Historic Wallpaper: If Walls Could Talk
A Brief History of Wallpaper in Home Décor
Awareness of the extensive use of wallpapers in American home décor from the 18th through the middle of the 20th centuries has increased dramatically in recent decades.
Styles and fashions of wallpaper and how it was used in interior decoration have varied from century to century and decade to decade, but an interest in the styles of the past has long been a factor in the design and production of walllpaper.
The Gothic Revival wallpapers popular in home decorating during the 1830s and 1840s, for example, were based on the architecural wallpapers of the 1760s and 1770s. Even William Morris, often credited with reinventing wallpaper as art in the late 1800s, used motifs and patterns from medieval manuscripts, 16th century herbals, and Renaissance designs.
Today, just about every wallpaper manufacturer offers traditional and even reproduction patterns, but quality and authenticity vary greatly. If you are familiar with historical variations in wallpaper patterns, production methods, popularity, and usage you will better be able to decide which paper is the most historically appropriate for your period home.
Wallpaper throughout History
Wall decoration dates back as far as the earliest cave paintings. People have used leather and fabric hung on their walls and windows to keep the drafts out -- and what little heat there was in -- for centuries. By the middle ages, the wealthy were using elaborate tapestries in their castles and palaces for this purpose.
Some historians believe that wallpaper was introduced as a less expensive substitute for tapestries, but we find that claim dubious for three reasons.
First, it is unlikely that paper, even backed with linen as it was in its earliest versions, would do as good as heavy tapestries to ward off drafts.
Secondly, the claim ignores the fact that the Chinese glued decorative rice paper on their walls as early as 200 BC, and developed color block printing prior to the 5th century, predating the European practice by about a thousand years. The Arabs learned to block print paper from the Chinese and the skill had spread quickly throughout the mideast long before it reached Europe.
Thirdly, wallpaper did not became very popular in England until Henry VIII's excommunication from the Catholic Church resulted in a fall in trade with Catholic Europe. Unable to import tapestries and lacking any tapestry manufacturers in England, the English gentry and aristocracy turned to using wallpaper to embellish their living spaces.
The Early Years through the 1600s
The Early Years
The earliest known record of wallpaper in the Western world dates to 1481, when King Louis XI of France commissioned Jean Bourdichon to paint 50 rolls of paper with angels on a blue background so that he could take his wall decorations with him as he moved from one castle to another. Unfortunately, none of that paper itself has survived.
The earliest known wallpaper that still exists was discovered in 1911 on the beams at Christ's College in Cambridge, England. It dates to 1509 and features an Italian pomegranate design printed by woodcut on the back of a proclamation issued by Henry VIII. At the same time, across the English Channel, French craftsmen were producing single sheets of decorated papers for the middle-class market. However, these served more as pictures that covered cracks in the wall than a wall treatment or major element of home décor.
In the late 1500s, the first paperhangers' guild was formed in France. Sixteenth century "wallpaper" was either a geometric pattern printed by a single carved wood block or more complicated designs of crests, urns, and flowers printed by several blocks. Outlined designs were printed in black on individual sheets of paper and color was then applied with a stencil.
The Seventeenth Century
In the early 1600s, the French introduced flocked wallpaper. Flock is powdered wool or silk left over from the manufacture of cloth. The background color was applied first and the design was then stenciled on with a slow-drying adhesive. The flock was scattered onto the adhesive and a velvet-like pile was left on the design.
Flocked wallpaper that imitated cut velvet was very popular but more expensive. English flocked papers (papiers d'Angleterre) were considered superior to French and fans of the English product included Madame de Pompadour, who used English flock papers in the interior decorating of her apartments at Versailles and in the Chateau de Champs.
Though called wallpaper, the early versions were not attached directly to the wall. Instead, the individual sheets were pasted onto linen and then attached to the walls with copper tacks, with or without a wood frame. Wallpaper borders were used to hide those tacks and did not come into its own as a decorative element until some time later.
In 1675, wallpaper as we know it is considered to have been invented by Jean-Michel Papillon, a French engraver who was the first to print block designs in continuous matching patterns. Individual sheets were joined together in groups of 12 or more to form a roll, enabling faster printing and complex designs.
