Kraft Paper by Wilma Hayes

PUBLISHED: 13:26 24 February 2014 | UPDATED: 13:28 24 February 2014

Wilma Hayes' flat roofed house in Canada, 1956

Wilma Hayes' flat roofed house in Canada, 1956


Herefordshire resident and writer, Wilma Hayes, talks about her childhood in Canada and the tricks her family used to keep warm

It is one of the miracles of our childhood that we didn’t freeze to death in our beds. Why, with the benefit of several thousand years of life experiences, we hadn’t understood the simple theory of insulation, I fail to understand.

The early settlers to north-eastern Saskatchewan in Canada made their first homes of logs supplemented with copious amounts cow dung and straw, rammed into the cracks in the summer to harden in the sun. My father remembers as a small boy, in times of dung shortages, being sent out with a bucket and shovel to follow the family cow around the yard to collect the necessary material. In winter, the little low buildings had snow banked up the walls until it almost met the eaves. But they were snug.

Then someone invented the timber frame house. These monoliths had been known in Europe for a thousand and more years, but there they had the advantage of large timbers to give them bulk and isolate the interior from the elements outside. Winter elements are much more vicious in Saskatchewan and the timbers considerably smaller, so the insulation problem was a harder one to address. In general we ignored the problem, lined the interior with planks to match the ones outside and compensated by piling more wood on the fire.

In time, someone discovered that by filling the space with wood shavings, a lot less firewood was needed. The water in the pail still froze over night but we could convince ourselves that it was easier to get out of bed in the morning, although it probably wasn’t.

Our little house, double-planked with shaving-filled cavity, consisted of two rooms: one large and one small. A small cast iron heater that could be banked with coal at night occupied a space against the interior wall, thus giving a little heat to the small room and a lot more to the big one. No prizes for guessing who slept in the little one.

But to this day, I am fascinated by the lining that went on the interior walls and ceilings of these houses. It was brown paper.

We called it kraft paper and it came in large rolls about 3 feet wide. It was easy to apply and only needed to be wetted through and then tacked onto the walls. When dry, it shrank and was as tight as a drum skin. It covered all the irregularities of the green timber planks and stopped a good deal of cold air seeping in.

A lighter weight paper, cut into strips, and folded several times, was tacked over the joins and the entire seam covered by a strip of pre-glued paper tape – the glue activated by yet more water. Light switches and our one or two electric sockets were accommodated by very carefully cut rectangular holes over which the socket or switch plate was screwed back on. Naturally these paper wall coverings were fragile and houses lined this way were easy to identify. They always had their tables and wooden chairs well away from the walls to prevent punctures by clumsy elbows, boots and chair knobs. Patching holes was impossible, replacing a strip was impractical as it never resulted in the same fine finish that the original afforded. Ceilings were given the same treatment, but if the application wasn’t perfect, diagonal wrinkles bore testimony forever to inadequate craftsmanship.

Once the paper was secure on the walls, a mixture that we ordered from the catalogue, called Calcimine was painted over the entire surface. It was distemper and came as a white powder of carbonate of lime and glue that we mixed with water. Sometimes it came with a tint, usually pink, but also available in blue or green for variety. As it was painted on, the paper again sagged and when dry, if the Calcimine had not been mixed and applied well, the distemper would flake or brush off. Usually onto the coat one was wearing to church.

Flat roofs are a mistake even in dry climates and in one like ours where rainfall was not as much of a problem as snow, I recall waking many mornings to find huge chunks of snow flying past the window of our little bedroom as my father tramped around on the roof, heaving the stuff off.

What was left soon melted in the sun and then found its way inside. Our first indication that it had invaded was a low bulge in the ceiling paper. This resulted in a great deal of flurried activity indoors as my mother rushed around centring buckets and mixing bowls under the bulges and piercing them with a pin. The stream of water descending never hit the receptacle provided for it, choosing to run along the contours of the sagging paper to find its own drop zone or gushing out in a crooked stream onto the floor, the couch, the box of dry kindling or a basket of freshly dried laundry.

Once the initial cascade was over, the dripping went on for some time, as the water seeped out of the shaving stuffed ceiling. It would cease when it began to get dark and the water froze on the roof, but began again in the morning if the sun came out.

It would not surprise me to find that there are houses around the province to this day that have one or two layers of this miracle of ingenuity under more modern interior surfaces, but continuing to stop the draughts to this day.


For more from Wilma, visit her website:

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