Birge Family, Buffalo, NY - Table of Contents

Birge Wallpaper Company
Buffalo, New York

On this page below:

Martin Wachadlo, Birge Wallpaper Company

Roy Rutherford, G. K. Birge and a Family Tradition

"Indian Room"

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See also:   Recollections of an Artist Working for the Birge Wallpaper Company

Birge Factory Fire Monument

Birge Wallpaper Company
By Martin Wachadlo

Martin H. Birge (1806-1900), who came to Buffalo during the 1830s and opened a dry goods store. His focus eventually shifted to selling wallpaper, and finally to manufacturing it. Martin Birge took in Henry and his brother George as partners in the 1870s (after both had graduated from Harvard), the firm becoming M. H. Birge & Sons, and they built a new plant at Niagara and Maryland Streets on Buffalo's lower west side.

The company grew to become one of the largest wallpaper concerns in the nation, internationally known for quality, and eventually opened offices in Europe. The firm became a branch of the National Wall Paper Co. in 1890, with the brothers becoming managers at the Buffalo plant, but returned to Birge family control in 1900. (M. H. Birge & Sons prospered through most of the twentieth century, under the control of George and his descendants, but eventually fell victim to changing fashion.

The firm moved out of the plant at 390 Niagara Street in 1976, which was subsequently demolished, and went out of business in 1982.)

Reprinted from The Buffalo Evening News, February 5, 1947
G. K. Birge and a Family Tradition
By Roy Rutherford

The Birge wallpaper company has been dealers in and makers of fine wallpaper since 1834. Martin H. Birge, the great-grand-father of President George Birge came to Buffalo via the Erie Canal in that year and opened a retail wallpaper establishment on lower Main St. In 1860 a plant was built at the foot of Perry St.; in 1880 a move was made to the present location, 390 Niagara.

Later this building was rebuilt after being partly destroyed by fire. A new office building was completed in 1923. This always has been a family-owned company.
(Grandfather George Kingsley Birge was also president of the Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company, selling his interest in 1917.)

From the beginning the business had been concerned in catering to the top-price brackets - handmade papers and expensive designs - but in order to increase volume and level off the seasonal slumps, Mr. Birge introduced a line of intermediate-priced papers.

This is one of the few wallpaper companies to maintain a research laboratory.

Some reproduce originals from historic Mount Vernon, Livinston Manor, Jumel Mansion and many other incomparable colonial and European patterns.

When an idea for design is born it is turned over to the colorist; swatches of different color combinations then are made, a sample is run and the experts decide which color is best.

M. H. Birge and Sons Wallpaper Co. - Indian Room Reprinted from December 1886, The Scientific American, Architects and Builders Edition

Persons seeking new ideas in the decoration of house decoration will be attracted by the extra colored plate showing a design for a "reception room," contained in this number of our journal.

It illustrates the application to decorative purposes of specimens of East Indian ornament, as reproduced and adapted by the Messrs. M. H. Birge & Sons, of Buffalo, N.Y. In a special line of paper hangings of their manufacture, which they name the "Birge Velours," this firm last year introduced a number of Moorish patterns, taken from the sumptuous ornament of the Alhambra, and the success attending that venture has induced them to extend their search for novelties still farther east. The result would seem to show that the decorative art of India lends itself quite as readily and effectively to certain Occidental requirements as that of the Moors.

Most of our readers are probably aware that the art of India comprises two very distinct and dissimilar products. That which may be called "Hindoo" art had its origin in the country prior to the influx of Mohammedanism, and reflects the spirit of the older religions of the people.

By Indian art proper, however, is usually meant that which has grown out of the Arab invasion and conquest. Possessing marked characteristics, which have always commanded the admiration of artists, it is nevertheless as essentially Arabesque as the Alhambra itself.

While the Hindoo ornament ornament abounds in grotesque and barbaric features, that of Mohammedan India possesses a delicacy and refinement not elsewhere surpassed, if indeed, ever equaled. Monstrous human and other animal forms appear in the art of the Brahmins and Buddhists, while the creed of the Arabs, as strictly as the law of Moses, forbade the copying of the shapes of man or beast.

It was through the London exhibitions of 1851 and 1862 that this later development of Indian art was first brought to popular attention in England. Competent critics at once pronounced it a happy blending of the sever forms of Arabian and Saracenic art with the graces of Persian refinement.

Rather more flowing and less conventionalized than the pure Saracenic style, it is equally devoid of superfluous ornamentation, while it preserves the same division and subdivision of general lines which form the charm of Moresque decoration. "In equal distribution of the surface ornament over the ground," says the English critic whom we have already quoted, "the Indian artists exhibit a rare instinct and perfection of drawing, while the balance of color is so exact as to defy European imitation. The most brilliant colors are used, but always in perfect harmony."

It is from this pure fountain of Indian Arabesque that the Messrs. Birge have drawn a quantity of ideas for decoration, and, among others, the patterns illustrated in our plate. "The Taj. at Agra," they tell us, in a pamphlet from their house, "the most exquisite piece of architecture in the world, erected by Shah Jehan in memory of the beautiful Nour-Mahal, has furnished us with many suggestions fir Indian ornament: These we have carefully adapted and arranged for hangings and borders, preserving as far as possible, the wonderful beauty of coloring of the originals."

The window grilles, of carved wood, and the table, in the plate, are also from Indian patterns. There can be no doubt that here is a rich treasure house of ideas awaiting our artists and decorators, for the decaying mosques and palaces of Delhi and Agra abound in architectural ornament of the rarest and most exquisite description. The only wonder is that such a mine has been so little explored. Perhaps the patterns reproduced in the "Birge Velours" may crate a demand for more from the same source.


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