OHJ June 2020

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Editor's Letter: Papa's papering escapade

Wallpapering is, apparently, hilarious. Enough so to have been memorialized in popular songs that have Father, Papa (or, occasionally, Sammy) messing up as the paste flies and the family scatters.

I learned of this when wallpaper historian Bo Sullivan [bollingco.com] shared a note he’d gotten from Brooklyn reader Rob Donohoe, who wrote: “This is a song my mother, who is now 96, taught me, which her father used to sing to her. He was born in 1887. Enjoy the lyrics.” One version of the song seems to have been published (if not written) in 1914. It goes like this:

When father hung the paper on the wall, / He put the parlor paper in the hall. / He papered all the stairs! / He papered all the chairs! / He put the border on Grandmother¹s shawl! / The ladder slipped and he began to fall. / He spilled the pot of paste upon us all. / Like birds of a feather, we all stuck together. / When father hung the paper on the wall.

Folk recordings show the song had an old-timey American sound. But when deejay and singer “The Coffee Drinking Night Hawk” Lee Moore recorded it in the 1950s, it was full of country twang. (Search online and on YouTube to hear these.)

Losing myself in the aptly named web of the internet—I am, after all, in self-imposed quarantine—I found what is perhaps the original, much longer song; the ditty above is just one verse. As published in 1910 by Francis, Day & Hunter Ltd., a British music publisher, it was written and composed by R.P. Weston and F.J. Barnes, and soon popularized by English vaudeville entertainer Billy Williams. This is the chorus:

When Father papered the parlour, you couldn’t see Pa for paste / Dabbing it here, dabbing it there, paste and paper everywhere / Mother was stuck to the ceiling; the kids were stuck to the floor / I never knew a blooming family so ‘stuck up’ before.

At least five verses tell the story: Pa says it’s a waste to call a paperhanger; he applies the paper wrong-way up and now the family walks upside-down; he falls off his ladder and, when the paste pot falls on his daughter and her young man, they get stuck together so the parson is called to make them man and wife. It ends like this:

Now, Father’s sticking in the pub through treading in the paste / And all the family’s so upset they’ve all gone pasty faced / While Pa says, now that Ma has spread the news from north to south / He wishes he had dropped a blob of paste in Mother’s mouth.

Ah, simpler times.

~ Patricia Poore, Editorial Director of Old House Journal

Look below to see stories from this issue.

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