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The “Bordermen”

Two distinct styles of wall stenciling arose in New England between the Revolutionary War and the turn of the 19th century. In one, stencils cover most of a wall's surface; in the other, presented in this catalogue, the stencils are more linear and are usually limited to the wall's borders. There are rarer examples where border-style motifs — urns with swags, for example — appear on the wall's interior. Still, they are used with the same linearity seen in the borders, and are considered border stencils.

Both styles were generally intended to be "paint in imitation of paper," that is, an affordable way of simulating more expensive wallpaper. However, border stencils were more architectural, defining and outlining the walls of a room. Their patterns were often inspired by the wood and plaster borders of the Neoclassical period. These include swags of fruit, roses and drapery, scrolls, ribbons, and urns supporting garlands of flowers and leaves. As stated in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it was "a graceful system of decoration" which attained a unique loveliness."

We wish we could attribute this work to specific artisans, but much of that research remains to be done. In the meantime, we categorize this work as that of "The Borderman" or "The Bordermen" (all the known itinerant stencilers of that day were men). Almost 200 years ago The Borderman was at work in the Leavenworth-Dennison House in Hinesburg, Vermont (see pattern 105 on page 4). For the frieze in the front entry, stairwell and upper landing, he stenciled a swag of apples on a background of grey near the ceiling. Careful measuring assured that it fit in a pleasing manner left and right of the wide front door. Below the chair rail, on a yellow ochre background, he stenciled a geometric border surmounted by tricolored urns and garlands. The "lemons" served to outline the woodwork. On the upper wall between the apples and the lemons, he used delicate alternating vines. The overall effect was quite beautiful.

We know more of the methods than we do of their identities. The patterns were
cut from opaque brown paper reinforced with shellac or oil to withstand repeated use. Brushes were made by hand, and paints formulated from pigments, many of which were ground with mortar and pestle. Some of the ingredients — lead, arsenic and cadmium, for example — are now recognized as highly toxic. The pigments were mixed with lead, lime, kaolin clay, or in a glue or oil concoction. Sometimes the mixtures were heated and allowed to settle before they were used.

In this catalogue, patterns are presented just as they were recorded from the original walls, complete with irregularities. Only the dots and dashes that define the outer margins of some of the stencils have been trued to assure proper alignment. (#146 is an exception since it came already adjusted.)

My purpose has been to provide an historically accurate basis for your own selection and creativity. Purists, in choosing stencils from this collection, will want to adhere closely to the original colors and arrangements; or you may prefer to mix and match patterns, and use or not use the contrasting borders in your work. Some of the colors may be too bright for today's decorating; picture the stenciling done on paler shades, or with colors that coordinate with your décor.

Stenciling will be much more effective on your walls than it appears in our illustrations. See our Gallery for photographs of selected examples sent in by our clients (like you!).

Jo Sonja paints and quality stencil brushes can be purchased through MB Historic Décor, as well as our 5 other catalogues of stencils.

Click on a page below to view, or click here to
download the catalogue as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file.