history of decorative arts in America includes a colorful
chapter between the years of 1778 and 1840 when itinerant
wall stencilers roamed New England country roads, painting
their colorful folk art in homes, inns, and taverns along
the way. This period of time in pre-industrial America is
known as the federal period.
period New England was a time of great change. It was the first
time in the history of our young nation that everyday folks were
able to turn their attention to endeavors other than survival.
The War for Independence was over, the economy was growing, and
commerce was thriving. Folks began to focus on those things that
would make their lives more enjoyable, and more comfortable. They
had a desire to bring design, color and pattern into their lives. They
wanted to enhance their living spaces and to make the interiors
of their homes brighter and more pleasing. Beautiful handmade wallpaper
imported from Europe offered a means to this end. However, most
could simply not afford it. The
roaming New England folk artists with their creativity, eye for
design, and good old yankee ingenuity, provided a quick and affordable
alternative to expensive wallpaper. Using the method of stenciling,
they would divide the walls into panels and then fill the panels
with wonderful folk art motifs, many of which were symbolic of
basic virtues and values. The lively and colorful folk art that
the itinerant wall stenciler left in his trail brought a new kind
of texture and joy to the lives of rural New Englanders. Seeing
their art today still strikes a chord in our hearts…reminding
us of the uncomplicated and ordinary times in the villages and
towns of 19th century New England.
the end of the Revolutionary war, thousands of miles of new
and improved roads were created. Previous to this improvement
travel was arduous, long and often dangerous. These betterments
allowed individuals selling goods and services to gain quicker
and easier access to the once isolated villages and farming
communities throughout New England. The hardy travelers that
made their way along the highways and byways of rural New England
included the likes of country peddlers, doctors, lawyers, preachers,
and the itinerant wall stencilers.
itinerant stencilers would travel by horseback and by foot.
Some pushed carts and others wore heavy leather packs on
their backs. It was usually an interesting and exciting event
when the stenciler arrived in town! Along with his colorful
pigments, sturdy brushes, and stencil kit, he would bring
intriguing news about far away people, places, and events.
When a family would hire the itinerant stenciler, it was
common for all to gather around while he would paint a “sampler” of
his designs and motifs in some inconspicuous place in the
home; for instance, on the attic walls, or on a wall hidden
in a closet. The family would then pick and choose the designs
and patterns that were most pleasing to them.
itinerant stenciler would live with the family during the
time that he was beautifying their home. Often, his only
payment for stenciling the walls in a home would be his food,
drink and lodging. We know that some of the early stencilers
were farmers by trade, so they would practice their craft
during the winter months. Consequently, they often toiled
and traveled under harsh conditions. Even when the stenciler
secured work, and was safely off the cold, snowy roads, it
was not unlikely that many of the rooms he was employed to
decorate had no heat! However, when his job was done, and
it was time to move on to the next town, the lively and colorful
folk art that he would leave behind would brighten and warm
even the coldest of rooms with a cheerful and homespun glow!
Beautiful flower baskets, graceful willow trees, wildflower
sprays and simple vines plump with berries would adorn the
walls in a wash of color. The lives of rural New Englanders
were enhanced by this simple and quaint decoration, and the
dark interiors and plain plastered walls of their homes were
made bright with the hope and promise of spring.
American wall stenciling was but one facet of the folk art
phenomenon that sprang forth out of the life and times of
federal period New England. In “The Flowering of
American Folk Art” , Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester
tell us that folk art distinguished itself from the “fine
arts” in that it was created on the farms, in the
villages, and in the humble homes of everyday New Englanders.
It was art created by the common man for the enjoyment of
the common man. As such, it was often primitive, sometimes
naïve, and yet always charming in its simplicity and
is believed that early American stenciling had its roots
right here in Massachusetts. The earliest recorded stenciled
wall is found in Marlborough at the old Abner Goodale homestead.
In 1778, when Goodale was home recuperating from wounds he
suffered in the Revolutionary War, he had the walls of his
home stenciled. This sprucing up of his homestead was done
in preparation for the arrival of his soon-to-be bride, Molly
Howe. Molly was the daughter of Ezekiel Howe, owner of the
Red Horse Tavern (now known as Longfellow’s Wayside
Inn) and it is located just down the road in Sudbury, Massachusetts.
