Navigation Menu+

starry papers

Pretty hand-made shelf edging with decorative stars.

Laura and Mary made new starry papers for the shelves, and Ma made vanity cakes. – On the Banks of Plum Creek, Chapter 23, “Country Party”

As Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in By the Shores of Silver Lake, “There are so many ways of seeing things.”

I had an “a-ha” moment in Ma and Pa’s Third Street house this summer. The gray kitchen cabinet shelves (built by Charles Ingalls and original to the house – the white cabinets with dry sink are not period, nor were they built by Mr. Ingalls!) sported a paper edging with cut-out stars. Laura describes such edging in On the Banks of Plum Creek (see Chapter 17, “Moving In”). Ma brings out two long strips of brown wrapping-paper and folds them, accordion-style. She then shows Mary and Laura how to cut tiny bits out of the paper, which, when unfolded, reveals a row of stars. The paper is spread on the shelves behind the stove, with the stars hanging over the edge. The manuscript version of the story is slightly different. Ma doesn’t fold the paper, but she shows Mary (then Laura, using a separate strip) how to cut stars along the edge with small scissors.

I’ve been in the Third Street house countless times over the decades and I’ve seen that edging in person and in photographs, but this time I just stopped and stared. You see, I had always pictured the stars as positives (meaning the stars are made of paper), not negatives (meaning the stars are holes in the paper). The edging in De Smet had starry holes. When I got home from my trip, I cut two strips of computer paper, cut stars in them both ways to make sure what I had always pictured could be done, hung them on my magnet board and then promptly forgot about them, until now, when I took a photo of them to use for the navigation button to this entry.

I’m still not convinced that the Ingallses’ stars were holes. How do you picture them?

Today, I was reading a newspaper from the early 1880s and saw this: In any small stationery store or grocery the eye is attracted by an edge of colored paper hanging from each shelf. The shelf paper, as it is called, has scalloped edges, and is perforated in prettily arranged designs, making a lace-like appearance. I found more information:

“The business in shelf paper is only about ten years old,” a manufacturer said. “Then, its edges were cut by a cutting machine, and the cost came to about $1.50 per gross. By and by better machinery was used, and the price fell to 40 cents per gross, and then I came in with labor-saving machinery and I further reduced it to 20 cents. The paper used when the industry began to spread out was of good quality, and was called poster paper; now we use a peculiar kind made of wood pulp, and unless they can get some cheaper material that kind of paper will never be less in price. We take that paper and run it through a stamping machine, which stamps out the design. The dies used in stamping are very costly, and the presses also. Here is one worth about $3,000 including dies. The quantity of shelf paper sold is amazing. We ship it by the ton. I think that $150,000 worth is sold in a year. Another branch of this business is stamping out stars, squares, etc. in pretty designs. Perhaps you think that these stars, which are so complicated and delicate, are stamped out with a die with a full design on it. That would be too expensive. I have a number of girls to fold paper for me, and according as to how it is folded, so is the design. It is run through the press and stamped, and when it is taken out and unfolded, there is your perfect edging.”

Little House shelf edging – the ultimate in starry papers!

Is it possible that Caroline Ingalls copied a popular decorative edging sold commercially? Something she had seen in Mr. Owen’s store, perhaps? Something that was “all the rage” in Walnut Grove, but could be made cheaper at home, as is often the case?

Decorative shelf edging is still popular today. When I lived in Montana, I crocheted long strips of lace to use for shelf edging – a pattern from Rose Wilder Lane’s needlework book, of course. I’m a big fan of MaryJanesFarm magazine, and they sell cute white paper edging online. The November-December 2011 issue of Victoria magazine included a picture of a china cabinet sporting scalloped edging made from strips cut from 1882 newspapers. With all the scissors and punches available today enabling you to easily cut fancy borders, holes, and shapes, there’s no limit to the decorations you can add to paper borders, whether they’re made of white paper, brown wrapping paper, or even pages from your favorite Little House book, like the edging I made for the shelves in the jelly cabinet where I keep my good crystal!


starry paper (BPC 17, 43)