Paper Mache Furniture

It’s surprisingly durable and easy to decorate

Thank you for sending me an image of your 19th-century side table. It is a nice example of furniture made with paper mache (also more formally known as papier-mâché). It’s hard to believe that furniture in the 19th century could actually be made with paper but it’s true.

Paper was first developed in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Soon after, paper was mixed with paste to form three-dimensional objects such as lidded containers, hats and decorations. Thus, paper mache was invented. The paper mache process could be achieved in a few different ways. The paper was either cut into small strips combined with paste and applied over a mold; masticated (literally “chewed” — that is how it received its French name mâché) or pulverized into a pulp that was combined with paste and molded into forms; or many sheets of paper would be layered together with paste and pressed into boards (pasteboards). Once the paper mache was formed, it could be varnished and lacquered, rendering it durable and, surprisingly, even waterproof.

As trade developed in the 16th through 18th centuries, paper mache items from China were copied in Europe. These products were typically painted in black or red and featured gilding and hand-painted decoration. Tea caddies, sewing boxes and game boards decorated with Chinese motifs were popular paper mache items. This decoration is called Chinoiserie and exemplified the West’s fascination with Eastern culture and desire for teas, spices, silks and porcelain.

Paper mache enabled the creation of intricate decorations and shapes that were easier to create with paper than with wood. Mother of pearl (the iridescent layers of shells and pearls) could be sliced very thinly and applied with glue and varnish to appear as if inlaid. The top of your table is made of paper mache and is decorated with mother of pearl, paint decoration and gilding. The base of your table is made of wood and decorated to match.

Your table was made in England in the mid to late 19th century and I would value it at $550.

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