The 18th Century
The Early 1700s
Prior to the 1700s, wallpaper was usually used in less important rooms, with the walls in "public" rooms hung with fabric, but with advances in printing and the commissioning of artists to design custom papers, wallpaper was no longer relegated to private quarters and the demand increased.
At first, in addition to flocked papers that imitated cut velvet, trompe l'oeil papers (papers that "fooled the eye") of architectural details, marble, and wood were most fashionable, and were often used with borders depicting swags of fabric or tassels.
In the early 18th century, the most beautiful and extravagant wallpapers in European and the American colonial homes came from China. "Chinoiserie" objects were in fashion and very much sought after. Interestingly, Chinese homes were completely devoid of patterned or painted wallpapers. Scholars believe that sets of painted wallpaper were specially created by Chinese merchants to give as gifts to their European trading partners. These hand-painted papers were much higher in quality than their European counterparts of the time and provided the impetus for improvements in the wallpaper industry, especially in France.
In 1712, because the use of wallpaper had become so prevalent, the English introduced a tax on paper that was "painted, printed or stained to serve as hangings". To outwit the taxman, wallpapers were being colored by hand after being hung on the wall. Still the industry grew and in 1773, Parliament repealed the tax, but customs duties were still levied.
In the early 1800s, falsification of wallpaper customs stamps was a crime punishable by death. To deal with the tax, English manufacturers sought to increase sales by catering to the masses by simplifying their designs and producing cheaper products.
More about Wallpaper History
Readable, interesting - and lots of pictures you won't see anywhere else.
The English tax allowed the French to maintain their firm hold on the high-end design of custom papers. They paid their designers well and produced incredible papers.
Perhaps the most in-demand was Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, who became a "Manufacture Royale." When his Paris factory was attacked during the French Revolution, RÃ©veillon fled to England where he continued to produce his characteristically graceful neoclassical designs for the interior décor of the upper classes.
The Réveillon hallmark was a long vertical arabesque design meant to be hung as panels and featuring urns, flowers, dancing figures, swans, birds and beasts flowing upward from a central motif or medallion. He used strong multiple blocks and strong colors of red, mustard, terracotta, green, and azure.
Réveillon papers were also imported to the U.S. and can still be seen in some period homes.
And in the American Colonies
The earliest documentation for printing wallpaper in America dates to a December 13,1756 advertisement of John Hickey, "lately from Dublin" whose ad in the New York Mercury noted that he he "stamps or prints paper in the English manner and hangs it so as to harbour no worms." In 1765 another New Yorker, John Rugar, is recorded as having begun the manufacture of wallpaper and, in 1769, Plunket Fleeson, a Philadelphia upholsterer who had been in business at least since 1739, ran an announcement about the manufacture of American
"paper-hangings of all kinds and colors, not inferior to those generally imported and as low in price. Also papier mache, or raised paper mouldings for hangings, in imitation of carving, either colored or gilt. As there is considerable duty imposed on paper-hangings imported here, it cannot be doubted but that everyone amongst us who wishes prosperity to America will give a preference to our own manufacture, especially on the above proposition of equally good and cheap."
Prior to the American Revolution, English papers were copied but after the Revolutionary war, patriotic themes were very popular in addition to florals, neoclassical motifs, and traditional patterns.
In 1778, sizes of wallpaper began to be standardized when King Louis XVI of France issued a decree specifying that the length of a wallpaper roll should be about 34 feet.
In 1785, Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf, a Frenchman, invented the first wallpaper printing machine. Around the same time, another Frenchman, Nicholas Louis Robert invented a way to make a virtually endless roll of wallpaper from wood pulp instead of cotton and linen fiber, which also made it less costly.
Early and mid-1800s
The Early 1800s
Until industrialization, the wallpapers and techniques from the mid-to-late 1700s remained popular. Grisaille (meaning they were done entirely in gray tones) murals featuring mythological scenes and landscapes were fashionable additions to neoclassical home décor. These were intended to be monochromatic and create a sculptural illusion. Toward that end, many were strongly shaded to add a dimensional quality.
The Beginning of Industrialization
The first wallpaper-printing machine was patented by the British textile printers Potters and Ross in 1839. Each color required a separate roller, and synthetic pigments like ultramarine blue and chrome yellow were used on rolls of continuous paper made from wood pulp instead of cotton-on-linen-rag fiber, greatly reducing the manufacturing costs.
