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The art of papier-mache

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18th century papier-mache buttons
Like many art forms associated with Europe today, papier-mâché—literally chewed paper  in French—had its origins in China and made its way to Europe on the Silk Road. During the second century AD, Chinese artisans developed the skill of using rags, fishing nets, and other textile wastes products to develop paper, replacing papyrus. During the war between Persia and China in the eighth century, Chinese prisoners were taken to Samarkand, a major city on the Silk Road in present day Tajikistan which was under the domination of the Persians. There the prisoners taught the Indo-Europeans the art of papier-mâché, which was used to make all sorts of paper products. These goods made their way on the Silk Road through Damask, Morocco, and into Europe through Venice, Italy—the normal route of arts, silks, and spices. By the second half of the sixteenth century, French craftsmen were enamored by the form and saw the potential for making all sorts of small objects, especially for royal use. Of course, craftsmen in the German states, Great Britain, Spain, and Russia quickly followed the French lead. For example, snuffboxes became popular at the time, and it is said that Frederick the Great had one papier-mâché box in each room of his palace.
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pearl-inlaid papier-mache buttons

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, use of papier-mâché was the fashion in England and the interest in the products expanded. In 1825 Jennens and Bettridge of Birmingham took out a patent for a process of inlaying pearl on papier-mâché. Thin pieces of shell were cut into design or irregular shapes and held in place with a varnish. The entire surface was then covered with black japan.  Victorians liked buttons, small furniture, needlework items, and small boxes of papier-mâché, and these are highly collectible even today.

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painted papier-mache button

Japanning is a process developed in England, Holland, and France about 1800 as a substitute for expensive Oriental lacquering. The finish was a high grade varnish—each coat being dried by heat before the next layer was added; this was repeated five or six times as the finishing coat on papier-mâché pieces. After the lacquer dried, it was polished down so the shell showed. Painted designs could be added. Later papier-mâché used no shell with the entire designs done with paint.

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In 1851 a patent was taken out in England for a button board of papier-mâché, which included an indentation for the wire shank.  The whole button was covered with black japan, and the loop shank was pressed into the indentation while the japan was warm. Few papier-mâché buttons had holes. Many of the buttons displayed Oriental scenes since the art form was associated with Asia and were imitations of the original Chinese lacquer works. These buttons were a very popular product of Birmingham and France from 1840 to 1860, and soon continued to be made there through the end of the nineteenth century.

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papier-mache buttons with mid-Eastern designs
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Russian papier-mache button

As was often the case, the products associated with the Silk Road made their way to India over the centuries. In the early twentieth century, papier-mâché buttons were made in India for export to Europe with definite mid-Eastern designs and motives. In the late twentieth century, artists from Russia made buttons, often to order, for American collectors and retailers.

Papier-mâché items, including beads, buttons, snuff boxes, sewing items, and small furniture is highly collectible and preserves the artistry of this art form.

About the authors:

Paige Warfield Garber was born in 1951 in Washington, DC, the youngest of four daughters, all of whom do some fiber arts for fun. She became an embroiderer as a child and a life lover of beads, buttons, and fiber arts. Paige always loved looking as her grandmother’s button jars and started collecting buttons with a gift of a small collection from her mother. A member of the Black-eyed Susan Button Club in Maryland, Paige is currently a felter and Potomac Fiber Arts Gallery member at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA.

Nancy Fink has contributed to the column previously.
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