Lincrusta in the Emlen Physick Estate
Lincrusta is a dramatic, decorative wallcovering, with elaborate and beautiful embossed designs, much desired by Victorians and featured throughout Cape May, N.J.’s Victorian House Museum.
CAPE MAY — The 1879 Physick House, 1048 Washington St., was designed by renowned American architect Frank Furness for Dr. Emlen Physick, his mother and his maiden aunt. It has been the home of Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture) since 1970, when it was saved from demolition by a group of savvy and dedicated volunteers, the founders of this not-for-profit arts, history and cultural organization. They knew its incredible architectural and historical value, despite its neglected state, and set about saving it, restoring it and growing the organization, in the process sparking a Renaissance in Cape May that continues today.
Cape May MAC has grown into one of the region’s most important tourism, cultural, history and arts leaders, partnering with city and state leaders, local and regional businesses and schools, and thousands of individuals to bring Cape May history to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Lincrusta plays a role in this story.
A concise history of this material comes from Heritage Wallcoverings, Ltd., in Lancaster, England:
Lincrusta was the ingenious invention of Frederick Walton, who had pioneered the development of linoleum floor coverings in the 1860s. Heralded as the first washable wallcovering, Lincrusta was an instant success, replacing painstaking artisan plasterwork and appealing to Victorian England’s tastes because of its sanitary properties as well as its beauty, practicality and durability.
Originally patented as Linoleum Muralis (Linoleum for walls), its name soon changed to Lincrusta-Walton — Lin for Linum (flax, from which linseed oil is made) and Crusta (Relief), with the inventor’s name being added to prevent others using the same title.
Designs quickly found their way into a huge variety of applications from royal homes to railway carriages, as well as notable buildings throughout the world, including The White House.
From launch, Lincrusta was an instant success, replacing painstaking artisan plasterwork and appealing to Victorian England’s tastes because of its beauty, practicality and durability. …
Being an astute businessman, Frederick Walton started to look at opportunities for his new invention across the Atlantic. Although he began marketing to the U.S. in 1879, Lincrusta didn’t achieve widespread popularity until 1883, when FR Beck bought the patent rights and began manufacturing in a factory in Stamford, Conn.
Lincrusta’s immediate appeal in the U.S. was to an upscale market, and early examples of its use include JD Rockefeller’s mansion, eminent banker Samuel M Nickerson’s home in Chicago (now The Driehaus Museum), and the California State Capitol in Sacramento — in 1886, the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican described the governor’s rooms in the new territorial capital building as being covered by Lincrusta-Walton of “various designs” which created “a most harmonious and really gorgeous effect.”
Lincrusta in the Physick Estate
We know Dr. Emlen Physick was interested in the most up-to-date features for his home and lincrusta is a good example. Cape May MAC’s Curator Gail Capehart said Dr. Physick introduced this coveted material into his home as lincrusta began to rise in popularity after 1883, when Beck brought this unique material into the U.S. market by building his factory in Stamford.
“Lincrusta, a popular late Victorian wallcovering, was introduced into the Physick House in the 1889 redecoration,” Capehart said. “Lincrusta was a mixture of gum, resin, wood fiber, and linseed oil that was run through a press to give it an embossed pattern. In this house, it was added extensively in eight different patterns on ceilings and the lower portions of walls. When MAC took over the estate, much of the lincrusta was in disrepair or missing altogether.”
“Since lincrusta was not widely available in the 1970s, MAC volunteers took to making new lincrusta in the basement of the house,” she said. “After making molds of the original lincrusta that remained, fiberglass panels were cast and installed on many of the walls and ceilings of the house. In all, MAC volunteers made and replaced almost 700 square feet of lincrusta.”
The challenge of maintaining lincrusta at the estate continues to this day. Cape May MAC Registrar Ben Ridings, part of the curatorial team, schedules and manages repair and replacement of the museum’s lincrusta, a sometimes challenging task.
“Since lincrusta work is such a specialized skill, the number of artists making this labor-intensive material is few,” said Ridings. “The Physick House has at least five different patterns of lincrusta, as well. We have been repairing and replacing damaged pieces as time and resources allow. Last year, we replaced a large section along the staircase on the second-floor landing,” he said.
ch year, Cape May MAC’s tour of the Physick House Museum highlights a particular aspect of Victorian life and culture. This year marks Cape May MAC’s 50th anniversary, and our tour focuses on the Physick House, itself. It is fitting, since this is where MAC began, in its efforts to save the house from the wrecking ball. You will learn of the mansion’s years as a grand residence for the Physick family, to its tragic decline and near demolition and, finally, to its rise as a fully-restored historic landmark.
Join us to learn the compelling story of its life, when the museum reopens to the public. When it does, marvel at the lincrusta, this beautifully crafted material, up close and in person.