One of the most popular ways to decorate the home during the first decades of the new century was by using paint, and especially stencils, to create a variety of attractive decorative effects on walls and ceilings. This direction toward nesting and hand-craftsmanship was in part a by-product of the Arts & Crafts movement, which was popularized in the US through the unceasing efforts of Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard.
Though not directly associated, The Alabastine Company was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the social and decorative trends of its day — from about 1890 to 1930.
"Alabastine Your Walls and Combine Healthfulness With Beauty" So proclaimed one of the many ads for Alabastine, a wall coating derived from gypsum that was mined from the extensive shale beds that occur abundantly around Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The company produced a substantial number of attractive color advertisments in domestic arts magazines including Ladies Home Journal, the Delineator, and House Beautiful, which served to acquaint its audience with the myriad advantages of finishing interior walls with its product.
The company also actively engaged painters with its publications such as the Brush & Pail. Each issue included new color combinations with artistic stencil patterns. Additional small catalogs of stencil designs were printed and distributed to painters and decorators. Thousands of colored postcards with different color schemes and effects were printed.
The Alabastine Company maintained a staff of artists that were at the customer's disposal where designing color schemes and wall treatments were concerned.
"The Alabastine Company was organized in New York, in 1879, by Melvin B. Church, its present manager. It has offices in this city, and mills outside. Alabastine is an article of which calcined gypsum is the base, made to take the place of calimine in wall coatings and finish."(1) Church, something of an inventor, tinkered with the gypsum and formulated the wall paint. The Church family sold the company around 1900.(2)
The company may have taken its name from one of the largest and purest gypsum quarries known located near Alabaster, Michigan. The many quarries that sprung up in the area during the 19th century are part of the Michigan Basin, a particularly rich source of this fascinating and ubiquitous material.(3)
Though not identical, painting walls with tinted Alabastine would be similar to painting with Plaster of Paris. The effect created a durable surface that was easy to maintain. A few of Alabastine's selling points included being able to add new coats easily. It could be modeled into relief shapes to form tiles — even with designs — that could be painted and then sealed with Alabastine Water Enamel and white varnish for use in kitchens and bathrooms.
"Alabastine makes and keeps the walls sweet, fresh, pure, and healthful, — as pure as the natural rock from which Alabastine has its origin."(4) Health benefits of this "sanitary wall finish" were one of its key selling points. It was believed that Alabastine was a superior finish because it would resist the problems associated with contagious disease such as scarlet or typhoid fevers because germs and insects wouldn't have the type of warm, damp inner wall areas to set up housekeeping.
The Alabastine Company was in business from 1879 to about 1948 when it failed due to mismanagement.(5)
(1) -- History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1891.
(2) -- Finding Aid for the M. C. Church Diaries. Collection #211. Grand Rapids History & Special Collections Archive. Grand Rapids Public Library. June 2008.
(3) -- Gypsum. Michigan State University. http://www.geo.msu.edu/geogmich/gypsummining.html
(4) -- Alabastine Ad (4 pg.) The Delineator, March 1907.
(5) Tomaszewski, Kreigh. The Alabastine Gypsum Mine. Arrowhead News, Indian Mounds Rock & Mineral Club, Wyoming, Michigan. December 2008.
--. Alabastine Company's Cut Stencils. Grand Rapids, Michigan, c. 1905.
--. Stencil Catalog: Cut Stencils for the Use of Practical Men. Alabastine Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. c. 1910.
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