The literal translation of the French term “papier-mâché” is “chewed paper.” That’s because – you guessed it – it was originally made from chewed up paper (If only we had known that in elementary school!) Papier-mâché is made of ripped or mashed paper, occasionally reinforced with other materials, and bound with adhesive, like glue or paste. Highly pliable when it is wet and very hard when it is dry, it is essentially a method of using paper to produce durable three-dimensional objects. The French term comes from the 18th century, when the technique became popular in Western Europe, but the first instances of papier-mâché actually go all the way back to ancient times.
DwellStudio's papier-mâché animal heads
Even before the invention of paper, the ancient Egyptians had ‘cartonnage,’ which was basically proto-papier-mâché using papyrus fragments bound with plaster. Once paper was invented in 2nd-century AD China, papier-mâché soon followed, a kind of byproduct of papermaking. As knowledge of papermaking spread, so did papier-mâché, and by the 10th century it could be found throughout Western Europe and across the silk route, from Persia to India, China and Japan.
Papier-mâché was often reinforced with lacquer, a varnish that occurs naturally in Asia and yields a durable and hard finish. It produced such a strong material that the Chinese made their war helmets out of lacquer-reinforced papier-mâché. In other cultures, papier-mâché became used for masks and festival goods, penholders and small boxes.
1. A painted and lacquered papier-mâché box from India, early to mid-17th century, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2. A 19th-century Cambodian headdress made of papier-mâché reinforced with leather, glass and wood, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 3. A corner cupboard by Henry Clay, c. 1780-90, made of “japanned” papier-maché on a mahogany carcass, 4. A cake basket, circa 1850, in painted and gilded papier-mâché, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, produced by Jennens & Bettridge, who also made Queen Victoria’s papier-mâché wedding present, 5. An early 20th-century takaan wooden mold for a papier-mâché mask from Paete, Philippines, from Haig’s of Rochester
Papier-mâché became extraordinarily popular in Western Europe in the 17th century, when Portuguese and Dutch traders began importing many objects from Asia. The most sought-after objects were lacquerware, so expensive that they were mostly found in royal and aristocratic collections. So European craftsmen began to imitate these pieces using papier-mâché. An inexpensive and pliable substitute for wood and tole, papier-mâché became a favored technique among designers who used it to make furniture, trays, pianos, buttons, and even horse-drawn carriages. In imitation of Japanese lacquer, many of these objects are inlaid with mother-of-pearl and other exquisite materials.
The Victorians were huge papier-mâché fans, because the material could be molded into all sorts of elaborate shapes and ornaments. Queen Victoria herself received a decorative set of papier-mâché trays as a wedding present in 1840. Although there were many professional papier-mâché artisans, it was also a favored craft for ladies to do at home. The heads of Victorian dolls were crafted out of papier-mâché – you can still see some in antique shops and flea markets.
In some cultures the molds for papier-mâché sculptures are themselves an art form. Since the 16th century, the Philippine town of Paete has been renowned for its papier-mâché scuptures which are built on carved wooden molds called takaans. The beautiful hardwood takaans are now considered works of art in their own right.
Although plastics replaced papier-mâché in industrial production in the 20th century, it is still used in decorative and theatrical settings across the world, and is especially favored in masks, parade floats and other festival ephemera.