My Blog

September 13, 2017

Elderly Mothers and Visiting Dignitaries

Who knew French Panorama Wallpaper would make a connection?

During the early decades of the 1900s, the wallpaper business had grown into a highly lucrative and profit-making endeavor. Since the time of the Egyptians, walls have been covered in wallpaper to decorate rooms. For centuries, however, only the wealthy could afford the flocked and ornate wallpaper in their town houses and country estates.

By the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, however, the United States had made wallpaper available to the middle classes. Everyone who wanted to show their up-and-coming status in society papered their walls in brightly colored wallpaper. To be “posh” one had to display the latest designs, often from England or France, on their living room walls. And the wallpaper could be changed on a whim.

How, then, for the wealthy to prove their wealth and superiority over commoners and hoi polloi? Enter the panorama wallpaper. Most wallpaper is printed in repeating patterns. Panoramas, however, may run for as much as forty or fifty feet without repeating. This requires large rooms, long walls, elaborate, often historical designs and the purchase of huge rolls of wallpaper.

Mom’s father, Charles Gorton, owned the New York Wallpaper Company out of Utica New York. Recruiting part-time salesmen, and providing them with immense sample books, he sold wallpaper to most of the northeastern United States. He printed the sample books in his own factory and encouraged his salesmen to profit from working during their spare time. I don’t know if he bought the company or created it himself, but he became a tremendously successful businessman. He also imported French panorama wallpaper for sale.

Although we never met Mom’s father, who died of a heart attack while Mom was in college, she enjoyed telling us stories of his exploits. His entrepreneurial skill was evident even as a youngster. New York produces hops for beer. Her father had discovered that he had a knack for making deals. He hired men, often much older than he, to pick the hops in the fields then he resold them to breweries around the state. He also painted beautiful floral and landscape designs on the walls of the railroad cars of the giants of industry. That may have led him to enter the wallpaper business.

Yesterday, a dear friend who is an amazing international historian, stopped by on her way to a conference in Alabama. Her father was Dutch, her mother Texan and she speaks a number of languages, in particular French. Because of her background, she focused her dissertation on two French settlements in 1817 and 1818 in Alabama and Texas respectively.

France, during those years, had just rid itself of Napoleon and had returned to the last remaining Bourbon kings left over from the guillotine and the French Revolution. After the brief 100-day return of Napoleon in 1814, his supporters fled France, still hoping to restore their beloved emperor. The United States offered them sanctuary in Alabama. Mistreated and forced to move after laboriously clearing the land, several families moved to the as-yet-not independent Spanish Texas.

What my friend studied for her dissertation were the historical depictions of these two colonies on French wallpaper. Since the French artists who designed the long panoramas had never been to the New World, their depictions were “creative” in the extreme. Ladies in silk dresses and gentlemen in top hats paraded through a delightful paradise of fanciful flowers and amazing creatures, some highly inventive. Nary a sign of Indians or scalping or burning cabins.

Last night, before going to meet my friend, I stopped by to check on Mom and found that she had missed supper. Nothing for it but to load her up in the car and off we went to dinner at @Chili’s restaurant. I don’t know how, but in the busy restaurant, across the table, she heard my friend’s explanation, understood it and made the connection to her father. She remembered that he had sold some of that French panorama wallpaper.

Mom tried to articulate the history of her father. It came out in bits and pieces, but she did get his story across. It was a bonding experience that was thrilling for both Mom and for my friend. After I dropped my friend and her granddaughter off at Mom’s mobile home which has become our guest house, I took Mom back to her apartment @CarriageInn. She knew where she was, and where she wasn’t. She was not happy.

The connection with my friend over the French panorama wallpaper had triggered Mom’s memories. She was desperate. She was missing what she saw as a huge opportunity to tell more of her father’s story. She wanted to go back. She wanted to have time to tell more. She knew there was so much more to tell. The memories were swirling in her mind and she wanted to get them out.

All I could do was assure her that she had told my friend the story of her father. Yes, she had told about his company, about her half-brothers who continued to run the company, of the importance of wallpaper. It would have to be enough. Frustrating though it was, there wasn’t time for more.

Over her objections, I got her into her nightgown. I kissed her goodnight and left her sitting on the edge of the bed, still desperate to tell her story.

About Caroline Castillo Crimm
Retired Professor Emeritus from Sam Houston State University, interested in writing novels and speaking about topics such as the history of Latin American. Would like to share the AMAZING world of the 18th century in Northern New Spain, that's Spanish Texas and Mexico!
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