, Salem, MA

March 28, 2013

Papering over the past

Programs will highlight historic French wallpapers

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — 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.”

However much it says about the French who made them, these images also raise questions about the Americans who bought them and put them on their walls.

“What does it say, that they’re consuming this translated vision of their country?” Murphy said. “When you are putting wallpaper on your walls that depicts whites and blacks together in a very equal setting, dressed the same way — what is that saying? That they just liked the wallpaper? Is this just something people didn’t notice?”

The reason these images might have raised eyebrows in 1834 is that they seem to ignore the fact that slavery was prevalent in America at the time, said Myriam Zuber, a descendant of the Zuber company’s founder who is herself founder of French American Intercultural Relations and Exchanges, which organized the program with the Bowditch Institute.

Native Americans are also depicted in the wallpaper scenes, Zuber said, at a time when the Indian Removal Act of 1830 allowed Andrew Jackson to force tribes off their ancestral lands.

“It’s an idealizing vision of America,” she said. “There’s a lot of contradiction. That’s what’s intriguing in these wallpapers. They’re not only decorative, they also have a strong message.”

The 1834 series was followed by another, equally idealizing series, Zuber said, which was created in 1852 and inserted heroes of the American Revolution into the scenes.

Jacqueline Kennedy had a set of the wallpapers installed in the Oval Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, where they still hang today.

“She was an arbiter of taste in the ’60s, and she liked these papers,” said Becky Putnam, project manager for the Bowditch Institute.

Kennedy’s role in bringing Zuber wallpaper back to public consciousness in the 20th century will be the focus of a separate talk at Salem Five Bank, which will be followed by a visit to see Zuber wallpaper at the White-Silsbee House on Washington Square.

Although it’s one of several houses on the North Shore that have Zuber paper from the 19th century, it does not feature “Views of America,” but a pattern called “Les Zones Terrestresa,” Putnam said.

'FRENCH VISIONS OF AMERICA 1834' What: Symposium exploring Zuber et Cie's scenic 19th-century wallpaper Who: Presented by Isabelle Dubois-Brinkmann, curator of the Musée du Papier Peint in Rixheim, France; James Abbott, curator of Johns Hopkins Evergreen Museum and author of "Designing Camelot"; and Joanna Gohmann, doctoral candidate in art history at Chapel Hill When: Thursday, April 4, 6 to 8:30 p.m. Where: Salem Visitor Center, 2 New Liberty St. Admission: Free; registration required. RSVP to with "Scholarly Soiree" in the subject line More information: Email, or call Becky Putnam at 978-744-6343. 'CAMELOT CHIC' What: Lecture on Jacqueline Kennedy's role in revitalizing interest in these historic wallpapers, followed by visit to White-Silsbee House Who: Presented by James Abbott, author of "Designing Camelot" When: Thursday, April 4, 12:30 p.m. Where: Community Room, Salem Five Bank, 210 Essex St., Salem Admission: Free; registration required. RSVP to with "Camelot Chic" in subject line. More information: Email, or call Becky Putnam at 978-744-6343.