The Zen of Wallpaper Stripping

I have been stripping wallpaper from the room that we are referring to as the library.  Before we can put up bookcases, the walls and woodwork need to be painted.  To do that, we need to put down new shoe molding, which was removed when the room was carpeted, sometime in the 1950s from the looks of the carpet we removed, strip the wallpaper, and repair the plaster (which seems to be in fairly good shape).

There is a certain soothing rhythm to pulling off the wallpaper.  I think there must be a universal appeal to peeling off layers.  When we were children, we would spread white glue on our fingertips (when adults were not supervising; for some reason they saw this as a waste) and peel it off.  Young teenage girls all seem to enjoy peeling off nail polish; I know I used to paint mine just to peel it off.

There are six layers of wallpaper, and the first four come off easily in most places, all together, in pieces six inches square or so, with an occasional fine long strip that rips right off.  I use a wide-bladed putty knife slid under a loose edge.  In a few places, just enough to make this a long task, it is still glued tight and comes off only inch by inch.   So the rhythm varies from long smooth rips to small scrapings.  Sometimes I skip around the tight spots to keep up the ripping, and then come back for an hour of scrape, scrape, scrape on the hard places.

As I work, I think about the women who put up the wallpaper; in this case, probably only one or two, since our old house was in one family for almost 60 years.  Mrs. Tonkin and probably her daughter-in-law chose the paper, which starts in a shade of gray-green, changes to another shade with flowers, and a third shade in an Art Deco print with silver metallic highlights.  Then there is a layer of solid Pepto Bismol pink, although I am sure she didn’t think of it this way, but as perhaps a lovely rose color.  The next layer is clearly 1950s, a pinkish beige grasscloth, and finally, the visible layer that had to go, a linen-look whitish layer, very 1960s and now mottled brown.

As I work, I also think of my own mother, who bought a house in 1960 built not long after this one.  I can see her scraping the wallpaper in her bedroom, with huge and hideous yellow cabbage roses that someone once thought lovely.

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