The scale of the design was also affected by machine printing, as the circumference of the new rollers was relatively small, so the size of each repeat was reduced. Machine printing also made the wallpaper more affordable to the new middle class of the Victorian era, which contributed to the popularity and what some may call the excessive use of wallpaper during that period.
The patterns of this time imitated scenic tapestries, damasks, toiles and patterned velvets. Chinese style papers with fanciful hand-painted birds, trees, pagodas, figures and landscapes, known as Chinoiserie, also remained popular. The finest examples were printed in France and used in the homes and palaces of the wealthy on both sides of the Atlantic.
Stripes were popular in Napoleonic France and in England and were not only used on walls but spliced into intricate designs on ceilings. France and England also had a fondness for Egyptian motifs.
Just as the American Revolution had a tremendous influence on architecture and interior design, two other events shortly afterwards also played a role in decorative design. Both Napoleon's conquest of Egypt and his defeat at the hands of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, spurred interest in all things Egyptian in both France and England.
The wallpaper shown here dates to 1806 and even precedes the (1809-1826) publication of the findings of the scientific expedition Napoleon took with him to Egypt.
Not until the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 would there be another revival of Egyptian themes in the decorative arts.
Wallpapers for the Rich and Wallpaper for the Masses
Faux Architectural Details
Around this time, borders, which had been invented to hide the tacks used to hang fabric-backed paper on a wall, became especially valued because they could visually change a room's proportions. Many were printed to look like architectural details and were used like cornices and to frame doors, windows, and other features of a room. They could visually raise a ceiling, call attention to a window, and generally substitute for more expensive wood and plaster ornamentation. Borders were particularly desirable to use to embellish solid color "plain papers" or painted walls.
French Panoramic Scenes
By the 1800s, large scale panoramic scenic papers became popular in France. Unlike murals, these papers were hand printed with an innumerable number of wood blocks and were very expensive. Panoramic papers usually covered four walls of a room from chair rail to ceiling and were joined to create a continuous non-repeating scene that told a story.
In 1852, Zuber, a French company, responded to the nationalistic sentiments in the U.S. by adapting their existing "Views of America" series to capitalize on that. Thus, the view of Boston Harbour became the backdrop for the newly added Boston Tea Party and landscapes became battlefields. The adapted series was known as "The War of Independence" and it became an exemplar of American Federal Interior Décor. Landscapes never became popular in England since they did not accommodate the preferred British wall decoration of ancestral portraits. But the English wallpaper industry was far from idle.
In 1836, England repealed wallpaper taxation. In 1839, Charles Harold Potter of Lancashire, England invented a four color printing machine that could turn out 400 rolls of wallpaper a day - a pretty magical feat even though we do not know if he is related in any way to THE Harry Potter, but we'd love to find out...(if you read this, J. K. Rowling, please let us know!) This breakthrough enabled wallpaper to be applied directly to plaster. By 1850, eight color printing was available and in 1874, the twenty color printing machine was invented. And in 1888, ready-to-use wallpaper paste was introduced. As technology advanced and production increased, prices dropped and more people could afford to use wallpaper in their homes.
Detail of Elaborate Victorian Wallpaper - In Aesthetic Anglo-Japanese Style
The Early Victorian Era
In large part because of the availability, affordability, and variety of styles in wallpapers, the tripartite (three part) style of wallpapering that is associated with Victorian interior decoration came into vogue. The wall was divided into three parts: The dado (bottom two to three feet) wall fill (between the dado and the frieze on the main part of the wall), and frieze (a wide border at the top of the wall). Borders were used to separate each section which consisted of distinct yet related patterns.
Top row, left to right: Circa 1860 Civil War Era Roses Floral Reproduction; 18th Century Neoclassical Design with Floral Arrangements and Columns; Late 1700s Reproduction French Floral with Butterflies. Bottom row, left to right: Late 18th Century Wallpaper Reproduced from Original Found on the Wall of a Closet in an Old House in Ashford, Connecticut; a Pastoral Toile circa 1800 originally produced by the French factory of Oberkempf; Circa 1780 Neoclassical hand-printed trellis design with a repeating pendant comprised of arabesques, bellflowers, garlands and doves set within a diapered cable. Most patterns are available in other colorways. All from Old House Interiors.
