Perforated Paper Needlework

By Diana Matthews
"Home Sweet Home", "Forget Me Not" , "Thy Will Be Done".... mottoes were an integral part of Victorian life. Whether printed on greeting cards, iced on cakes or embroidered on perforated paper and hung on the wall, they were intended to inspire the reader and promote what were considered "proper" thoughts and behaviour. The advent of perforated paper gave easy, inexpensive access to all who wished to proclaim their ideals, and mottoes were available in sayings to suit any and all tastes. Whereas the majority of motto texts relate to the Bible, other sentiments were just as popular.
Many were printed for mourning purposes ("We Mourn Our Loss", "Sweet Rest In Heaven") and some were for Fraternal Groups ("Friendship Love and Truth" for the Oddfellows and "We Meet Upon The Level" for the Masons). The American Centennial of 1876 was celebrated ("Long May It Wave", "United We Stand") and the Temperance Society had theirs as well ("Touch Not Taste Not Handle Not"). Quite a number were simple moral reminders ("Honesty Is The Best Policy", "Live And Let Live") and some were just hung up for the sake of the season ("Merry Christmas", "Happy New Year") or to greet friends upon arrival ("Welcome", "With Joy We Greet You").
The most common motto of all, "Home Sweet Home" was worked uncountable times in a variety of styles and sizes and is the easiest to find today. Apparently not just for adults, children worked these mottoes and bookmarks as well as is evidenced by the surviving examples. "To Dear Papa", a bookmark lovingly stitched by a child with leftover wools and "We Mourn Our Loss", a framed motto poorly executed by inexperienced hands, perhaps in memory of a lost parent or sibling.  Originally available in the 1820's as plain sheets used for the making of bookmarks, perforated card-board (as it was called then) gained in favor over the decades to become one of the most popular craft items of the Victorian age.

Before the 1850's, most perforated paper projects consisted of bookmarks and small samplers with texts taken from the Bible or pictures using Berlin Woolwork patterns. Unlike woolwork, it was not necessary to fill in the background and no blocking or stretching was needed to finish the work. With the invention of new printing processes together with the popularity of the product, mottoes and bookmarks pre-printed on the perforated paper became all the rage and by the 1870's were desirable to the point of excess. Sometimes called the "poor woman's samplers" because they were so inexpensive to create, few homes escaped their appeal and examples could be found in every room of the house.

Mottoes were printed in 2 standard sizes, 8 1/2" x 21" and 17" x 21" but it is the former we most often see, and although the frames styles available were quite varied, the most often chosen was the rustic frame with the crossed corners and wood leaves.
Hair pin holder from Godey's Lady's Book from 1878.

During its heyday, perforated paper was available in dozens of different colors and embossed patterns and was used for making a large variety of household items.  Godey's Lady's Book, Peterson's Magazine as well as a host of other periodicals and books of the day regularly gave patterns for items to be made from this most innovative product. Needle cases, wall pockets, stamp holders, hair receivers and complicated ornaments could be fashioned from it along with the bookmarks and mottoes as it lent itself well to both flat and 3-dimensional crafts.

Some collectors attempt to date old mottoes or bookmarks by the number of holes per inch, assuming that the older the item, the higher the hole count. This is not an accurate dating method as perforated paper was available in counts from 10 to 28 holes per inch right from the beginning.
Bookmarks were cut from sheets in any size needed and pre-printed bookmarks came in a variety of sizes including ones with fancy borders or embossed scenes.

Books and magazines from the 1850s recommended specific sizes depending on the project at hand stating that the finer papers were good for small projects to be embroidered with silks whereas the larger mottoes were better worked with wools. The variety of flosses and wools that were available for the stitching of mottoes and bookmarks was vast.



Variegated wools, silk flosses, glass beads and chenille threads were most often used and the mottoes made later in the century often had metallic threads and bullion added to the design. Tinfoil was another addition sometimes used to add some sparkle to the motto; it came in pre-cut sizes and was crinkled slightly then placed on the back of the motto before framing. The tinfoil shone through the unworked holes of the paper when hit by the light.


The German motto translated says: "All Disappears, Only Love Remains" and has a large celluloid addition.


Generally speaking, the bulk of the pre-printed framed mottoes were stitched during the 1870s and 1880s. Not all mottoes were in English, many different languages were represented and they can be found in German, French, Welsh, Hebrew and Polish, among others. As time went on, mottoes became available with celluloid additions to be sewn on after completion. These were usually in the form of Jesus or angels that were to be added to the religious texts. Some celluloid additions were just for added decoration such as sailing ships. Cameos of famous people were found as well, such as Queen Victoria and Martin Luther.

Perforated paper work began to die out after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, but kept a small following in the form of Catholic oriented mottoes, usually the 17" x 21" size, but these too had essentially disappeared by the 1920s. Perforated paper mottoes and bookmarks are not rare and can be easily found in antique shops and online auctions but can be pricey. The value is generally determined by what the motto says, many texts are much more desirable than others but condition is also a factor.


This "Postage Stamps" perforated paper work piece is a rare postage stamp case with an inner envelope to hold the stamps and dates from around 1850.

Since most mottoes were framed with a wooden backing board, the oils leaching out of the wood into the paper has left a mark that appears to be a water stain and few mottoes have completely escaped this disfiguring flaw. If reframing an old motto with the original wood backing, remember to add some acid free paper or cardboard to avoid further deterioration. Most bookmarks were sewn onto a ribbon and kept inside a book so are usually in good condition, but if they were well used, can show wear of the threads or breaks in the perforations. Treasure your mottoes, not just for their value and beauty, but also for the timeless messages they have left us with.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Diana Matthews is the author of several books about antique handicrafts, needlework and punch, punched, and perforated paper mottoes.






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