There is now no wallpaper on the walls of the Jabez Bacon House, but this was not always the case. The white plaster walls that grace our rooms reflect a late 20th century esthetic, a spare sensibility that provides a pleasing contrast with the elaborate paneling.
It wasn’t always that way, however. For all of the 19th century and well into the 20th the walls were a riot of colors and flowers, and at some point the woodwork was all painted white. All that’s left to suggest past taste in wall decoration are some old, abandoned fireplace covers that have languished, overlooked and taken for granted, for decades, if not longer, in an attic closet, growing stained and soiled and sadly damaged.
Perhaps the best paper, A French paper circa 1789 – 1800, was sold by the Marvin family to Winterthur in the 1920s. All that we had left was the memory (Someone must have told our parents about the sale, because they never forgot about it, and it lent some additional cachet to the house as a whole) and the damaged sample pictured here. A photo of the wallpaper appears in the Winterthur online catalogue: Winterthur Wall Paper Photograph.
The paper came out of the second floor east chamber, the room with the most elaborate paneling in the whole house. Someone told us once that this room follows an earlier fashion than the paneling in the rest of the house which has a more 1770s esthetic. I wonder if this room, slightly out of date, nonetheless appealed to Jabez best, if its in your face elaborate carving, its double row of dentil molding, its raised panels even on the back sides of the doors, was the room that said, more than any other, that he had more money than anyone around, and here was the proof.
I happened to look up the caduceus, one of the motifs in the wallpaper design, in Wikipedia where I read “By extension of its association with Mercury and Hermes, the caduceus is also a recognized symbol of commerce and negotiation, two realms in which balanced exchange and reciprocity are recognized as ideals. This association is ancient, and consistent from the Classical period to modern times.”
Given the Bacon family’s identity as tradesmen, this seemed very appropriate and I wonder if the selection of the paper for its symbolism was intentional. Or were they just going after something really expensive?
Jabez died in 1806, at the age of 75. Printed between 1785 and 1800, the paper represents a generational shift in esthetics. I wonder if the paper was selected by Jabez himself, or if his son Nathanial chose it. Was it the next generation’s stamp on the house? The first of the changes that the house has seen over the centuries? What had the walls been like before it was there? What color was the room painted? The answer to that question might be hidden underneath the paint currently on the walls. Fortunately Dorothy never needed to go after the paint on the second & third floors the way she did on the first floor.
The only photos we have of the room before our tenure here show it with heavy, leaden 19th century furniture – lugubrious, repressed, and depressing – such a contrast with the lightness of the late 18th century wall paper and representing another generational shift of sensibility. There, too is the ubiquitous white woodwork that somehow managed to make the extraordinary craftsmanship in the house look tired and worn.
I try to imagine the room with the wall paper, the bird tiles, and the paint color in its heyday late in the 18th century. And then I imagine the textiles in the room and the clothing on the people, and I yearn for just a moment of time travel, to enter into the sensibilities of these people, to see the world through their eyes.