Antique lamps, you would expect to be made of porcelain, glass, wood or brass, but not paper! But, yes! there are papier-mâché antique lamps.
Papier-mâché is a French word, which literally means, "mashed paper" or sometimes, chewed paper. There is a story that this interpretation originated from the 19th century London, when French workers in papier-mâché shops chewed paper as a preparation method.
No one knows if this is true, it’s probably one of those, “so they say” stories. Although we know it by its French name, papier-mâché was not produced in France until the mid 17th century. France gave us the name, due to the fact that the French were the first Europeans to make it.
But the history of papier-mâché goes a lot further back in time than the 17th century. We need to go back to the Chinese Han dynasty, over 2000 years ago to find the origins of this remarkable material.
China has always kept remarkably detailed records and today we know who it was that first discovered, just what could be done with those “scraps of paper!”
Ts'ai Lun, 2,000 years ago, has been acknowledged as the inventor of paper, an invention that was to become one of the world’s most important discoveries. Ts'ai Lun was a Han government official and scholar, a scientist, who was working on further developing an earlier prototype paper. He was the first to have his efforts recorded, even though archaeological evidence shows that paper may have been made a little earlier.
With a mush made from linen, hemp and Mulberry bark, Ts’ai Lun spread it out on a bamboo mat to dry. After drying in the sun for some time, he discovered that the resultant sheet had become as hard as wood. This is the first acknowledged discovery of papier-mâché.
This newly discovered material was soon put to use and the earliest evidence for its practical use was as military helmets! The helmet shape was formed on a mould and when dried, was given several layers of a natural lacquer, produced from the resin of the Chinese Rhus tree. This produced a military style helmet which became the standard issue. It was also used to add decorative elements to amour and shields.
From its discovery in China, the technique of producing papier-mâché reached Japan and Persia where important examples of papier-mâché objects can be seen today in these countries national museums.
In time, decorated items made from papier-mâché began to be imported from Imperial China, along with silk and porcelain, reaching Europe in the early 17th century. By the 1660’s France began producing papier-mâché to be followed by England in the 1670’s.
The standard technique was layering, where strips of paper and sometimes, linen, are soaked in glue and added to a mould layer by layer.
Early 20th century, English, black ground, papier-mâché antique accent lamp.
The English mid 18th century saw John Baskerville, a London fine book printer, binder and type founder who began to imitate the lacquered papier-mâché pieces from Japan. So successful were his results that he has left us with the name “japanning.” His assistant, Henry Clay, further 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
By the end of the 18th century, papier-mâché had become so popular that vast amounts of practical domestic wares were produced. But the real high point was the 19th century’s Victorian era. New uses were constantly made, including, bowls and tea trays, boxes, sculpture, props for the stage and even jewellery!
By about 1860 the production of papier-mâché had reached a peak of production, with products still being imported from China. With the rapid development of new materials, papier-mâché began to loose its popular demand, although the last manufacturer did not close until 1920.