Piece of History: If Walls Could…Whinny?

A couple of weeks ago when we tore out the kitchen cabinets, we found some pretty cool old wallpaper (which, of course, I took photos of).  Well, as we were tearing out the plaster this past weekend, I found yet another pattern of wallpaper that once graced this kitchen.

Pieces of plaster from kitchen with neat wallpaper pattern. Kind of stylish, eh?

If your monitor has a high enough resolution to notice something bizarre and a little disturbing about this photo, click “More” to find out what it is.

So my reaction when I first started picking up plaster was as follows:

“AH!  What the heck is THAT?!”

Is that... hair? Why does the plaster have hair??

Okay, I didn’t say ‘heck.’ But seriously, the hairs were very unexpected.  Luckily, the internet was there to solve this mystery.  As it turns out, what we’re looking at is called horsehair plaster.

But let’s back up and talk about lath and plaster walls in general.  Up until the 1950s, interior walls in the United States were built with lath and plaster.  Wood laths, narrow strips of wood about 2 inches wide, were nailed horizontally to wall studs, about 1/4 inch apart.  Plaster would then be applied over the lath strips, which in the process would ooze between the lath pieces for a better hold.  That oozing is called “keying,” and it is essential to the plaster staying on the wall.  That’s where the horse hair comes in.

plaster and lath wall from behind. the plaster bits that oozed through are called keys.(Credit: Wikipedia.org)

Plaster was traditionally made of lime, and to reinforce it they added horse hair.  These fibers held the plaster together to prevent cracking, and more specifically, it prevented the keys from breaking away from the wall plaster.  Fiberglass fibers eventually replaced horse hair as the anti-cracking ingredient.


Now, I have been asked if we will be putting up new plaster, and here’s the situation: the plaster that was in the house when we bought it was essentially destroyed by a previous owner.  It looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to most of the walls.  The walls that hadn’t been beaten within an inch of their life had been painted (poorly) so many times that the texture was not smooth.  Because we do not have the skill nor the money to have the extensive damage to the plaster repaired, we decided to tear it out–what we’ve been doing since Friday.  We will replace it with sheet rock because of comparative cost.  It’s a shame, but we think that in the grand scheme of things I think it will be okay.

And on the upside, at least we’ll have vegan walls.


About Leigh

Born and raised in Rochester, MN, Leigh moved to the Twin Cities in 2004 for college. She stayed, and now works for a south metro city in the recycling department. In February of 2011, she and Paul bought a neglected farm house in the city to start our own urban hobby farm.

Posted on March 9, 2011, in History, House, Piece of History Files, Renovation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I love your blog! Thanks for doing this!

  2. lol! Had to smile about the horse hair. Goat hair was used as well you know, but human hair didn’t work apparently…too greasy (well it was the middle ages!)

    The hair normally comes from the tail of the horse and I buy mine in little bundles about 2″ long. (see here http://environment.uwe.ac.uk/video/cd_new_demo/conweb/finishes/a7_small.jpg )

    Sometimes on really old ceilings where the plaster has separated from the lath, it is only the horse hair strands that are holding everything up!

    It’s great finding little gims of a story when ripping out isn’t it? We recently found the old ceramic wall tiles in our old kitchen, brown circles they were….lovely!

    And don’t feel guilty about the sheetrock, times move and it is so much easier and cheaper to use it. Unless the house has historical significance it is the only practical decision.
    Stay well and good luck with the rest of the work

  3. Paul’s great grandfather and great-great grandfather were both plasterers. Just a little side note.

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