If you had your druthers... - Which would it be?
Would you rather have wallpapered walls or painted walls? Why? For example, paint can be less expensive and easier, but wallpaper can last a lot longer. Some people are afraid they'd get bored with a wallpaper and paint color is easier to change, or they are uncertain about working with pattern. Others will go with what is historically appropriate for their home. There are many other reasons, but we'd like to hear yours.
So, if you had the choice, which would you prefer: wallpaper or paint? Tell us why.
Do you prefer painted or wallpapered walls?See results without voting
Late 1800s - Fashion, Fads, and Taste
The Victorian Parlour
He condemned illusionistic and pictorial patterns but defended flocks as "the best in design, because they can represent nothing pictorially."
Nevertheless, by the later 19th century flocks were out of fashion, dismissed or even condemned by writers of guides to interior decoration. A writer in the Art Journal in 1889 called the popular wallpaper of the day gaudily gilt monstrosities or the heavily loaded 'flocks' shedding everywhere their poisonous dust.
Hanging Wallpaper is Easier than you Think!
Cleanliness had become something of an obsession with the later Victorians, and lighter colours and washable "sanitary" papers were supplanting the dark velvety flocks favored in the earlier years of Victoria's reign. Those, however, were not dispensed with but were relegated to the library or hallways as a background for a picture gallery.
Dark, gloomy, a hindrance to cleanliness and a hazard to health - the fashion for flock paper was in decline among many pundits of good taste, but, whether in defiance or in ignorance of the critics, flocked papers remained popular well into the 1920s. (Flocked papers are still manufactured today, but they use rayon flock.) Other designs considered more "artistic" continued to be produced, including papers by Morris, Crane and other fashionable designers of 'art wallpapers' for the home.
Art Nouveau in Context
By the late 1800s, William Morris, Walter Crane, and other designers began to react to the excesses of the high Victorian era (mid-1800s), arguing for a return to craftsmanship and "good taste." Their flat-patterned papers, hand-printed by the wood block method, came to symbolize Art Nouveau and inspired the Arts & Crafts Movement. However, their designs are far more popular today than they were at that time. Production methods were too expensive for mass consumption and, frankly, their designs were not widely appreciated by the general population of the time and had limited impact, especially in America, where the 1890's witnessed a general return to mass production of scrollwork and naturalistic styles in pastels and colors similar to those of the mid-century.
Consumers Prefer Lincrusta, Leather and Ingrain
Three unique types of late 19th-century wallcoverings were far more popular in home décor than the "art papers." The first is "Lincrusta Walton," invented in the 1870s by Frederick Walton, an Englishman. Lincrusta is a composition, which like linoleum, is based on linseed oil. Very thick and strong, and patterned in high relief, it was sold both colored, and plain, to be painted after hanging. In 1882 a Connecticut company was organized to manufacture Lincrusta, advertised as "the indestructible wall covering," in the U.S.
The second type of wallcovering that was particularly popular during the late 19th century was Japanese "Leather Paper." The heavy gauge paper was highly embossed and varnished, and featured richly colored and gilded decorations. It became so realistic that it was difficult to distinguish the imitation from the real thing. Leather paper was hung on walls, but also used to decorate the bamboo and imitation bamboo furniture that was popular during the period.
The third category of papers, patented in 1877, and popular into the 1920s was "Ingrain" paper. The paper was made from mixed cotton and woolen rags which were dyed before pulping. The process gave a thick, roughly textured "ingrained" coloring. Similar papers with rough grainy surface were known as "oatmeal papers."
The Twentieth Century
The Golden Age of the 1920s
As grand and elaborate as wallpaper was in the Victorian Era, the 1920s remain its Golden Age, with over 400 million rolls sold during that decade. Again, technological advancements were key: wallpaper pasting machines appeared in the early 1900s and the first mechanical silk screen machine was invented in 1920.
For the first time, wallpaper designers did not just borrow from the past. Futurist and Cubist designs were produced and there were both modern and traditional styles available. By the late 1920s wallpaper had become so ubiquitous that the elite turned up their noses at it and reverted to using silks and painted finishes on their walls.
After WWII, the use of plastic resins revolutionized the wallpaper industry.
Vinyl wallpaper, introduced in 1947, offered increased stain resistance, washability, durability, and strength.
