The Art of Papier Mache, 1899

Originally appeared in an 1899 issue of New York Times:

“Yes,” said the little man up town who makes theatrical “Props” and incidentally any number of “props” for other things, “there is nothing like papier maché. It is being used more and more all the time now and there are more and more things for which it can be used. It is the strongest material known for its weight. You see, for anything to use in the theatre you have to have something that is strong and that will stand traveling and being thrown around, and if it is big—columns in the scenery, for instance—it must not only be strong but light, so that it can be moved easily. It must be light anyway. Imagine a band of Amazons traveling around the country with suits of metal armor, or wearing it, either, for that matter. The Amazons would strike, the railroad companies would strike, and the theatrical company would go out of business. There is nothing you can’t make of papier maché, from an elephant to a vase. The greatest trouble is to get the models. Sometimes you send out and get small ones of plaster or marble, and at other times you will have to work from sketches and photographs and use your own ingenuity, working on a geometrical scale for enlargement.

“Papier maché is simply layers of paper wet with paste and pressed, one on top of the other, into the mold and left to harden, and when it comes out the different parts are sewn together, the seams covered with paper, and then finished, and the whole covered with a good finish and painted. All the gold that is to go out in the street parades has to be varnished, and it will stand all kinds of weather. There is another kind of material used by architects in interior decorations that is called papier maché, but it is quite different. This is made of white India glue and a little paper pulp. It is brittle, will break easily, and is not the kind used for anything that will require hard service.
“To make papier maché figures, you go to work exactly as you do for a plaster cast. First you do your modeling in clay, then from that you make the mold, and from the mold you can take any number of impressions.

“The large pieces are not the hardest to do by any means. Sometimes the small ones are a great deal of trouble. Some of the things are made in a good many pieces. There is the Venus de Medici, a life-size figure in thirty-six pieces, and in a skeleton there are 125 pieces. The skeleton is really something of a ‘prop,’ but not theatrical prop. He goes into societies of various kinds, the Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias. Most of these societies have skeletons, and they would rather have a made-up one than the genuine article. They’re a little scary, I guess.

“That big statue of the Venus would be classed with bric-a-brac for stage ‘props.’ Denman Thompson has used one for a garden scene, and Agnes Herndon in the stage setting of ‘La Pelle Marie.’ Those busts of Diana, Mercury, and Voltaire Stuart Robson has used. ‘In the sorrows of Satan’ all the pillars were of papier maché, and when you see a tree trunk all gnarled on the stage you may know that that part of the tree made of the same material.

I have made a good many animals—elephants, donkeys, and lions—for variety performers to use in their acts. You have to change nature a little sometimes to make the animals fit the performers who are going to wear them. You can’t very well put a short-legged man into a long-legged elephant. However, almost any man can wear almost any elephant, but when one is made for a particular man you have to measure him for it. It is the head of the elephants or other animals that are made of the papier maché. I have a two-man elephant in Germany now, one that was shipped to London for some English performers. A bull for a burlesque bull-fight in a circus has a genuine bull’s hair and horns.

“There are all sorts of musical instruments that are made in papier maché, as well as armor, and I have made cannon in white for sculpture tableau for the circus. This big Cupid in bas relief will go on a circus wagon in gold. All that brilliant relief work is papier maché and it stands the weather, there is no extra weight on the wagons, and it does not break. The work for circus wagons does not begin until the first of January, though I had some orders last year before Christmas.

“Busts of actors and actresses for windows have come up again recently. That has been done before. Janauschek used to have the paper busts made for shop windows, and Fritz Emmet has had them. The only trouble with them is that they are rather expensive. There must be a well modeled portrait bust of plaster made first. It would not pay to make less than seventy-five or eighty busts at a time, and that would cost several thousands of dollars.

“Daly used to have a good way of examining his ‘props.’ He would never look at them in producing a new play until the dress rehearsal, and then he would see them from the front, the view the audience would have, and know the real effect it would produce. If there was anything he did not like then he would simply order it off the stage. If he didn’t say anything you knew things were all right. Most managers, however, like to take things and look them over beforehand.”

“The Art of Papier Mache: A Dealer in Theatrical “Props” Talks of His Trade.” New York Times (1857-1922), Dec 24 1899, p. 13. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2019.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.