Drawn like so many to the city’s potential, a young man from Middlebury, Vermont, arrived in Buffalo via the Erie Canal in September 1834. He would start a business that would become one of the longest running in Buffalo’s history and, by its very nature, visually document the changing ways we lived.
Martin H. Birge opened his dry goods store in October of that year at 234 Main Street, stocking general merchandise and wallpaper. Over the next 40 years, the business’s location would change in response to growth, fire and its eventual shift from retail to manufacturing. By 1875, Martin’s sons George and Henry would join the business, and in August 1900, M.H. Birge & Sons was incorporated. The company name would become synonymous with a high-end, exclusive wallpaper product and would maintain that reputation until operations finally shut down in 1982.
A New Design Trend
The importance of wallpaper as a 19th century design phenomenon cannot be overstated. Its natural appeal to a Victorian sensibility of materialism and exploration is well documented in images of opulent, claustrophobic rooms that appear to have been furnished through trips to some great historical shopping mall. Ironically, these rooms provided a retreat from the harsh realities of the industrialization that made them possible.
Wallpaper became a standard feature. It provided another layer of historic and exotic content by combining elements of landscape painting with the development of modern technology. In both design and manufacturing, wallpaper reflected changes in the U.S. from a rural, agricultural-based economy to an urban, industrial one. It documented the rise of tourism and the establishment of national parks, and responded to the growing purchasing power and changing roles of women. Although wallpaper had existed since the 16th century, it came to prominence at a time when ideas about art, craft and design were being redefined, and when ideas took hold about the home and its contents as the embodiments of moral and social status.
By the early 1860s, English designer William Morris and other Arts and Crafts proponents were challenging Victorian Eclecticism. They wanted to create styles more expressive of the people and their time, and to get away from the focus on quantity and industrial production methods they blamed for poor design. Morris sought to define a national visual identity and focused on Gothic imagery to represent a high point in English history. Much Arts and Crafts rhetoric focused on the moral effects of good design in the home. The movement’s popularity paralleled the explosion of magazine publication in the second half of the 19th century, much of which focused on home interiors and a new market of female consumers who were now keepers of the house.
M.H. Birge & Sons began manufacturing wallpaper in 1879. Furniture Gazette calculated that $8 million in wallpaper was sold in the United States alone that year, with costs around 25 cents per roll. That’s equivalent to more than $180 million today. The country’s production, mostly by roller printing, would continue to increase from 15 million rolls in 1850 to 100 million in 1900.
M.H. Birge & Sons exploited Arts and Crafts rhetoric in advertising and annual catalogs with both verbal and visual references to the movement’s leaders and tenets. The text of an 1888 Birge illustrated catalog reads: “At the time of the aesthetic revival, some years ago, the revolution was universal and complete, and as is always the case during time of revolution, much that was inherently good suffered disgrace with that which merited its destruction. When the world awoke to a clear sense of its artistic depravity, it resolved to turn over a new leaf, leaving nothing to remind it of its former shame.” A 1905 catalog cover featured an idealized medieval craftsman hand-printing a length of paper while surrounded by gothic-inspired architectural elements and Morris-influenced floral borders.
While there is no evidence that the company — unlike Morris or Roycroft artisan community founder Elbert Hubbard — ever articulated a social philosophy of its own, its commitment to craftsmanship and an artisan-based production method demonstrates an alignment with Arts and Crafts ideals. M.H. Birge & Sons promoted the idea of its employees as artisans practicing their art by hiring professional artists to design papers, the most famous of whom was Charles Burchfield.
Birge papers were consistently made in a high quality associated with hand printing presses, and the company used this fact to romanticize, mythologize and promote its product. While many Birge papers were intricate, multi-stepped creations that required a combination of hand and machine processes, the company promoted the “handmade” whenever possible to further align itself with the Arts and Crafts movement. But despite references to handcrafted products, Birge approached the machine as an asset rather than a hindrance to design and manufacturing. Birge was committed to a high-end, often labor-intensive product and looked to improve its quality through technology. It established a research laboratory to improve their product and developed innovative techniques.
In some instances, mechanical imagery appears to be a stylistic choice in Birge designs. Samples of Birge embossed faux leather papers show evidence in the designs themselves of their mechanical printing devices, such as stamps, presses and carving tools. Intricate details reminiscent of nuts, bolts and other mechanical parts created organic imagery. Repetitive motifs reverberate with the rhythm of machines. The combination of hand and machine production techniques undoubtedly allowed M.H. Birge & Sons to keep pace with the product’s popularity and contributed to the business’ success and longevity.
