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Papier mâché: a labour intensive process


Japanned ware items may all look similar to each other, but underneath the polished surface you might find tin, wood, paper pulp, or the favourite, papier-mâché, prized by the Victorian housewife because a tea-tray made of this was so much quieter than a tin one. Servants, like children, were meant to be seen but not heard!

Making papier mache

Papier-mâché production was labour intensive, but in the 19th century labour was cheap. In 1772 Henry Clay, a neighbour of Matthew Boulton’s in Birmingham, patented a method of pasting sheets of paper together, which were then dried or ‘stoved’ and oiled, resulting in a product so durable it could be used for coach panels and roofs, doors, and even for ships cabins!  Remarkably, a similar method is back in use today in the form of MDF products.  The finished item could be sawn, planed and screwed.  A cheaper version made from paper pulp gave a poor finish so was used for inexpensive goods.

Japanned ware circular mould

Mould for a japanned ware tray

The Moulding Room

It was mainly women and girls who worked in the moulding room, there they would lay sheets of pasted paper over a copper or tinned iron mould, shaping the edges by hand before the whole item was stoved at 100˚F.  More and more layers would be added until the required thickness was achieved.

The final job in the moulding shop was to oil the item and then stove it again at up to 260˚F to make it hard and water-resistant.

Japanned ware dish

Papier-mache round dish with Chinese ladies on yellow background, LP451.

The Making-up Shop

Highly-skilled cabinet makers removed the mould and created the finished item, working it in the same way as wood- planing, fluting, turning legs and vases on a lathe, fitting boxes together and applying a final polish.

The Blacking Shop

This would not have been a pleasant place to work, with the fumes of the varnish and the constant heat of the stoves.  The first coat was a tar varnish, the second a thin layer, with stoving in between.  Lampblack, a pigment made from soot, gave the item its colour; the object was then ready for the final decoration.


Yvonne Jones, Georgian & Victorian Japanned Ware of the West Midlands

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