In 1977, Margaret and Edward Fabian of West Lebanon, NH began their journey back in time to study and document early stenciled walls in New England. With some assistance from the New Hampshire State Preservation Office and the NH Historical Society, the Fabians completed their journey…seven years and 25,000 miles later! Their travels took them to 460 homes, inns and taverns where they photographed and studied the early American wall stenciling therein.
Their research was at times fraught with peril! From the New Hampshire Historical Society Newsletter, dated January 1983:
“Some of the stencils were in God awful places,” Mr. Fabian says. “Once you’d been there you’d never want to go back.” One ramshackle house was only accessible by driving over an unkempt field. Even though the caretaker had said the house was closed up, all the doors were open, and most of the windows had no glass; the caretaker later told them that by “closed up” he meant a roof had just been put on the house, formerly open to the sky. Margaret had to crawl across a room with only one floorboard to gain access to some remarkably well-preserved stenciled walls.
It turns out that the research done by the Fabians is one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on early American stenciling in New England. Their work is a treasure.
For each home, inn and tavern they visited, they recorded detailed notes on the stencil designs and patterns, information on the building’s history and information on whom the stenciling may have been attributed to. They also took photographs of the wall stenciling at each location. All of this research is housed at the New Hampshire Historical Society’s Tuck Library in Concord, NH, in the Special Collections department.
After learning about the Fabian collection, I joined the New Hampshire Historical Society and made many trips to Concord in order to study their research. Over the next year, I worked my way through approximately 20 boxes, each brimming with file folders organized by state, town and then house/tavern/inn. Through this study, I gained a great deal of knowledge about the popularity and prevalence of wall stenciling in 19th century New England. I took copious notes and hand-sketched the exact patterns and layouts as found in the various establishments that the Fabians visited, with an eye towards someday being able to re-create these historic walls.
Eventually, my pencil renderings of the patterns and motifs used on the various walls became my Sketchbook of Historic New England Walls. My Sketchbook documents forty wall designs, including the exact layout of the folk art patterns and motifs used by the original stenciler. Using the Sketchbook, I am able to reproduce historic walls for clients interested in a truly classic and historically inspired wall treatment.
I greatly admire the Fabians for having the passion and the desire to undertake such a daunting task and for having the foresight to know that future generations would benefit greatly from their endeavors. The colorful legacy of the New England itinerant wall stenciler lives on thanks to their research.
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