The Social History of Wallpaper

Nearly every man I know hates wallpaper while most of my female friends love it; I wonder if this gender division existed in the past?  I hear from the paper-hating men that wallpaper is too “busy”, “distracting”, and “floral” (even if flowers are far from the central motif).  They seem predisposed to dislike a wall-full of images and more inclined to focus on just one (or maybe two).  We have some really ghastly wallpaper in our front  hall which I’m sure my husband hates but I find strangely comforting in a grandmotherly sort of way.  Neither of us are inclined to do anything about it as it covers two stories’ worth of wall, but he must have to shield his eyes everyday.

Wallpaper can reveal more than gender preferences; it can also reveal the cultural values of society at large (if you are prepared to engage in gross generalizations, which I obviously am).  Relying heavily on my favorite historical design books (primarily Judith  & Martin Miller’s Period Details and Period Design & Furnishing), and a few other sources, I’m going to attempt a social history of wallpaper, beginning with Tudor Age.

The fragment of  sixteenth-century block-printed wallpaper above was preserved as the lining of a deed box and is part of the collection of the British National Archives.  It is typical dark and dense decoration; the Tudors loved embellishment of all kinds, but particularly natural motifs.  Here you see royal insignia, the emblem of St. George (the patron saint of England) and the ever-present Tudor rose.  The grotesques look a little medieval to me; I’m not sure what they’re doing there.  On to the seventeenth century.

This is a fragment of later seventeenth- century scenic wallpaper in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum.  In the middle part of the seventeenth century, the Puritan-dominated Parliament prohibited the production of things as frivolous as wallpaper (and theater!),  but after the monarchy was restored in 1660, people demanded entertainment and embellishment.  Restoration wallpaper seems to have developed as a middle-class form of decoration, as it was a relatively cheap way to mimic more expense tapestries, embroidery, and plasterwork, which were featured in more aristocratic homes.

Things get lighter in the eighteenth century, due to the influences of the “Chinese style” (the example above is from the vast collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum) and the new textile, cotton.  Production became more  complicated, due to the increasing popularity of flocked papers with raised textures, and scenic (even panoramic) papers.  Great Britain was of course an empire, and one of the best examples of later eighteenth-century wallpaper (still on the walls, and recently restored)  is right here in this former colony, in the 1768 Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  The Lee Mansion has both rare hand-painted murals and block-printed papers still in place, and the former have been reproduced in decoupage form by Neptune Studios, also based in Marblehead.  Of course, I snapped them right up and here they are on one of my mantles:

Thanks to Salem’s own photographer-entrepreneur Frank Cousins (who I referred to in an earlier post), we have a photograph of another local example of early mural wallpaper, in the dining room of the Samuel McIntire’s Cook-Oliver House (1802-3).  The French-made wallpaper depicts the world’s four climate regions, and is still hanging.

The Cook-Oliver House, Federal Street, Salem. Photograph by Arthur Haskell, Historic American Building Survey, 1938. Library of Congress

Frank Cousins' photographs from his "Pageant of America" series, New York Public Library Digital Gallery

So shortly after the American Revolution, Captain Samuel Cook (or his wife) probably preferred to install French wallpaper in his home rather than English, as a native industry had yet to develop.  But French designs and designers dominated the industry everywhere in the early nineteenth century.  French emigres to the United States, most prominently the Philadelphia wallpaper printer Henri Virchaux, produced scenic and neoclassical papers for the homes of America’s new elites.  Below are two examples of papers produced for Messrs. Virchaux & Co. in 1815, from the collections of the Library of Congress.  Adelphi Paper Hangings produces licensed reproduction papers of Virchaux designs (as well as those of other nineteenth-century manufacturers) and has lots of period patterns on their website.

Even though French designs were preferred by upper-class consumers on both sides of the Atlantic, the British wallpaper industry was still extremely profitable, due to both new industrial techniques and marketing strategies.  The wallpaper industry was showcased in the Great Exhibition of 1851, featuring over 100,000 objects on display and attracting 6 million visitors, both by the officially licensed wallpaper featuring the Exhibition’s symbol, the Crystal Palace, and this prominently placed advertisement by one of Britain’s largest manufacturers, Townsend, Parker & Townsend:

