Becoming a Heritage Detective: Identifying Historic Wallpapers in the Mann House (1861)

By Sarah Harrison

In the summer of 2017, I was working as the Archives Assistant at the Georgina Pioneer Village & Archives. This pioneer village is located in Keswick, about an hour north of the city of Toronto. One day, my curator asked me to come with her to one of the other buildings on site to look at the undated stack of wallpaper that was stored there.

“What wallpaper?” I asked.

It turns out that in the spring, the ground attendant was renovating the summer kitchen of another building called the Mann House. Behind all of the plaster and lathe on the walls, he discovered a whole bunch of wallpaper protected from the ravages of time. After this discovery, he put them in the train station for safekeeping while the summer kitchen was fully finished.

After showing me this giant stack of wallpaper, my curator asked me to carefully peel it apart. This was an extremely delicate task; it took me almost an entire day to separate the wallpaper “sandwich” using archival tools, steam, and quite a lot of patience. In the end, I was left with seven (7) different layers of wallpaper, each with unique patterns.

A close-up look at the sandwich of wallpaper found at the Georgina Pioneer Village and Archives in 2017. Photo: Sarah Harrison

Now, the Mann House was not originally part of the Georgina Pioneer Village. It was moved from its location in Belhaven to the grounds in 1983 to avoid demolition. The house is named after Darius Mann and his wife Louisa Prosser who lived in it from 1865 until 1878; however, several other families lived in it throughout its history. With this new wallpaper discovery, I thought that it would be a really interesting to research and date the layers of the “sandwich.” The wallpaper could then be used in an exhibit as a way to tell the story of the different people who lived in the Mann House at different times.

It turned out to be a much harder endeavour than I had originally thought. Wallpaper is an ephemeral material, and one that people do not tend to save or collect. I had to look through many, many catalogues and wallpaper sample books that have been digitized on the Internet Archive. It was not until I visited the special collections at the Toronto Reference Library that I hit a breakthrough. There I discovered several old Eaton’s wallpaper sample books and found a sample that matched one of my patterns: it was the third pattern down from an Eaton’s Blue Seal Wallpaper dated to 1927.

A sample of wallpaper from the Eaton’s Blue Seal Wallpaper Catalogue for 1927. This wallpaper matches one of the layers found while restoring the Mann House in 2017. Photo: Sarah Harrison

Another breakthrough happened when I was assisting my curator to clean out the reference collection at the Pioneer Village. We found a binder of wallpaper scraps from when the historical society renovated the Mann House parlour in the 1980’s. On the back of these wallpaper scraps, there were two fragments of a masthead; one which read THE NEW YORK, and the other which said LEDGER. The only other clue we had was the name of an author and the article he had written. Armed with that and the power of the Internet, we found a digitized copy of that very newspaper from the New York Ledger dated to February 2nd, 1861! This was very exciting, as it gave us the earliest date from which the last wallpaper layer could have been dated.

So, after a lot of careful research and attention to detail, I managed to roughly date two layers of the original wallpaper.

Being a heritage detective is hard work; you have to put in time and effort to find the knowledge you seek.  But in the end, it will be worth it, since you will have a fascinating story to tell other heritage professionals in your field!