Restoration Phase III has begun in earnest

In 2015, DHPT was awarded Dartmouth Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for Phase III restoration at our 1762 Akin House at 762 Dartmouth Street. We recently hired preservation contractor, Tom Figueiredo, of Marion, to do this important job. Tom has been working non-stop on site since August 7, 2017. We are pleased and fortunate to have Tom as our partner in preservation.  His services and expertise was well worth the wait while he was working on another CPA restoration project in Mattapoisett, MA.

To learn more about Tom and his company, visit Be sure to check out the website blog to learn about the recently completed restoration of the ca. 1827 Mattapoisett Meeting House to get a first-hand look at the quality craftsmanship, care and attention to detail that Tom and his team bring to any historic preservation project.

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Henry Worth and the History of the Akins in old Dartmouth

Henry Barnard Worth (1858-1923), a local historian living in New Bedford, was active in the first quarter of the twentieth century. He was a member and officer of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society [New Bedford Whaling Museum] from its inception, and was the author of more than twenty essays published as Old Dartmouth Sketches. His best-known work, in collaboration with photographer Fred Palmer, documented in text and photos some of the oldest houses in our area.

Worth also lectured frequently, both in the local area and further afield. Worth’s papers are archived in the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library.

Why are Worth’s writings important to the history of the Akin family? He wrote extensively about the Akins and their connection to old Dartmouth. He is a “go-to” historian for researchers, even today.

Local historian Bob Maker who is also an archivist with the New Bedford Whaling Museum has interpreted Henry Worth’s sizable research material for contemporary audiences. 

The Akins feature prominently along with other early founders in Worth’s comprehensive narrative about Padanaram Village in south Dartmouth.

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“Down to the Sea in Ships” and the 1762 Elihu Akin House of the early 1920s

In 1921, the Akin House becomes a part of film history as a location for Elmer Clifton’􀁠s Down to the Sea in Ships.

These still photos provide a record of the east side of the Akin House, called the “Old Homestead”, and appears in a late sequence of the film.

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Down to the Sea in Ships was Clara Bow’􀁠s first released film and also depicts Dartmouth’􀁠s Apponagansett Meeting House.

It contains rare footage of a whaling voyage filmed on the Wanderer and the Charles W. Morgan.

This film about New Bedford whaling had its premiere at the Olympia Theatre on September 25, 1922. The whaling footage is considered the best ever filmed and among the rarest.

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