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Layers of Taste: The “Forgotten” Wallpapers of Nancy McClelland at Mount Vernon

A trove of correspondence between the Ladies and an expert on historical interiors reveals a commitment to historical accuracy.

By Pauline C. Metcalf

The accurate restoration of Mount Vernon’s interiors has been a primary concern of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association throughout the organization’s history. Among the most important areas of research has been that of the wallpapers; the details of the patterns, such as the change of colors, and the scale of designs tell us much about the dominating role of English and French taste on the colonies during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Another challenge has been to determine the correct color of paint used on the baseboard and trim that accompany the particular pattern of the paper (such as floral or geometric) used at different dates. The use of wallpaper was one extravagance indulged by the colonists that has recently been given more recognition. By the 1930s, paint analysis (or as it was referred to at the time, “paint scrapes”) became increasingly important for the interpretation of the rooms and the changes of fashion and tastes that could be seen at places such as Mount Vernon over the past two centuries. 

In the 1940s, the burgeoning field of historic preservation began to focus on the study and interpretation of early interiors and their furnishings. This became an increasingly important area for understanding American culture, the period often referred to as the “colonial revival.” The interior decorator Nancy McClelland (1867-1959), a pioneer among designers in the field of historical interiors, was a preeminent source for her knowledge of historic wallpapers, along with the correct fabrics to be used in historic properties. Before starting her own firm in 1922, she headed “Au Quatrieme,” the celebrated antique store in Wanamaker’s Department Store. Subsequently, she was an entrepreneur with her own design business in the import of historic French papers. Her 1924 book, Historic Wall-Papers: From Their Inception to the Introduction of Machinery, became the “bible” to provide guidance to museum curators interpreting period rooms.

Because of her knowledge and promotion in reviving the French wallpaper industry, in 1930, she was given the title of Chevalier by the Legion of Honor. Another of her books, entitled Furnishing the Colonial and Federal House, included numerous photographs of rooms decorated in traditional “colonial” taste by her firm, as well as several others. Hence, by 1940, when redecoration of the bedrooms at Mount Vernon became of paramount concern, it is not surprising that her name was recommended to the Ladies as the most respected source to provide historically accurate wallpapers for the bedrooms at the Mansion. Period articles about the importance of her work reveal that her greatest pride was involvement with such important historic interiors as those of Mount Vernon and the Morris-Jumel house in Manhattan. 


Several years ago, while visiting Mount Vernon, I noticed a change—the second-floor bedrooms had plain walls with beige or pale color on the woodwork and trim and no evidence of wallpaper. Subsequently, an inquiry to Curator of Collections Adam Erby, who came to Mount Vernon in 2012, confirmed that he had no memory of wallpaper—not even a trace of a fragment hidden under a molding. Hence, a search began! 

Initial research began with the extensive archives of Nancy McClelland at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. They confirmed her reference to providing the wallpapers for Mount Vernon. But, confirmation of their installation was, at last, provided by the Minutes of the Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. They revealed meticulous documentation of work at the Mansion, focusing especially on the late 1930s and ‘40s through the 1960s. Following World War II, there were many changes within and without the structure and organization of Mount Vernon.

From 1940-1941, there are, at least, 150 letters that were exchanged primarily between the Regent from Iowa, Mrs. Harriet Towner, and the Vice Regent from Michigan, Mrs. Benjamin Warren (frequently referred to by the Regent as “Michigan”), chairman of the Museum Committee with Nancy McClelland. The correspondence shows the extent of their concern for historical accuracy, especially regarding the decision to use a particular wallpaper, one whose documented use could be traced to 18th- and early 19th-century sources. Among concerns was the question of the cost of using an original 18th-century paper versus a reprinted version using original blocks, or a process of printing with the use of rollers. In hindsight, the selection of papers made by the Ladies and Nancy McClelland is extremely commendable. 

Above all, what the extensive correspondence and the Minutes of the annual Council reveal was the infinite care the Ladies took to explore all aspects of furnishing the interiors, fortunately aided by the remarkable survival of letters and receipts kept by George Washington.  

Following are several excerpts from the letters between the women, showing their commitment to carry out the installation of the wallpapers with historical accuracy:

There is one thing that I think we should keep in mind: Mount Vernon is not a museum. I am always irritated when people speak of the Mansion as a ‘museum house.’ This is, as you know, very frequently done by people who ignore the fact that we have always made our supreme aim the presentation of the home of Washington as nearly as possible as it was when he lived here.

– Regent Harriet Towner to “Michigan,” December 9, 1940

Earlier that year, the Regent wrote to “Michigan”:

I had a talk with Mr. Downs of the Metropolitan Museum and find that he does not have a very high opinion of the Williamsburg papers that are offered. He thinks we would be wise to use some of Nancy McClelland’s original designs or something equivalent.

Joseph Downs, noted expert on American Decorative Arts, was curator of the American Wing at that time.

