26 Aug What’s With the Wallpaper?

Ron and I own a Victorian house. You know what that means: wallpaper. The Victorians loved their wallpaper! They loved their wallpaper so much that they put it everywhere, even in their closets and on their ceilings. Unfortunately, wallpaper does not last forever. You can paint over it and even plaster over it, but eventually it peels. This is what is happening in our old house.

Maybe half of our walls have wallpaper. All of this had been painted over by the fraternity that owned the house before us. So we painted over it to and sometimes plastered over it when we first got the house and were trying to stabilize everything (this was condemned property). We didn’t have enough time to strip all the walls of paper. Wallpaper will make a wall look a lot better than it truly is. That was the trade we made in keeping on the wallpaper — it was a quick fix.

Wallpaper got its start (in the 1500s) as an inexpensive wall covering in the days when the rich covered their walls with fabric and other hangings, like tapestries. The not-so-rich adorned their walls with hand-decorated paper, which also helped seal out drafts etc. By the time the Victorians came along, there were inexpensive methods of printing that allowed the middle class to enjoy a wide variety of wallpaper. If you’ve seen some of this stuff, you might think twice about Victorian style. Their wallpaper could be very garish, even weird. Ron and I are fans of the Arts & Crafts style, William Morris especially.

One of the green pigments used on early Victorian wallpaper was poisonous, producing arsenic vapor when it got damp and moldy. Supposedly, this is was what killed Napoleon. When Ron and I scraped off all the wallpaper in my office last year, the unhealthiest thing was the dust created by the frayed paper. It was almost as fine as plaster dust. And it was everywhere! A couple weeks ago, Ron went to patch a wall in the living room and made the mistake of peeling off a piece of painted wallpaper near the patch. That was the beginning of a long process of peeling off all the paper on that end of the room. Once you get started . . . .

I’ve heard horror stories about trying to get wallpaper off. We are lucky enough to have paper that comes up pretty easily. with a plasterer’s spatula (you can sharped these with a belt sander) and a spray bottle of water. Wallpaper glue is water soluble, so loosening it is not complicated. Nevertheless, getting it up and off and refinishing the wall is very time-consuming. Ron has to patch and skimcoat the walls, which are surprisingly rough underneath the paper. It’s going to take a while.

Now I always see Ron eyeing the wallpapered walls with that it’s-got-to-go! look. I tell him there’s no rush, but then sometimes when I’m passing a peeling wall, I can’t help but pull at it. And then pull some more.