For one reason or another, I find myself in a lot of old houses. We in New York City tend to be particularly obsessed with seeing how green the grass could be on the other side, even if we're in no position to move out of our current home—but let's be realistic: Who hasn't swerved into a driveway with an Open House sign, just to see?
What I'm always hoping for, and often rewarded with, is a glimpse at some really old screen-printed wallpapers—the kind where you can see the painterly quality of the designs, the age of the house itself written on the walls.
Recently, I started wondering how exactly to work with it (as in, can I cover my apartment in vintage wallpaper without it costing me the balance on my debit card?), so I got in touch with the nearest vintage wallpaper shop, Secondhand Rose, to find out. The proprietor of this shop, one Suzanne Lipschutz, is a marvel in and of herself—she lives in the Chelsea Hotel (really!), collects vintage wallpaper as a lifelong passion ("I can't help it!" she protests), and speaks with the sultriest rasp you've ever heard.
Suzanne Lipschutz originally opened Secondhand Rose in 1965, so to say she knows a lot about vintage wallpaper is to say only a little. These are her tips for finding it, using it, and caring for it—though she wouldn't mind if you gave her a ring to talk through the details over and over again.
Not every city has a vintage wallpaper boutique—Suzanne says hers is the only one in New York City—but it's possible to find some on sites like Ebay and Etsy, not to mention in antique malls all over the country. Wherever you're shopping for it, be sure to keep these things in mind:
"Without the selvage edge, old wallpapers wouldn't exist," Suzanne explains, showing me how one side of each sheet has a thick, blank edge. When the wallpaper's rolled up, that edge is what's slid into the shelf first, protecting the paper from tearing over time. "Wallpaper was originally sold in hardware stores," Suzanne told me, "so it had to hold up." And while not all old wallpaper has this edge (French damasks, midcentury novelty prints, flashy mylar printed in the '70s, and the like, are exceptions), it's a good starting place.
Wallpaper is typically sold by the roll, which is called a bolt. Sizes will vary depending on where the paper was made and when; Suzanne sells her papers by the double roll, with enough paper to cover about 50 or 60 square feet. Don't try to cut it close, however—depending on how large the repeating part of the pattern (called a "match") is, some of that square footage will go to waste when you trim the edges and get the matches lined up on the wall.
Then, of course, there's the question of having a replacement supply: If something goes wrong—"Say a child draws on the wallpaper with a crayon!" Suzanne suggests, almost certainly from experience—the only backup supply is what you stock. "People have called me twenty years later and asked for paper replacements, and it just isn't happening."
Infinitely more fragile and particular than modern wallpaper, vintage wallpaper can be a very tedious thing to put on the walls. "Don't try to hang it yourself!" Suzanne warns, though she admits that she loves the process herself. "Okay, just ask for the oldest wallpaper hanger in your town." Some other tips to keep in mind:
Since most vintage wallpaper is made of paper, rather than vinyl, it can't be applied with your typical modern paste, which will "eat away" at it. Instead, you'll need to mix up a wheat paste and soak the paper thoroughly to make it stick.
A professional wallpaper hanger will not only trim both sides of a sheet—the selvage edge and the probably tattered opposing edge—she will also butt the rolls together along an edge while accounting for the small amount of shrinkage that will happen when they dry. It's an incredibly careful, measured process when done correctly, and just one more reason you'll want an informed professional.
"You can have any paint mixed to match," Suzanne says, while it would be tougher to find an old paper to mix a modern color on your walls.
"Closets, the inside of a door, or an alcove somewhere" would all be wonderful places to wallpaper, Suzanne says, and they don't require nearly as much as a full room would. And if you're dead-set on wallpapering a room but you don't have quite enough vintage wallpaper to cover it, "put up wainscoting and some trim!" You'll use half the paper and save money in the process.
While Suzanne used to know "a guy in Brooklyn" who would coat vintage wallpaper with a clear, matte protective topper, it would be tough to replicate without a professional. So instead of coating it with anything, just keep room well humidified during dry months so the paper doesn't dry out.
Have you worked with vintage wallpaper? Do you have any tips? Don't be shy (in the comments).