Mickey Owen Was Found in the Plaster!: A Look at Some Curious Inclusions Found in Plaster from Historic Kenmore

Historic Kenmore is known for the unique decorative plasterwork seen on many of its ceilings. However, some of its most unusual pieces of plaster were discovered during repair work being done in 1989. These were pieces of plaster that contained large clumps of animal hair and newspaper. An inspection of this plaster, considering an architectural artifact, in the Archaeology Lab has led to several theories about the reasons for these unconventional inclusions. But before we discuss these, it is important to first understand how historic plaster was made and used.


Decorative plasterwork ceiling in the bed chamber at Historic Kenmore.

Plaster was one of the main finishes for interior walls in the United States until the introduction of drywall in the mid-20th century. The two main types produced were lime plaster and gypsum plaster. Lime plaster was made of water, lime, sand, and a fibrous material. The lime could be derived from limestone or oyster shells. The plaster found in Kenmore was probably made from oyster shells from the Rappahannock River, instead of limestone which is not native to this region. The fibrous material was some sort of animal hair such as horsehair, cow hair, hog hair, or even yak hair.[1] Gypsum plaster was introduced in the early 19th century and was often used in conjunction with lime plaster. Gypsum plaster did not require a fibrous binder and would eventually replace lime plaster as a finish coat.

Plaster was applied in a three-coat process. First was the scratch coat, which had the highest hair content of the three coats. This coat was applied to lathe board causing the plaster to ‘key’ (adhere) into the spaces between the lathes. Next, was the brown coat, which was dark in color due to its high content of sand. The last coat to be applied was the finish coat. This coat contained no hair, little sand, and a slightly higher lime content to create a smooth white finish.[2]

Now that we have a better understanding of how plaster is produced, let’s take a closer look at the unique pieces found at Kenmore. As discussed earlier, it is not unusual to find animal hair in plaster; however, the pieces pulled from Kenmore have exceptionally large clumps of hair not normally seen. Hair was added to plaster to act as a binder. It helped to hold the plaster together, reduce shrinkage, and improve strength.[3] Contrary to what one may believe, the process for obtaining hair for plaster was very selective. The hair had to be long, freshly cut, clean, non-greasy, and dry in order to be used in plaster. It also does not appear that people used hair from their own animals; instead, they bought hair from a tanner’s yard or a merchant. When choosing a hair type, horsehair was favored for its length and strength compared to cow or hog hair. [4]  However, horsehair was probably the most expensive and difficult to obtain out of the three.

Plaster 01

A piece of Kenmore plaster that contains a large clump of animal hair.

Once the hair was acquired, it was mixed with the plaster. During this process, it was important to evenly distribute the hair throughout the plaster.[5] This was where the tradesmen making the plaster pieces found at Kenmore made a mistake. They did not distribute the hair properly causing the large clumps that we see. This caused problems when applying the plaster as well as limited the plaster’s strength.[6] Therefore, it can be concluded that the person making this plaster may not have been trained in plasterwork or was a worker under a tradesman who did not follow directions properly. Perhaps this is some experimental plaster made by William Key Howard, Jr. before he started his restoration of the decorative plasterwork on the ceilings of Kenmore in the post-Civil War period.

The next interesting inclusion found in the Kenmore plaster was pieces of newspaper. Newspaper was not used historically for the manufacture of plaster; however, a dozen or so pieces of plaster pulled from Kenmore included newspaper fragments. The newspaper appears to have been torn or balled up and then covered in plaster. A skilled tradesman would not have made or applied plaster in this way. From this, we can conclude that whoever applied this plaster was not trained.

Plaster 02

A piece of Kenmore plaster that contains both animal hair and newspaper.

From inspection of the newspaper, perhaps we can learn a little more about who may have done this. Unfortunately, no dates can be found on the newspaper pieces to give a specific time frame. However, from careful inspection of the incomplete newspaper pieces, it appears that many of the pieces are from the comics or the sports section. On one of the small pieces the words Dodgers, shortstop, and Mickey Owen can be identified. From this, it can be assumed that the paper dates between 1941-1945, the years in which Mickey Owen played for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. The Brooklyn Dodgers experienced winning seasons in both 1941 and 1942, due to the skill of Mickey Owen and his teammates.[7] Therefore, it is likely that the newspaper article came from one of these two years. The time frame can also be limited to the months encompassing baseball season (April to October).

Plaster 03

Kenmore plaster bit containing newspaper that mentions Mickey Owen playing for the Dodgers.

With a probable date range for the plaster pieces, we can begin to look at who occupied Kenmore at the time and why they might have made plaster in this way. In 1922, Kenmore was purchased by the Kenmore Association and was operating as a museum by the 1940s. In the early ‘40s, the Kenmore Association was concluding one of its restorations. A possible theory for the inclusion of newspaper in the plaster is that this plaster was used to patch a hole during the restoration. The small amount of plaster found with newspaper inclusions and the way the newspaper is distributed throughout the plaster, with most of the newspaper layered on the bottom and consecutive layers of plaster seen on top, does point to a possible patch job,.

From the Kenmore 1941 correspondence records, a few references to repair work inside the house were found. In June of 1941, there is a reference to rewiring being done in the house. There is also mention of fire alarms being installed so that they do not show. Finally, the interior walls and ceilings were painted. On the receipt, the painter lists that some of the walls had to be mended. This is the most probable repair in which the newspaper would have been used as a patch. The hired painter was likely not trained in making/repairing historic plaster. This tradesman probably wanted a quick fix and layered newspaper over the spot and plastered over that in order to finish the paint job.

While plaster may not be the most exciting building material to study, it can give a lot of useful insight into the construction and repair of a house. Conclusions about the people commissioning and conducting the work can be derived from the composition and application of plaster. With a little investigation, even unusual inclusions in the plaster can lead to some surprising discoveries about the people who lived and worked at Kenmore and about the life story of Kenmore itself.

Tessa Honeycutt, UMW Student
Fleming Smith Scholar

[1] Henry, Allison, and John Stewart. Practical Building Conservation: Mortars, Plasters and Renders. Ashgate, 2009.

[2] Practical Building Conservation

[3] Practical Building Conservation

[4] Hodgson, Frederick Thomas. Plaster and Plastering: Mortars and Cements, How to Make and How to Use. New York: The Industrial Publication Company, 1901

[5] Ibid.

[6] Practical Building Conservation

[7] Ibid.