Growing Output and Reputation
Over time, Birge’s products covered all of the major design movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Aesthetic, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and Deco, and later International Style and Pop. One of Birge’s most lasting contributions to the history of wallpaper is in its reproductions of historic American papers. Encouraged by the 1876 centennial and continuing into the 1920s, many American designers revived Colonial styles as expressions of our national identity. This was a period of great productivity for M.H. Birge & Sons, during which it amassed a large collection of historical papers and established a library of historical patterns. From this collection the company developed reproductions of colonial-era designs, many of which still hang in National Historic Sites like Ford’s Theater, the Ronald Reagan House, the Dwight D. Eisenhower House and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. Birge wallpaper can be seen in the Irish National Parliament building in Dublin and onscreen in Melanie’s bedroom in “Gone With the Wind.” Birge papers are housed in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. A recent online real estate ad even featured “original Birge wallpapers” as a selling point for a house in Maine. This commitment to the product as an art form with its own history elevated Birge papers even further from the “common” status of poorly designed and manufactured goods, while promoting ideals of a national identity, common to Arts and Crafts discourse.
Birge wallpaper’s reputation would continue to grow into the 20th century. The papers the company produced during the early decades of the 1900s are of exceptional quality and beauty, and reflect its constant experimentation with materials and design. The company’s faux leather line was especially popular; utilizing modern production methods, it added durability and affordability to the ancient art of gilded leather wall coverings.
The company expanded in 1910 when George’s son Humphrey opened a European office, competing with some of Europe’s greatest wallpaper manufacturers. When Birge announced plans to produce a mid-price product, one journalist wrote, “The name Birge was to wallpaper what Paris was to women’s frocks.” In 1927, another reporter described the plant at Niagara and Maryland streets as “a wonderland peopled with real artists – craftsmen who have devoted their lives to this calling, which requires a highly developed sense of artistry and painstaking accuracy.” That reporter continued, “Art is the expression of man’s joy in his work. And Birge certainly takes a joy and pride in their product.” Ten years later, Birge was featured in the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy’s Exhibition of Wall Papers Historical and Contemporary as the “oldest wallpaper manufacturer in America,” the company’s work singled out as “the decorative art so closely allied to the industrial life of its city.”
But changing economic conditions, as well as changes in consumer perceptions, began to affect business. The Great Depression caused a decrease in design options and more people turned to paint for their walls. The influence of the Bauhaus school in Germany towards functionalism and away from the decorative began to slowly erode the product’s popularity. Material shortages during World War II, and the War Production Board’s designation of wallpaper as a non-essential commodity, forced all manufacturers to decrease production to a fraction of new styles and patterns, eliminate certain metal materials and, perhaps most importantly, use a reduced-weight paper. Dorothy Drahms, who worked for Birge from 1938 until they closed, observed that “No new designs were created, no metal was available for rollers and older patterns were reproduced, although the paper quality was not in line with Birge standards.”
When full production resumed in 1945, wallpaper was slowly declining in popularity across the country. The 400 million rolls sold between 1946 and 1947 dropped to 182 million by 1951 and 1952. The Museum of Modern Art held a series of “Good Design” exhibitions from 1950 to 1955 aimed at improving standards of the home furnishings industry and public taste. Birge’s “Thicket,” a machine print designed by Francis Mair, won a “Good Design” label.
Despite the post-war building boom and the overall air of conservatism and domesticity, wallpaper sales kept falling. By 1966, overall U.S. production was down to 69 million rolls. Tastes were changing. Goods were being produced much more cheaply and in greater quantities, and all businesses were becoming more competitive. As Americans became more mobile, youth-oriented and forward-looking, wallpaper seemed dated. The home was no longer the center of people’s worlds and wallpaper became inconsequential, if not downright old-fashioned.
A Community Changed
M.H. Birge & Sons relinquished company ownership to Canadian company Reed Forest Products in 1969. Reed retained the Birge line and continued making papers using the Birge name until the 1980s — but at a new location. On March 25, 1976 the last pattern “Birches” rolled off the Niagara Street press. The Niagara Street plant, opened in 1894, closed for good and the building was eventually razed. A neighborhood had grown up and thrived in response to this business. Entire families worked together in the plant. “Employees didn’t leave,” Drahms said. “When they died or retired, their sons took their places.”
A new plant soon opened in Cheektowaga, but many of the remaining employees were initially unable to follow the company to the suburbs. Most workers lived within walking distance of the Niagara Street plant and didn’t drive or own cars. Recognizing the importance of the business, the city proposed a temporary solution and offered to bus Birge workers to the new plant. Regardless, the fabric of the Niagara Street neighborhood was permanently altered when M.H. Birge & Sons left because the common ideals of local residents were of little concern to the McDonald’s that replaced it.
As the product and the building went, so went the name. After barely 30 years, many know it today only as it exists on city landmarks. If all we knew of Birge was George T.’s mansion on Symphony Circle or his massive memorial in Forest Lawn Cemetery, we might simply catalog the name Birge with the many success stories of Buffalo’s “Golden Age.” But if design is truly a reflection of a culture’s values, assumptions and beliefs, the company’s history not only parallels Buffalo’s rise, but also chronicles much wider and longer lasting cultural changes in the area. Told through a business, it’s a history shared by owners, factory workers, artists and consumers. Defined by an interrelationship of industry, design, social relationships and community, in the end it’s this shared history that makes the M.H. Birge story especially relevant today.