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History of Papier Mache

History of Papier Mache by Jackie Hall

The origins, the popularity and "oh" - those ingredients!

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History of Papier Mache

Despite the French sounding name, papier mache was not made in France until the mid 17th century. However, they were the first country in Europe to do so.

Papier mache actually originates from China; the inventors of paper itself. They used papier mache to make helmets of all things, which they toughened by many layers of lacquer. Examples have been found dating back to the Han Dynasty (BC 202 – AD 220).

From China, the interest in papier mache spread to Japan and Persia, where it was used in mask making and festival activities. Eventually it spread across the world. Large imports of papier mache objects swamped European markets. This in turn led France to start making its own wares, and England followed suit in the 1670s. There was only a half-hearted interest until the late 1700s and into the 1800s, when it
became widely used.

This little black lacquer pot is typical of the many oriental imported papier mache items. It has three turned up feet and a lid. The decoration is painted on in gold. The pot is from my own collection.

Black lacquer pot
Black lacquer pot


This photo shows close-up detail of the fish decoration.

Papier Mache (French for “chewed paper”) is believed to have got its name from French workers in London papier mache shops who did just that! Whether this is actually true or not we shall probably never know. The manufacturers didn’t seem to mind this idea being put about - possibly because it gave them the chance to hide their true methods and recipes, some of which little is known about even today.

In 1740 the manufacturer John Baskerville, well known for his fine quality books and typefounding, began to imitate the lacquered pieces from Japan. This is how the term “japanning” came about. His business was very successful and later his assistant Henry Clay, invented a way to produce papier mache so strong that it was equally as durable as wood. He did this by gluing specially prepared paper under heat to form tough, heat resistant panels.

Henry Clay had taken out a patent on his invention, but when this ran out; small companies mushroomed, producing just about everything from papier mache. They were mostly concentrated in the Birmginham and Wolverhampton areas. It is from these companies that we get the beautifully decorated black enameled pieces that are so treasured today.

-> See Victorian papier mache article

An Englishman – a Northamtonshire Quaker, who was a leading expert in the art of japanning, introduced papier Mache into America. His name was William Allgood and he started up the Litchfield Manufacturing Company. He met with great success in his venture and the company became well known for its fabulously decorated clock cases.

Papier Mache lived on in America more as a craft form rather than a manufacturing material. Women started to make useful and decorative household objects. In the 1960’s a bit more papier mache interest was injected by a New York artist called Gemma, who while working with her husband in Mexico managed to stir up a lot of interest amongst Mexican artists who were inspired by her work and later even taught by her. This is despite Mexico’s long history of using papier mache for festivals and traditions, which are still going on today.

Papier Mache Recipes

Although strictly speaking the correct definition of papier mache is paper fibres and binding agent, there have been some wild and wonderful ingredients used in the past:

...was sometimes used to give a smooth surface.

...was used to neutralize the acidity of the pulp or to act as a deterrent against insects and rodents.

Tobacco leaves
...were sometimes used by German dollmakers.

Kolioquinte (bitter cucumber)
...was used for its purging action.

...became an insect repellent.

Cinnamon or cloves
...were added to eliminate the smell of garlic!

Leather pairings
...Samuel Hooper took out a patent in 1795 to make various articles from leather parings.

…(a pure form of gelatine). Used in Britain as a bonding agent for their dolls heads.

...were sometimes used by doll makers.

Rice flour
...favoured in India

Rye meal
...favoured in Germany

Mashed potato
...Can you believe it? This was sometimes added in 19th Century Britain (yuk!)

Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower
...it gets worse doesn’t it! Johnson and Maloney (British) had a patent on this recipe.

The binder used was usually glue-water although honey water was sometimes used. Boiling dry animal glue in water until it reached a thick, syrupy stage made glue-water.

Luckily for us today, we can go down to the D.I.Y. store and buy a bag of wallpaper paste!

Doll heads were extensively made in England and France. They were made in a mould that had a wooden core down the middle. These were made as early as the 16th century in France and by 1810 were in mass production. They are highly collectable today.

-> See History of Papier Mache Dolls article

By 1860 papier mache production had reached its peak. England was still producing a lot of wares, while still importing vast amounts from China. The market became saturated leading to a decline in popularity. Competition from new materials helped the papier mache industry die a death. The final British manufacturer, McCallum and Hodson, closed in 1920.

Papier mache is still used today in theatre and stage productions as it makes excellent trees and rocks for scenery being so light and easy to move. Some countries such as Mexico still use papier mache a lot.