For those homeowners who wished to save money by doing work themselves, it was not simple. Take for instance the quick refinishing of a plaster wall. Nineteenth-century Americans lacked the convenient products of premixed tubs of joint compound or ready-to-mix plaster. Instead, they needed access to lime, plaster, and the tools to mix the material before applying it to the wall. Ideally, they would use a hawk and trowel. [see image of plaster tools, below] Without a hawk, the amateur plasterer would lug around the heavy container of plaster or walk back and forth between wall and source—an option that seemed unpractical with the rapid twenty minute drying time of plaster.
Cameron’s Plasterer’s Manual, front material.
Once at the wall, with trowel ready, the untrained hand would need to deftly and quickly apply the plaster while maneuvering over and around obstacles, bumps, holes, and other odd impediments. On a first try, and perhaps even second or third, there was no hope of achieving a smooth surface. If the amateur was normally free from manual labor—perhaps working or even only standing all day in factory, or holding a managerial position, the job would be tedious and exhausting. To apply the plaster, the unskilled hands and untrained body needed to ascend ladders and crouch to apply the plaster in arm-wide strips, gripping the heavy hawk with one hand and pressing the trowel with the other, needing the pressure of fingers and the flick of wrists. A person with some skill would be able to finish a moderately sized bedroom in a day. After several hours, biceps would ache, writs would sting, and fingers would be so tense that unfolding them from the curl of the handles would be difficult.
Knowing how to apply the plaster was another problem. Manuals for plaster work are few, and the information in them provides little actual guidance on the process. 1880s Cameron’s Plasterer’s Manual only advises readers that the skim coat goes on in two “very thin coats,” with no direction on how to accomplish that. It was likely that the author assumed readers had some familiarity with the process, but Cameron’s book represents the limited guidance available to the amateur plaster at this time. DIYers would have to wait for the twentieth century for better directions from a book. It is no wonder that, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, those without the time and skill came to increasingly embrace wallpaper as a convenient alternative to wall finishing. When plaster became dinged or stained, it was certainly easier to apply wallpaper than acquire the materials and tools for plaster and endure the ordeal of its application. Paint, too, provided easy solution, though it couldn’t hide as much.
In places like the Tenement Museum in New York City, layers of wallpaper (in one parlor, 21 were counted) display people’s strategic efforts to fix their spaces while saving their bodies, time, and money. [see image of wallpaper, below] After a long day, it was perhaps easier and cheaper to cover up blemishes or former tenants dirt with a new layer. A paint analysis produced by the Tenement Museum documents wallpaper and paint around 97 Orchard Street, 300 samples in all. View the report here.
Wallpaper in situ, Tenement Museum, via Tenement Museum Flickr account.
Rarely do we think about the body in choices about building, particularly finishing work. What a normal person’s hands, knees, and back could physically endure had as much to do with determining how successful ready-made materials were when they entered the market as was their user-friendliness. Put another way, “ease” was not just about simple application and quick accessibility, it was also less physically demanding. Consumer demand for things that were cheaper and easier went hand-in-hand with the materials and tools they didn’t need and the skill they didn’t have. Though wallpaper and paint certainly had their challenges, they could be applied to a room in a matter of hours, not a day. Manuals for wallpapering and painting were much more prevalent, though applying those finishes was also intuitive and user friendly.
After a long day of work, with wrists and fingers sore, a husband and wife plopping down a few dollars for wallpaper that they could apply themselves surely seemed a friendlier alternative—even if it only hid the mistakes of a wall instead of repairing them.
Does anyone have any good studies that discuss the physical demand of historic processes? Perhaps content informed by “experiential” research?