People from all continents know the traditional use of papier-mache in a large variety: dolls, masks, puppets, toys, decorations,... That is because it's such a cheap, varied, easily obtainable and processable material. But this hasn't always been the case. For centuries, paper was very valuable and the processing of it into papier-mache was a time-consuming and labour-intensive process. For the history freaks among you, we gladly present a historical-geographical survey.

PAPIER-MACHE: a piece of history, the continents in a nutshell. Where does the word 'papier-mache' actually come from? Since it's a French word: from France. French women used to buy paper waste from publishers and bookbinders and process it by chewing on it. Hence the name: papier-mache. That was even before the invention of machines that could grind paper. But, in fact, we have to go back to the invention of paper itself. That was in China in the 2nd century after Christ. It wasn't until the 10th century that paper took over the place of papyrus fibres, which were already used in ancient Egypt. So, paper came to replace papyrus and took over its name!

Europe     America     Mexico     India     Japan


Japanese decoration
In France papier-mache was used for doll heads as early as the 16th century. But it wasn't until the 17th century that French craftsmen were interested, as the first in Europe, to use papier-mache in commercial applications. After 1670, the interest spread to England. This increased interest had to do with the popularity of Eastern objects: Japanese decorations, and china. Still, it is only halfway the 18th century that the 'new material' was used on a large scale. Papier-mache furniture and works of art made their entry in France.
Much sought after were the French snuffboxes. Peter the Great and Catharina the Great (Russia) were passionate collectors. They established papier-mache factories in their empire. Papier-mache was also popular as an imitation of stuccowork and plaster ornaments.
The English were the most productive, though. They manufactured the most beautiful furniture and decorative ornaments such as consoles, wall candle holders, mirror frames and ceiling ornaments.
England also imported a lot of Chinese and Japanese lacquerwork, which inspired manufacturers to produce lacquered papier-mache. Japanese lacquering
"Japanese lacquering" "became all the rage! It's incredible what all was made and lacquered of papier-mache, varnished, gilded, encrusted with precious stones, marbled or painted with flowers, , ferns, animals and sceneries: panels and roofs for carriages, coaches and sedan chairs, cabins in luxury ships, doors, mantlepieces, fire-screens, writing desks, draught screens, four-poster beds, bookshelves, tables, tea-trays,... According to Chambers's Encyclopedia of 1753, it was also used for picture frames and leaf-works, appliquéed on cupboards and chairs.
As early as the beginning of the 17th century, puppet shows by wandering artists were very popular. Just think of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte with "Pulcinella", in France "Polichinelle" and "Guignol", in Russia "Petroesjka", in the Low Countries "Jan Klaassen".
World-famous were the puppet manufacturers of Nuerenberg. The toy manufacturers there started mass production of pressed dolls' heads according to a process, rendering moulding by hand superfluous, in about 1810. Russia folkloric motives
During the 19th century too, papier-mache was very popular in Europe. It was the golden age of furniture production in England. In Russia the manufacturing of papier-mache didn't get into its stride until 1830. A very typical way of lacquering and painting wiht folkloric motives of dolls, snuffboxes, cigarette cases, boxes, pen cases, tea-trays and many other utensils came into use.
A wonderful example of the versatility of papier-mache is a boat Isaac Weld built in 1800 in the Irish town of Cork and went sailing with on Lake Killarny.
In 1833 Charles F. Bielefeld manufactured and shipped 10 prefabricated houses for agricultural workers and a villa with 12 rooms for a customer in Australia.
The French physicist Louis Auzoux started experimenting to make lasting anatomical models. In 1922 he launched a first series of technically perfectly detailed painted models in papier-mache. In 1830 he introduced a 6-feet-tall man, made of 129 different pieces and 1, 115 numbered details.
The masterpiece of a watch-maker from Dresden, Germany was a clock of papier-mache, made in 1833.
The most spectacular thing was - equally in Germany- a village of prefabricated houses and - in Norway - a church. The German houses lasted for a while despite the rain and the Norvegian church even lasted for 37 years.
Very famous is the park "The Tarrot Garden" of the artist Nikki De Saint Phalle. anatomical model from Hauzoux
She started working on this fancy garden in 1979 in Italian Tuscany but didn't open its doors to the public before 1993.
Ever more new techniques were invented, allowing more refined applications. Until 1820, also bronze, silver, gold leaf and gold powder were used as decorative materials and, later, pearl inlays. Later still, the techniques of "marbling" and "waving" came into fashion.
Gradually, the market started getting saturated, however, and in order to make some money at least, the manufacturers started making products of inferior quality. The material became a cheaply fabricated mass product. The often special decorations, inlaid by hand, were replaced by mechanically printed stencil decorations. At the 'Great Exhibition' in 1851, a decay in designs and construction was clearly visible. Several attempts were made to return to the former high-quality standards, but all in vain. The invention of electroplating in the middle of the 19th century was the death blow for industrially made papier-mache. But also in the 20th century, papier-mache still constituted a very special and everything but inferior technique for many creative people - whether they work professionally or as an amateur - allowing them to shape their fantasy. And this will be no different in the 21st century!


