“Is This Wallpaper Original?” Layers of Authenticity at the Paul Revere House

By Tirzah Frank

Visitors to historic house museums often ask what’s “original,” or “real,” or “authentic.” In the Paul Revere House’s Best Chamber, which acted as both master bedroom and parlor space for the Reveres, the answer varies. To start, 90 percent of the house’s posts, beams, and subflooring are original. And according to family tradition, several pieces of furniture in the room belonged to Paul Revere himself, or to his second wife Rachel. There is a grandfather clock in one corner that did not belong to the Reveres, but is quite similar to a clock Paul Revere owned (that piece is still in the family). After that, things get slightly more speculative. A book placed on a chair—a compilation of Massachusetts Magazine—represents a publication to which Paul Revere subscribed. A Masonic bowl sits on the dresser, reflecting Revere’s identity as a Freemason. The other furniture in the room dates to the period (around the 1790s) and was made in Massachusetts. And finally, reproduction fabrics and wallpaper, each based on a popular print that was sold in Boston at the time, have been placed on the bedding and the walls, respectively.

Tirzah Frank, UMass Amherst History MA and Public History Certificate student in the Best Chamber, Paul Revere House, Boston.
Tirzah preparing to speak to visitors in the Best Chamber.

Layers of authenticity like this are common in historic house museums, which rarely have all of the relevant family’s furniture, much less know where it was placed. While working at the Revere House, I was fascinated by the space between what the Reveres had and what they might have had—and the mix of careful research and creativity it takes to bridge that gap. The wallpaper and the fabric in particular have a huge impact on how the room feels, but we have no idea what they looked like. The wallpaper pattern dates to the correct period and was found in two different houses in the area (one in Salem and one in Cambridge), suggesting that it was made locally. It is, therefore, certainly in line with what the Reveres could have had on their walls. However, there is no surviving evidence of how the Best Chamber’s walls looked when the Reveres were living there.

Still, it would hardly be more authentic to put the Revere pieces alone in a room with no decoration and tell visitors, “These are the only things we can be sure of.” While that might be an interesting exercise, it’s guaranteed to be further from the Reveres’ experience than the current installation. As curator Laura C. Keim has noted, “furnishings have the power to connect us to people and contexts from another time and bring them into our present reality.”[1] The fully furnished Best Chamber allows visitors to imagine the Reveres in context, especially because it is the room where interpreters describe the Revere family. Explaining the origins of the furniture and other objects in the room also provides an opportunity to pull back the curtain on historical methodology for the public—we don’t know what wallpaper the Reveres had (if any), but we can talk about the research and decision-making process that led to the pattern on the walls right now.

The wallpaper in the Best Chamber (left) and reproduction fabric in the Best Chamber.

Navigating around gaps in the archive and using them to enrich visitors’ experiences is equally important in the Hall, the main room on the house’s ground floor. Here, the furnishings date to the late seventeenth century, when the first owner, Robert Howard, lived in the house. None of the furniture in the Hall is original, but it is designed to reflect Howard’s status as a wealthy merchant. Discussing his wealth as evidenced by the furniture is a useful segue to the fact that that Howard engaged in transatlantic trade, which relied heavily on the transport of enslaved Africans. While Howard’s involvement in the Atlantic slave economy is not fully understood, he owned a ship that frequently transited between Boston and the Caribbean, where he traded rum, tobacco, timber and more; he was an investor in 19 additional ships.[2] Howard also enslaved at least one person, a man named Samuel, who likely lived in the house as well.[3] The Revere House does not have any objects associated with the Howards, much less Samuel, but the furnishings in the room can still help guides illustrate facets of the Howards’ lives and provide some context for Samuel’s as well.

The phenomenon of making well-researched guesses to enrich the public’s experience and circumvent archival gaps is not limited to museums. In writing, historians have to mediate between what they can confidently claim and what they can only suggest. Developing this skill is becoming ever more important as scholars use creative methods to tell the stories of people far less famous than Paul Revere, especially BIPOC individuals like Samuel who may have left no written records.

For instance, Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks incorporated elements of historical fiction in her book Our Beloved Kin, noting that these sections are designed “to bring readers into plausible scenarios, to animate the historical landscape through Indigenous frameworks and to give a sense of humanity to historical characters whose stories have been silenced, repressed or misunderstood.”[4] Brooks’ innovative approach is unusual for academic historical writing, but historic house museums have been bringing visitors into plausible scenarios in order to give a sense of humanity to historical characters for a long time. At the Revere House, this ranges from making décor decisions that show how the Reveres might have lived to connecting the expensive furniture on the ground floor to the atrocities behind Robert Howard’s wealth. There is no reason other genres of history cannot do the same thing, especially in situations where stories have been silenced or repressed. Indeed, taking a creative approach (and inviting visitors or readers into that process) can make history more engaging and provide a more authentic narrative, acknowledging that silences in the archive are not voids where nothing occurred.

Tirzah Frank is an M.A. student in History at UMass Amherst who is also pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate. Her 2021 internship is supported by the Charles K. Hyde Intern Fellowship.

[1] Laura C. Keim, “Why Do Furnishings Matter? The Power of Furnishings in Historic House Museums,” in Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions, ed. Kenneth C. Turino and Max A. van Balgooy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 207.

[2] Ruaidhrí Crofton, “The Howards of Clark’s Square,” The Revere Express, June 12, 2020, https://www.paulreverehouse.org/the-howards-of-clarks-square/.

[3] Crofton, “Howards.”

[4] Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (Yale University Press, 2018), 140.

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