What Is Crepe Paper?

Black and white illustration of three women seated at a luncheon with crepe paper decor.

An illustration that accompanied an article in Ladies’ Home Journal, promoting crepe paper, 1893.

In the 1890s, white women’s social worlds were beginning to change, but they were still rooted in domesticity, or life at home. Though there were early movements toward social reform in this period, namely suffrage, women’s social worlds were primarily focused in the so-called domestic sphere. When Dennison introduced crepe paper to the consumer market, it entered women’s homes seamlessly as a fabric.[1] Consumers used crepe paper in the same way that they used cheaper fabrics. The term crepe itself comes from the French word crêpe, a fabric, usually silk, which has a crimpled or crinkled texture. [2] The translation of the fabric name to the paper product implied that it was easy for manufacturers and consumers to adapt the material for traditional domestic uses.

Ephemeral Decorations Prior to Crepe
Before crepe emerged as a domestic craft paper, American women used other, non-disposable materials to decorate for celebrations. On occasion, women used flower blossoms. Inexpensive fabrics like tarlatan and cheesecloth were present at social gatherings as draperies and decorations. In 1892, The Young Woman’s Journal, a Mormon publication, suggested that crab apple blossoms “over the pictures, in vases, on brackets, and in bowls on the mantels” were a suitable decoration with “scarfs of pink cheese-cloth” over lace curtains for a pink themed tea.[3] Other advice articles suggested “curtains of Soudan cloth…merely a kind of colored cheesecloth, costing about five cents a yard.”[4] Significantly, women reused fabrics or recycled them for other purposes, such as old shawls used for table coverings at children’s parties.[5] However, crepe was not meant to be kept, and its low cost was justification for disposal.[6]
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[1]Beverly Gordon,”‘One of the Most Valuable Fabrics’: The Seemingly Limitless Promise of Crepe Paper, 1890-1935,” Ars Textrina, 31 (1999): 107-144.
[2]Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, s.v. “crêpe.”
[3]Lucy Page Stelle, “How to Entertain at Home,” The Young Woman’s Journal 3, no. 8 (1892), 375.
[4]Elisabeth Robinson Scovil, “Birthday Parties,” Ladies Home Journal (July 1899), 26.[5]Lina Beard, How to Amuse Yourself and Others: The American Girl’s Handy Book (New York: Scribner, 1887), 336.
[6]Beverly Gordon, “Valuable Fabrics,” 109.