It wasn't until the 19th century that papier-mache became all the rage in the USA. It was English firms that exported papier-mache goods to America. George Washington, the first president of the United States, ordered papier-mache in London for the ceiling of his house in Virginia.
Even in parks in the open air, papier-mache statues were put up as a cheap alternative for marble sculptures.
Halfway the 19th century, large papier-mache factories were established in Connecticut: Litchfield and Wadham became household names. English immigrants from Birmingham brought their knowledge across the briny and taught the Americans the techniques of Japanese lacquering and inlaying with mother-of-pearl .
The Litchfield firm was especially famous for the production of clock cases, decorated with gold and mother-of-pearl.
Like in Europe, a wide range of objects was produced, from desks, chairs, stair handrails, draught screens, letter holders, card-trays, sewing-boxes and buttons, and chessboards to lipstick holders. Even busts of prominent Americans, made from bank notes withdrawn from circulation!


In Mexico many papier-mache applications have to do with religion and superstition.
During the Holy Week before Easter "Judas dolls" are made.
At the Christmas season, the children play with "pinatas": these are stars, fish, flowers, small boats, etc., filled with sweets, fruits, nuts and playthings. At the end of the feast, the pinatas are broken and the sweets are eaten.
On All Souls' Day or the Day of the Dead, the Mexicans fight Death with humour. They bring along brightly coloured miniature skeletons, skulls and coffins to give each other frights.
The tradition of the masks in Mexico dates from before the Spanish oppression and is linked to pre-christian magic. In honour of the gods, priests as well as hunters wore masks of gold and gems, which were of course greadily captured by the conquistadores. Currently, the masks are made of, again, papier-mache.


tea kettle
From the 15th century onwards, papier-mache is made in Kashmir, first for the decoration of pen cases, lamp shades, tea kettles and -cups, tea boxes, bowls, vases, filing boxes, pendants and bracelets, jewel boxes, wall decorations and ceiling panels. At present, it is the Muslim community who deal with papier-mache. Though working with papier-mache is officially reserved to men, in practice it is the women who do these jobs. Think about that for a change if you buy a beautiful Indian vase made of papier-mache!


musical box
From the beginning of the 17th century onwards, an interest rose in Japan for folkloric toys for children. Actually, these were originally ritual objects: after a visit to the temple, the adults brought along various small objects to protect their children against evil spirits. These trinkets often represented animals: birds, dogs, tigers, monkeys and fish.
The most popular goodluck charms even today are the sparid, the badger and the cat. These figures often have a symbolic meaning, because e.g. legends are linked to them.
On the Okinawa isles, rich children have amused themselves for generations with papier-mache toys. Poor farmers and rice cultivators use dolls of wood, clay and papier-mache as a sacrifice to beg the gods to protect their harvest.

This journey through time and across the continents teaches us that papier-mache was used - and still is - by rich and poor alike and is certainly not meant as a cheap surrogate for down-and-outers. Kings and emperors used to flaunt in carriages, live in luxurious palaces and surround themselves with elegant furniture and objects, all made of papier-mache!
After this story you, too, may have got the taste for papier-mache, and will also start either collecting, or making it yourself.

Check out artist Walter Costa's website for a Spanish translation of this History