Prior to the hiring of Nancy McClelland, there is one letter to another potential authority from the chairman of the committee, Mrs. Warren to Carlihan, a noted French antiquities dealer associated with the firm of Wildenstein & Company. In it, she gives a description of the bedrooms at Mount Vernon in 1940: 

At present these walls are painted a solid color, with white woodwork. After considerable research we feel that originally the walls were papered and the woodwork painted a color, in some instances, a rather homely putty color.

By December 6, 1940, Regent Harriet Towner wrote to “Michigan”: “I am writing Miss McClelland giving her official authority for the four bedrooms in order to get the work started as soon as possible.” The four bedrooms to be papered were: the Lafayette Room, the downstairs bedchambers, the Yellow Room, and the Blue Bedroom.

The Blue Room featured “Glebe House” paper installed by Nancy McClelland around 1940 and accentuated with wood trim painted blue (above and below).
The Blue Room featured “Glebe House” paper installed by Nancy McClelland around 1940 and accentuated with wood trim painted blue (above and below).

“Glebe House” paper
“Glebe House” paper

Nancy McClelland describes her work at Mount Vernon in an early publication about the restoration of buildings in the Washington area, Alexandria Houses, 1750-1830 (1946):

Herbert A. Claiborne of Richmond, an architect specializing in 18th-century restoration worked with the committee, and I was called into consultation about the wallpapers. I still remember with the keenest delight the time we spent in studying the various rooms. With great care Mr. Claiborne scraped away layers of paint from a bit of woodwork, until the bottom layer had been reached and the original color was apparent. In a bedroom used by General and Mrs. Washington…, we found the original paint was a lovely old green color. But the room was known as the “yellow Room” so the paper must have been largely yellow in tone. This decided us to use on the walls a careful reproduction of an old paper which bore the stamp tax of George III. With a background of yellow and designs in gray and green it harmonized delightfully with the green woodwork.

Plans for refurbishing the “Nelly Custis room” (currently designated the Chintz Room, as it was known to the Washingtons) had already begun in 1939. The Committee reported that the room “is in need of redecorating as the paint on walls and ceiling is peeling badly.” By January 4, 1940, the Regent, writing again to “Michigan,” said: “it seemed necessary to take up the matter of the paper for the Nellie Custis Room with you by telephone yesterday…I feel sure that you will like it, and while it is more expensive than that being used in any other bedroom, it is so exactly right that I think the additional expense is justified.” Described by Nancy McClelland, “we used large sheets of a French paper which was partly handblocked and partly colored by hand by a brush. This was known as the ‘Carnation paper.’ Mrs. Towner described it as ‘having exactly the same feeling as the rug in this room.’”

In the Chintz Room, McClelland installed “Carnation” paper (above and below).
In the Chintz Room, McClelland installed “Carnation” paper (above and below).
"Carnation" paper
"Carnation" paper

Such references to personal taste as the “feeling” of the rug are indicative of attitudes at this time by such women whose “instinct” about an object or a color prevailed over the more analytical approach that would subsequently be given by those with professional training in interior decoration.

Regarding the Lafayette room, which was to be papered in a reproduction of an authentic 18th-century paper called “Cenelle,” Regent Towner wrote to “Michigan” on January 4, 1940: “The Lafayette Room is going to be very attractive, and I think the paper gains in charm from being used above the dado, and not from the floor.” Care about the precise details of the installation is evident, as when Nancy McClelland alerted them about the potential complication of the use of four different lots of the “Cenelle” paper due to “a small difference in color in the different lots but … if they are put on different walls of a room this slight variation is not visible.”

In the Lafayette Room, McClelland installed “Cenelle” paper (above and below).
In the Lafayette Room, McClelland installed “Cenelle” paper (above and below).
"Cenelle" paper
"Cenelle" paper

Another query was whether to treat the papers with a coating, such as Sapolin, to “give the paper a hard finish,” but, with the possibility of discoloration, the Regent wrote: “it will be better to leave the paper in its original state rather than to use any finish…There will be no need for using anything of the sort in any of the bedrooms.”

Mrs. Warren, ever mindful of the expenses involved not only for the restoration but for their personal costs, wrote: “My dear Regent: Has an expense account been allowed a Vice Regent? I have spent this winter on telegrams, postage, and secretarial service more than $12.00, and am wondering if I may be reimbursed?”

The treatment of the “Music Room” (now referred to as the Little Parlor) was a subject that was never resolved. The issue centered on the cost of using a genuine antique paper when it was not known exactly what originally was on the walls:

I am afraid that we would be making a mistake to put as much money into one room as we would have to put into the Music Room if we use the old paper. If this paper were the original Washington paper we would be justified in paying a very high price for it, but (it) is so uncertain as to exactly what Washington could have had on that wall that we might place ourselves in the position of investing this large sum of money in the Reveillon paper only to find later some detailed description of paper that Washington had ordered for that room. We have unearthed so many things which we have not known before that it is not at all impossible that other detailed statements may be brought to light.

Concurring with the quandary about the selection of a paper, Nancy McClelland wrote:

I agree with you that it is better to finish the putting up of the bedroom papers now and wait until your minds are quite settled about the Music Room before we go any further. This, of course, means that the painting of the Music Room should not be done now.