Pre-pasted papers first appeared in the early 1950s, but by that time wallpaper was beginning to fall into disfavor. Modernism was all about spareness and embellishments, including wallpaper, were frowned upon.
Resurgence and Revitalization
Now, in the early 21st century, we talk of wallcoverings instead of wallpapers and the field encompasses materials not even dreamed of by wallpaper manufacturers of the past. Recent advances in digital, photo, and printing technologies have allowed modern printing facilities to easily create one-of-a-kind or custom papers and to replicate historic designs. (However, it should be noted that many purists and old house restorers prefer those printed by hand the old-fashioned way, either with blocks or silk screens.)
Wallpapers/coverings are once again enjoying widespread popularity in interior décor, at least in part as a reaction to sterile work environments and cookie-cutter homes and apartments. In addition, wallpaper fits every budget (especially if you take advantage of the fabulous deals on ebay) and is an easy way to express your creativity and create an unprecedented variety of looks. Nothing effects the mood and style of a room like your choice of wallpaper.
You might also want to take a look at a brief video “WALLPAPER THAT MOVES - Three Hundred Years of Wallpaper History in Three Minutes.” The video is from Kit Laybourne at Oxygen Media and was made with the cooperation and direct assistance of the Cooper-Hewett National Design Museum.
More Historic Reproduction and Vintage Wallpapers From Old House Interiors
Old House Interiors is your source for exclusive high-end to-the-trade only wallcoverings, wallpaper borders, and decorator accessories at way-below-wholesale prices.
Old House Interiors specializes in new and vintage wallpapers for historic homes from the 17th to mid-20th centuries plus antiques, collectibles, decorator accents and serendipitous finds. From the modest to the extravagant, from period restorations to an eclectic blend of styles, Old House Interiors offers products that help you create a home that reflects your unique personal decorating style and extraordinarily good taste.
Ready to Hang Wallpaper?
We hope this page about historic wallpaper has inspired you and helped you choose an appropriate wallcovering for your home or office décor. Careful wall preparation is the first step but before you strip old wallpaper, check carefully to see if there are at least some remnants of your home's original paper hidden underneath. (HINT: Closet walls are great places to look! Many of the historic were discovered that way.)
You may not want to reproduce or use a similar paper but you should always try to preserve at least some of the original paper. We are only caretakers of period homes and any historic wallpapers are an important part of that history. If the old paper cannot be removed without damaging it, we suggest leaving at least one repeat on the wall and placing a frame with UV protected glass over it.
One of the Most Versatile Ladders
We find the easiest and safest way to do what we call "archaeological investigation" is to spray the wall with warm water to which you've added a little mild dishwashing soap, a splash of white vinegar, and a good amount of patience. Allow solution to soften and then carefully remove top layer of paper.
The safest "scraper" we've found to help peel back the layers is an old credit card or similar piece of plastic without any identification information on it. The rounded corners and flexibility help prevent tearing and are good for lifting loose edges or coaxing a corner off the wall so you can gently peel it off.
For Historic Reproduction and Vintage Wallpapers ...
Plus Fabrics & Trims to complete your interior décor
Restoration Fabrics and Trims is your on-line source for exclusive high-end to-the-trade only decorator fabrics & trims at way-below-wholesale prices. Specializing in period- appropriate new and vintage fabrics and trims for historic homes from the 17th to mid-20th centuries, Restoration Fabrics & Trims brings you the finest discounted designer upholstery & drapery fabrics & trims by Scalamandre, Clarence House, Brunschwig et Fils, Stroheim & Romann, Lee Jofa, Kravet, Greeff/Schumacher, and other exclusive trade sources.
We Appreciate Your Visit!
Please leave us a comment or just say hello.
We appreciate the time you've spent here and would like to know who you are and what you think of this journey through time.
More by this Author
Art Nouveau is one of those antique styles, developed more than a century ago and still popular today, where you'll find the look blends seamlessly with modern as well as traditional design.
An overview of Art Nouveau from its origins in the late 19th century thru today: Find out What makes a design art nouveau? Why is it still so popular? Who were the artists and what did they create?
Create the Victorian room or home of your dreams with this Easy-to-follow guide organized into 4 essential design basics of Victorian interior decor: Color, Pattern, Opulence and, of course, Romance.