, Salem, MA


March 28, 2013

Papering over the past

Programs will highlight historic French wallpapers

SALEM — History is written not just in textbooks, but in the ways people lived their lives: how they designed their clothes, cooked their food and furnished their rooms.

The search for history in everyday artifacts will be featured in a program, “French Visions of America in 1834,” next Thursday, April 4, at the Salem Visitor Center.

This kind of study has become increasingly important over the past few years, “particularly this idea of consumer studies, and especially in the Revolutionary and Colonial periods,” said Emily Murphy, park historian at the Salem Maritime Site. “Talking about people without the context they were living in is kind of cold.”

The program, billed as a “scholarly soiree,” is a symposium that will be moderated by Juliette Fritsch, chief of education and interpretation at the Peabody Essex Museum, and feature museum and academic experts from France and the United States. The focus is 19th-century French wallpaper manufactured by Zuber et Cie.

“The Zuber company in the early 19th century was producing these scenic wallpapers, designed for houses like the great captain’s houses we have in Salem,” Murphy said. “In 1834, they produced this series called ‘Views of North America.’”

The views depicted are of Niagara Falls, Boston Harbor, New York Harbor, West Point and Virginia’s Natural Bridge, all of which are now either national parks or national historic sites.

While these images were intended at the time to decorate walls, to historians today they offer unique windows into the past — not so much for what they depict that was beautiful, as for what they conceal about reality.

“So, early, you have these places already identified as iconic American scenes,” Murphy said. “The other interesting thing is in the people you see at the bottom of the scenes, there is a mixture of races. That gives an interesting perspective as to what the French, who had just been through the revolution, what their vision of America was.”

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