Sunday, September 20, 2015

Papier-mâché for the Parlor

by Rebecca Kurtz
The Best Parlor at Schuyler Mansion in its current state

After passing through the elegant center hallway, the first room that you enter on a tour of Schuyler Mansion, just to the left of where you entered, is the Best Parlor. The Best Parlor was the most formal and elegant room in the mansion, and it was where all major family events took place, from weddings to funerals, and everything in between. It was in this room that Philip and Catherine’s second daughter, Elizabeth, was married to Alexander Hamilton in December of 1780. The Schuyler’s used this parlor to display their extravagant wealth to their
Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler in the Best Parlor
esteemed guests, including George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, Jon Jay, and Aaron Burr. In the Best Parlor, these guests enjoyed activities such as drinking tea, engaging in conversation about politics and military activity, and listening to music performed by the Schuyler daughters.

 Today, however, it is difficult to believe this room was ever the Schuyler’s most sumptuous space. The floor,once covered with an imported Brussels carpet, is now bare. The walls, most likely covered by luxurious blue wallpaper, are now paperless. The room is sparsely furnished, and the ceiling is plain. However, based on Philip’s receipts, as well as letters written by guests, we know a papier-mâché design graced the ceiling of the Best Parlor. Naturally, as part of our hundredth anniversary restoration project, the Best Parlor will be returned to its former glory.

Papier-mâché (which is French for “chewed paper”) refers to three dimensional objects created by molding paper pulp, typically seen today in art projects, and used for theatrical purposes. From the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, however, papier-mâché was utilized as an
Papier-mâché ceiling at Phillipse Manor Hall
architectural material. The practice of papier-mâché decoration originated in Ireland, and the trade was commercially developed in London during the 1740’s.

Papier-mâché was swiftly popularized as a decorative material. After all, it was extremely difficult to break, as well as inexpensive to install and easy to fix. Additionally, if papier-mâché was ever to go out of style, it could be removed without inflicting any significant damage to walls and ceilings.. The one major drawback concerning owners of papier mache decoration on ceilings and walls was water damage. Since most roofs leak at some point in the history of a home, many of these decorative details were damaged over time and very few exist today. 

 Papier-mâché adorned the homes of many prominent eighteenth century figures, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Naturally, Philip Schuyler required a papier-mâché ceiling in his home as well.

While we know that a papier-mâché ceiling did exist in the Best Parlor at Schuyler Mansion, we unfortunately lack any record of the ceiling’s design. Therefore, the papier-mâché ceiling that will be installed will not be an exact replica of the original. We do know that the papier-mâché ceiling in Schuyler Mansion would have been a design at the height of fashion in 1761, the year it was purchased. This knowledge can help ensure that the recreation, while not exact to the home, will be in keeping with the style and taste of the original.

Phillipse Manor Hall
Luckily, and extant papier-mâché ceiling exists in another New York historic house. Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, NY is an 18th century Georgian Mansion owned by the Philipse family.  In the 1760s, during an expansion of the home, Philipse added an ornate papier-mâché ceiling to his home. Staff at Peebles Island Resource Center enlisted a team of experts from Ithaca College to 3D scan the decorative ceiling and then to experiment in printing a positive image of ceiling details.  Molds will then be made from the various details of the ceiling and it is from these molds that paper pulp sculptures, from an 18th century recipe, can then be formed.
Scanning the ceiling After those are dried, they will finally be installed in the Best Parlor using glue and small brads.

There will still be plenty to accomplish in the Best Parlor to restore it to its previous splendor. As you read this blog, furniture for the parlor is being reupholstered. Additionally, carpeting and wallpaper will eventually adorn the room. Look for future blog entries on these details in weeks to come! Meanwhile, follow our blog by clicking the “subscribe” button at the bottom of the page to stay up to date with all of the restorations taking place at the mansion!


  1. I'm assuming you guys are keyed into the new musical, Hamilton, right? There are scenes that take place in the Schuyler mansion. It would be great (and very popular) if you did some Hamilton-related events. The Schuylers are major characters in the super popular production.

  2. More info:

  3. We are very excited to see that Philip and Catherine's son-in-law is doing so well on Broadway! While we do incorporate Alexander Hamilton into our interpretation at Schuyler Mansion, our main focus is the Schuyler family, as they are most relevant to the mansion and the Albany area. Although we are ecstatic about the visitors that come to see the mansion because they have heard about the Hamilton musical, our goal always has been, and will continue to be, to interpret the life of the Schuyler family.