National Archives, United Kingdom

New York Public Library Digital Gallery

After 1850, machine printing replaced the hand block-printing process and wallpaper became a more egalitarian form of embellishment.  Lots of large floral patterns, produced for mass consumption; perhaps this is when wallpaper became a dirty word for men!  I’ve taken my share of Victorian wallpaper off walls, but when looking for mid-nineteenth-century wallpaper to put back on the walls of my house I turned to Waterhouse Wallhangings.  Dorothy Waterhouse became an advocate for early American papers after she discovered subtly colored prints underneath  “ugly” 1890s papers in the process of restoring her 1799 house on Cape Cod in the 1930s.  She wrote and spoke about her love for hand-printed papers, people sent her samples from up and down the east coast, and she started a reproduction historic wallpaper company which is still in business.  Historic New England possesses and licenses wallpapers from the Waterhouse archival collection, and you can see the collection in its entirety (along with thousands of other samples) at their website; below is the Waterhouse wallpaper that I have in my library and dining room.  It’s actually two variations and colorways of the same 1850s background pattern, and of course my husband dislikes it.

Because the Victorian era is so long, it encompasses many different, often contradictory, design styles:  naturalistic and mechanistic, traditional and modern, simple and complex. Two men with divergent styles but  an equally influential impact on wallpaper design were Christopher Dresser and William Morris, both working in the later nineteenth century.  Dresser is among the first “industrial designers”, who sought to take advantage of the mechanized production process by incorporating repetition and standardization into his designs, while Morris was a steadfast naturalist whose (more expensive) papers were still block-printed by hand.

Christopher Dresser Wallpaper (1876), New York Public Library Digital Gallery

William Morris woodblock print wallpaper, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections

The dialogue between machine-made and man-made, combined with increasing globalization, created a golden era for design in general (and wallpaper in particular). So we see the aesthetic movement, the arts and crafts movement, the art nouveau movement, and the art deco movement, before the transition to full-scale modernism, in the early decades of the twentieth century.  I’m not sure how any of these styles affected the average consumer; when you look at the material evidence for the twentieth century what you see are such a variety of papers produced, with traditional (though more cheerful!) florals, and a new emphasis on the pictorial, and the novelty:  popular culture on the walls.  If you search through the online collections catalogue of the largest repository of historic wallpaper in the United States, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (over 10,000 samples!) you will see an amazing variety of twentieth-century papers:  Gibson girls, all sorts of literary characters, cowboys, love letters, college memorabilia, all forms of transportation, anything to do with children, Andy Warhol cows. 

Some of the most popular twentieth-century patterns have been reproduced by Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers, including an art deco “aeroplane” paper, pictured here in blue, and the mid-century “gee gee” paper in sage. Finally, back to the future:  two modern takes on a classic French toile:  Harlem Toile  (in two colorways) and  London ToileToday there’s a toile for everyone and everywhere.

10 responses to “The Social History of Wallpaper

  • maureen

    oh my gosh, you actually have real content on your blog…I’m so impressed! I’m adding you to my blog roll…

  • downeastdilettante

    WONDERFUL post—I am endlessly attracted to and fascinated by early wallpapers.

  • thedailydish

    LOL!! I have to agree w/ Maureen above. Bravo!! to you!

    I love the fact that you mention the dichotomy between men & women regarding wallpaper. I think someone should do some (semi) scientific research on this very topic for a dissertation thesis!

    Love this post. As my husband despises wallpaper in general, and we scraped far too much off the walls of our former home to ever convince him to rethink that, our lives remain paint-only for the foreseeable future. But we’ve found scraps of old paper in our very olde house and they continue to fascinate me. So much ugly & beautiful stuff out there!!

    Thanks much for your wonderful post.

    • daseger

      Christy, Thanks so much for stopping by; I really like your blog and your most recent post has inspired me to hunt down the listings for my house. It’s such a great idea; I can’t resist being a copycat. LOVE Portland; Maine is my home state.

  • Chris Morley

    How wonderfull to see Christopher Dresser and William Morris given equal prominence (despite being merely men). Morris did produce hand blocked papers that were very expensive – because he chose to apply outrageous mark-ups. Most of Dresser’s far more numerous designs for wallpapers were also produced by the same methods – and in the case of Jeffrey & Co, the very same maker of Morris papers (surprisingly for the leader of the Arts and Crafts movment, Morris never made his own wallpapers )- but Dresser’s were cleverly designed to be affordable; maximum effect from minimum means. Dresser may be regarded as amongst the first ‘industrial designers’ – but it must be remembered that many of his designs in metal, ceramics, glass and furniture required hand-craftsmanship of the hightest order – and were still affordable.

  • Joesph

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