The Abner Goodale homestead still stands today and is owned
by the descendents of Molly and Abner Goodale. Although
we will never know for sure, there is reason to believe that
the stenciling in this home might have been the work of Moses
of the artisans who stenciled walls in New England remain
nameless. The Eatons, junior and senior, are the stencilers
that we know the most about. You may be familiar with their
signature pineapple, and weeping willow motifs. Moses
Eaton Jr. (1796-1886) grew up on his father’s farm in the
small New Hampshire town of Hancock. His father, Moses Eaton,
Sr., formerly of Dedham, Massachusetts, and a veteran of
the Revolutionary War, was also a stenciler. Surely, Moses
Eaton, Jr. learned the fine art of wall stenciling from his
father before striking out on his own. Most of the walls
attributed to Eaton Jr. have been found in southern New Hampshire
and along the coast of Maine. However, there is also evidence
that he passed through eastern and the central Massachusetts.
A c1823 Greek revival home on Main Street in West Newbury,
Massachusetts still has original Moses
Eaton stenciling in a second floor bedchamber.
Bolton, Massachusetts, Moses Eaton, Jr. left his legacy of
red and green designs and motifs in several rooms of a lovely
old colonial, the Caleb Wheeler, Jr. House. And along Great
Road in Acton, a stately c1800 Federal, known as the John
Robbins House, was also visited by Moses Eaton, Jr. Here,
he decorated the walls in the entryway and stairwell with
his signature folk art motifs, including oak leaf clusters
are two distinct genres of early American stenciling: Classical
and Folk Art. The classical or “border-style” of
early American stenciling is characterized by graceful and
elegant swags and festoons outlining the tops of walls, along
with complementary border designs that come down the corners
and run along the chair rails and baseboards. During federal
period America there was a renewed interest in classical
design and all things Roman and Greek. This interest was
sparked by the mid 18th century discovery of two ancient
Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the multitude
of ancient artifacts that subsequently came to light. The
graceful swags seen in many of the “classical” style
stencil designs are very reflective of this neoclassical
influence in federal period decoration.
The “Borderman” is
the moniker given to the un-named itinerant artisan who stenciled
so many New England walls in this elegant, classic style.
This style of stenciling can be viewed in the Governor Franklin
Pierce homestead in Hillsboro, New Hampshire and in the Dutton
House at Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT.
contrast to the elegant classical style of early American
stenciling, the folk art style is typified by all-over wall
design in imitation of wallpaper. The designs, patterns and
motifs were often primitive, and naïve, but the results
were always sure to charm. The inspiration for the stencil
designs in this category often came from nature. Walls stenciled
in the folk art style are resplendent with flower baskets,
oak leaf clusters, wild flower sprays, wreaths, willow trees
and graceful vines. The walls in the Stencil House at the
Shelburne Museum demonstrate this folk art style of early
American stenciling. In addition, the cheery and colorful
stencil designs found in the homes, inn, and taverns visited
by Moses Eaton, Jr., provide abundant examples of this genre
of wall stenciling.
much of the history surrounding early American stenciling
did not come to light until the 1920’s, when there
was a burgeoning interest in 19th century folk art. Individuals
like Electra Havemeyer Webb (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne,
VT) and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
Folk Art Collection, Williamsburg, VA) began collecting all
of the wonderful things that remind us of 19th century America
and make up the body of things classified as “folk
art.” Items like old weathervanes and whirligigs, stitched
samplers, colorful quilts, ship figureheads, along with shop
and tavern signs, were all collected and studied. They also
collected examples of the decorative arts that were popular
in 19th century America; for example, both the Stencil House
and the Dutton house were relocated to the grounds of the
Shelburne Museum in order to provide a wonderful exhibit
of early stenciled walls. When these private collections
were eventually made public, everyday Americans became interested
and excited about displaying folk art in their own homes.
In the 1920’s, research pioneers like Janet Waring,
Edward Allen, and Nina Fletcher Little often risked life
and limb entering dilapidated and compromised houses in order
to photograph, document, and trace early stenciled walls.
Their research was the first to give us a clear understanding
of the history and importance of early American stenciling.
Their research also laid the foundation for many future researchers
to build on…folks like Margaret and Edward Fabian,
Jessica Bond, and Ann Eckert Brown. Without the dedication
and passion of all these individuals, and many others, we
might never have known the popularity, prevalence, and importance
of early American stenciling in 19th century New England.
Waring, in her 1937 groundbreaking book, Early American
Stencils on Walls and Furniture, summed up the importance
of early American stenciling in this way:
we like their work or not, whether we smile at its crudity
or envy its daring, it is nevertheless a part of our country’s
cultural heritage and one amply justifying recognition
in the history of the young nation’s decorative arts.
Moreover, a return to this type of wall treatment still
offers an endless field for both traditional and new achievement.
Original motifs and arrangements can be duplicated in the
restoration of old houses, while the large planes of modern
architecture, with their absence of moldings and cornices,
present spacious surfaces and fresh possibilities for this
simple tool which has served the world through so many
ages in defining clean-cut patterns.”