|Your friendly local bookseller…and interior decorator?
Wallpaper was all the rage in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Customers could visit specialty shops or use mail-order catalogs to find any kind of decorative wall and window coverings they might want. Did you know that many bookstores sold them, too?
Just like today, Ann Arbor’s bookstores of the past sold other items besides books. In fact, it was a widespread practice long before the city’s history began:
In the colonies, and later the republic, the notion of sustaining a bookstore with nothing but books, or even books and stationery, was ridiculous … Even in the largest markets – Philadelphia, New York, and Boston – booksellers needed to supplement their stock of books with a wide variety of wares simply to survive.
–John Hruschka, How Books Came to America
Some of the earliest Ann Arbor bookstore ads mentioning wallpaper come from the 1860 city directory. Two rival shops at the intersection of Main and Huron streets – Empire Book Store and Schoff & Miller – posted ads listing every kind of wall and window hanging a customer could desire: “Wall and Window Papers, Shades, Rollers, Cords, Tassels, Cornices, Hooks, and Pins.”
J. C. Watson & Co. Booksellers on Huron Street across from the courthouse, stocked a staggering 15,000 rolls of wallpaper and 200 different patterns. They suffered a fire in 1871 that damaged some of the stock, prompting a sale that included curtains, shades, tassels, and fixtures.
The wallpaper supply at Moore & Wetmore bookstore in the 1890s was, according to the Ann Arbor Argus newspaper, “the largest, handsomest and most complete stock in the county.” The wallpaper department filled the entire second floor of the three-story shop on Main Street. So many of their ads focused on wallpaper that it would be easy to forget they were first and foremost a bookstore.
Andrews & Co. Bookstore boasted the latest styles of wallpaper and window shades for spring 1889, as well as “The best workmen furnished for hanging Shades and Wall-Paper.” Wahr’s Bookstore went a step further than competitors who claimed to have the largest stock in the city, professing to have the largest in all of Washtenaw County.
The two busiest times for wallpaper sales were springtime and Christmas. In fact, wallpaper was a popular gift during the holidays, as attested by the Bookseller & Stationer and Office Equipment Journal in 1911:
In planning the campaign for Christmas business, dealers should not overlook the wallpaper department … as it is something that comes under the heading of “useful presents” for the home.
Today, you can visit some of Ann Arbor’s historical buildings like Cobblestone Farm and Kempf House Museum to see examples of period wallpaper and home decor. Few records exist to show which local homes were decorated with bookstore wallpaper, however, there is one that we know of for certain. In 1893, Moore & Wetmore supplied wallpaper for one of the most elegant homes in the city: the Wells-Babcock house at 208 N. Division. The mansion was converted into apartments years ago but retains intricate wall and ceiling decorations that give a hint of the grandeur of yesteryear.
-by Karen Alvarez