Against the wall

Before wallpaper was generally available and cheap enough for the average homeowner, around 1840, there were itinerant artists who stenciled walls, many of them copying the wallpaper styles.

Two of the best known of these folk artists were local: Moses Eaton, both senior and junior, lived in Hancock. According to several detailed online articles, Moses Eaton Sr. served in the Revolutionary War and moved to Hancock in 1792 from Needham, Mass., when he was about 40. He had apparently learned the stenciling trade earlier in his life in the Boston area. There are examples of his early work in Hancock, Dublin and Peterborough.

One of the best preserved samples is in a farmhouse in Temple. When Nathan Colburn Jr. married Jane Parker, an attic bedroom was refinished for their use. The stenciling was authenticated in 1968 as being the work of Moses Eaton, probably the elder.

Both his work and that of his son, Moses Jr., who continued the business, contain much symbolism of the day: the swag and pendant pattern called "Liberty Bell" is patriotic; flower baskets represent friendship; the oak leaf: strength and loyalty; the weeping willow: everlasting life; the pineapple: hospitality; and hearts – then as now – love and happiness. The door on the stairs to the bridal bedroom has heart-shaped cutouts.

The patterns, some of them quite detailed, were painted on plain walls, plaster or wood panels, which were whitewashed or painted cream, raspberry, light gray or yellow. The patterns were basically bright red and green and frequently copied the all-over repetitions of printed wallpaper. Moses Jr., born in 1796, apprenticed with his father, as did several other young men, and then set out on his own, going north and east into Maine. He expanded his patterns to include seashores, boats, trees and villages.

While in his 20s, he met and befriended popular muralist Rufus Porter (1792-1881). They collabo­rated on several projects, including the Hancock Inn.

In 1835, Moses Jr. mar­ried Rebecca Plant, of Dublin, and moved to Har­risville, where he built a Cape-style house that still stands. They had three children. He died in 1886. His descendants lived in the house until 2002.

There are few, if any, records of the work done by either Eaton, but in the 1930s, Moses Jr.’s stencil kit was discovered in the attic of his house. It contained 78 stencils, 40 of them complete designs, some well-worn brushes and a few woodblocks used to stamp fabric.

This find allowed researchers to compare work with the stencils, which were still covered with layers of paint.

One of those research­ers noted in an article, "He was a simple farmer with a flair for design and a strong contributor to local folk art."

The artwork is amaz­ing. Thanks goodness so much of it was preserved when farm wives simply papered over the old stenciling while modern­izing, to be found by later generations who appreci­ated the old work.

Jessie Salisbury can be reached at 654-9704 or jessies@tellink.net.