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Eclectic Patterns and Colourful Vistas: Historic Wallpapers from the Hamilton Civic Museums

By Carolyn Samko, Senior Project Manager,

BA DipHC, CAHP, City of Hamilton

Objects: Restored and recreated historic wallpapers


I manage heritage conservation projects for five National Historic Sites in Hamilton, Ontario and as part of that job I have been able to work with an interesting selection of historic wallpapers. Wallpapers are one of my favourite decorative elements as they are ephemeral and by subject, colour and image can illuminate the social aspirations and personal taste of the owners of the house. The wallpapers from three very different historic homes in Hamilton, spanning one hundred years of decoration have been the focus of my recent work.

Griffin House is a small early nineteenth cottage located in rural Ancaster. It was once the home of Enerals Griffin, a black settler from the United States who escaped slavery and became a farmer and community builder in Ancaster.

Griffin House NHS, c.1830, Ancaster Ontario, west facade. Image courtesy Hamilton Civic Museums.

Griffin House, principal bedroom. Image courtesy Christopher Redford.

The Griffin House archives show evidence of a wide range of wallpapers used in the house over time, which is surprising given the humble nature of the cottage. One of the earliest examples is a sprig floral block printed wallpaper, originally found in the principal upstairs bedroom.

Fragments of original blue floral wallpaper in the collection of the City of Hamilton, taken from the principle bedroom in Griffin House during restoration in the late 20th century. Image courtesy of Carolyn Samko.

This sprig style paper was in fashion in the 1830s and many similar versions are seen in North American and English wallpaper archives for this period. Derived from floral chintz and muslins from the period, the simpler decorative details date it to the neo-classical style. The clear bright blue is also a popular pigment used in the early nineteenth century in Canada, often seen in distemper wall paints which allowed the pure hue to be seen.

Blue Sprig c.1830

Original manufacturer: unknown. Method: Block printed.

Reproduction done by: Adelphi Wall Hangings

Image courtesy Carolyn Samko.


Dundurn National Historic Site is a large Regency-style house dating to the 1830s. Dundurn Castle was the home of Sir Allan Napier McNab, a pre-confederation Premier of the United Canadas from 1854-56 and the great-great-great-grandfather of Her Majesty Camilla, Queen Consort of the United Kingdom. Dundurn is a large house and had many original historic wallpapers. Three Gothic Revival-era block printed wallpapers were reproduced from fragments found during the 1967 restoration. They all date to c.1830s and unlike the Griffin House pattern, which is two dimensional, these wallpapers represent three dimensional subjects: architectural elements and pastoral vistas. This places them into another decorative era, the Romantic Period.

Dundurn Castle, front façade. Image courtesy Hamilton Civic Museums.

Gothic Pillars and Arches


Original manufacturer: unknown.

Method: block printed.

Original location: Principal bedroom.

Reproduction: Adelphi Wall Hangings.

(image left) Fragments removed during the 1967 renovation from the principal bedroom on the 2nd floor, image courtesy Hamilton Civic Museums. (image right) Gothic Pillars and Arches wallpaper, created by Adelphi Wall Hangings. Image courtesy Carolyn Samko.

Interior views of the completed reproduction wallpaper in the principal bedroom. Images courtesy Carolyn Samko.

Gothic Vistas


Original manufacturer: unknown

Original location: Dundurn Castle, room unknown

Method: block printed

Reproduction: Adelphi Wall Hangings

(image left) Fragments of block printed wallpaper removed during the 1967 restoration, original location unknown, image courtesy Hamilton Civic Museums. (centre) Reproduction of the wallpaper block printed by Adelphi Wall hangings. Image courtesy Carolyn Samko. (image right) View of reproduction wallpaper installed in the west small bedroom on the 2nd floor, image courtesy Carolyn Samko.

Golden Ashlar


Original manufacturer unknown

Original location: Second floor, small room above dining room

Method: block printed

Reproduction: Adelphi Wall Hangings

(image left) Fragment of block printed wallpaper found in the east upper bedroom on the 2nd floor during the 1967 restoration. Image courtesy Carolyn Samko. (centre) Reproduction wallpaper by Adelphi Wall Hangings. Image courtesy Carolyn Samko. (image right) View of reproduction wallpaper installed. View shows enfilade in the upper bedroom suite. Image courtesy Carolyn Samko.

These three wallpapers were originally installed during what we believe was an extensive renovation in the 1840s. The papers were originally paired with rich colours, grained woodwork, faux marble ashlar and decorative plaster in shades of taupe and ochre. The overall feeling of the building is rich and dark. Gothic, Regency and Italianate blend seamlessly in the interiors of the building.


Whitehern, a c.1830s stone Italianate style house in Hamilton, was the home of Thomas Baker McQueston, a provincial and municipal civil servant who was instrumental in the creation of substantial infrastructure across Ontario in the early twentieth century including the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington and the QEW series of highways.

Whitehern House and Garden NHS, front façade. Image courtesy Hamilton Civic Museums.

Birds of Paradise wallpaper- Whitehern NHS


Original manufacturer: unknown

Original location: 1st and 2nd floor hall

Method: cylinder printed

Reproduction: Anstey Wallpaper, UK

The ‘Birds of Paradise’ wallpaper, removed during restoration of the building in the 1970s, is captured in many early photos of the front hall of Whitehern house. Due to the importance of the twentieth century family history, the decision was made in 2017 to return the house to its early twentieth century appearance which included reinstalling this important decorative feature. The wallpaper is an opulent combination of deep blue with a cream base and represents the richness and exoticism of the British Colonial Revival style that was popular in the 1920s. The base paper is knubby, like linen, with the bird and jungle images printed in deep blue. The woodwork in the room was returned to the original walnut graining, which creates a rich and moody interior.

(image top left) Document wallpaper showing full pattern repeat, image courtesy Hamilton Civic Museums. (image top right) c.1970s, archival image showing the original c1930s decorative scheme as it appeared in hallway. Image courtesy Hamilton Civic Museums. (image lower left) View of lower hall showing wallpaper installed c.1930. (image lower right) View of room with reproduction wallpaper installed. Image courtesy Rebecca Hicks.


The Baliol 5026-Whitehern NHS


Original manufacturer: Cole and Sons Inc.

Method: screen print, ink on a metallic gold base

Original location: 1st floor library

Reproduction: Chambord Prints

Historic photos show this Art Deco wallpaper in the library shortly after its installation in the 1920s. It would have existed contemporaneously with the ‘Birds of Paradise’ wallpaper and Victorian finishes including oak graining and flocked wallpapers. This intersection of finishes was eclectic, clashing, moody-in-feeling and reflected the privilege and affluence of the owners of the home, who accumulated wealth and could decorate over generations.

Samples of rolls of wallpaper in the same pattern found in the attic of the house, showing company marks. Image courtesy Carolyn Samko.

(image left) View of library, with Rev. Calvin McQueston c. 1930, with wallpaper installed.

Image courtesy Hamilton Civic Museums. (centre) Screen printed reproduction by Chambord Prints. Image courtesy Carolyn Samko. (image right) View of Library with reproduction wallpaper installed. Image courtesy Rebecca Hicks.


Historic decor is often surprising to contemporary viewers: the colours and images are often bold with layered patterns. Colour pairing can be jarring or exotic and often not matching in tones or subject. It is this juxtaposition of subject, colour and pattern that makes historic wallpapers and historic décor so compelling. The patterns and vistas invite us to contemplate alternate ways of decorating our own spaces and speak to time-honoured ways of creating comfort and reflecting personality in our homes.


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