Always mindful of providing the best advice for the Ladies, she wrote on January 2, 1941:

I didn’t tell you that the man I am sending to you to put up the papers has worked in the General Andrew Jackson House in Nashville, Tennessee; in the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg and in Winterthur for the DuPont family so you may know that he is the most careful and competent man that I know of.

Extra bits of information that are telling of the day-to-day life at the Mansion include details that the completion of the bedroom project was deemed necessary to prepare for the Inaugural crowds in January, 1941. Among the recent guests who came to the Mansion earlier in December were Princess Juliana, who was brought by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt “informally and incognito.”

By February 19, 1941, the Regent reported to “Michigan”: “We hear nothing but praise from everyone who sees the Mansion, and from those who know most about such things, the appreciation seems to be the greatest. The curator at Williamsburg … was here on Saturday and was very enthusiastic about all that has been done, especially the wallpapers.” 


Determining what happened to the McClelland wallpapers and why they were removed does not have a simple answer. Most likely, there were no appreciable changes to the appearances of the rooms during the World War II years. Except for the provision of a border for the Banquet Room, (now designated the New Room), Nancy McClelland’s involvement with Mount Vernon’s decoration was complete; when replacement of papers in the bedrooms was needed, there were additional rolls that had been ordered. The frequency of replacing wallpaper at the Mansion, a never-ending requirement, is due to the “wear and tear of visitation—a constant brushing by shoulder, arm—or even hands.”

In 1956, under supervision of the architect for restoration, Lafayette’s bedchamber was dismantled. After much analysis of the plasterwork, it was determined that there was no indication of wallpaper having been used there originally.

The Architect felt that in the absence of any other evidence we were justified in the painting of the walls white, simulating our white texture. Everyone was happy with this decision.

- Minutes of the Council, 1956

The red and white toile “would show to better advantage if it were not in competition with lively, restless pattern of the wallpaper.”

In 1958, Council Minutes reported that the Nelly Custis room “has grown tired and shabby looking…Last year there was a leak in the ceiling…the once pretty wallpaper and hangings have become noticeably faded and no longer attract the eye or stir the imagination… We would like permission to do this room over completely.”

By the 1960s, another big change in the governance of Mount Vernon was the increase of professional staff. With a full curator and architect-in-residence on hand, many of the decision-making responsibilities that the Regent and her Vice Regents made in prior years, such as those that had been required for the McClelland wallpapers, no longer needed as much of their time and involvement to such a degree. 

While researching, reinterpreting, and refining the appearance of the rooms never ceased, the report of the Furnishings Committee in 1980 describe a major development in the scientific approach to paint analysis that was undertaken by a young specialist, Mathew Mosca. In short, by use of “all accepted scholarly methods,” his analysis completely changed the appearance of the rooms at Mount Vernon. 

Above and beyond the change of colors that transformed the spaces, “the furnishings were changed to conform more precisely to the 1799 inventory … The Washington Bedroom will have white walls and Prussian blue mixed with white lead woodwork.” The report, commenting on reducing the number of pieces of furniture in the rooms, states: “The simple removal of a chair, table or chest instantly transformed an over furnished room into a proper 18th-century Mount Vernon chamber. Our associates from Colonial Williamsburg, Kenmore, Woodlawn, Gunston…applaud the progress made here in recreating Washington’s home.”

As to the removal of the Nancy McClelland wallpapers, there is no specific date or record of decision by the Council that determined their removal from rooms at one time. On reflection, no doubt a prevailing thought about the interpretation of historic sites during the 1970s and 1980s was to “simplify” (to install only that for which there was documentary evidence).

Undoubtedly, this included reinterpreting aspects of the lifestyles of the American colonists—from the structures of 17th- and 18th-century architecture to the furnishings of the interiors. Such attitudes, perhaps, played an underlying part in the removal of the Nancy McClelland wallpapers. Research into the original dates of the wallpapers provided by McClelland reveal that their date did not always correspond to the years when the Washingtons had made their choice.

Historically speaking, however, the pendulum never stops. Today, research continues to find increasing evidence to document the degree of taste and sophistication to which the latest tastes and fashions of Europe influenced the furnishing of the homes and aspirations of the most well-to-do colonists in the 18th century. 

What better proof than Mount Vernon’s recent reinstallation of wallpapers and bed hangings for the bedrooms at Mount Vernon. One factor that narrowed the selection of papers in the recent installation was to limit the choice to a paper printed no later than 1799. The knowledge that Washington imported papers from a William Poyntell in Philadelphia certainly aided the choice.

In summation, learning about the forgotten installation of the Nancy McClelland papers provides a unique opportunity to appreciate the never-ending dedication of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association to pursue all aspects of the taste and traditions of George and Martha Washington.

About the Author

Pauline C. Metcalf is a historian of women and 20th-century design. When she first visited Mount Vernon, many years ago, she was surprised to find Nancy McClelland’s historic wallpapers no longer in evidence. Her research into this mystery revealed meticulous documentation in the archives at Mount Vernon and the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum.