A short history of wallpaper

Bird designed 1878 by William Morris
Bird designed 1878 by William Morris

Before 1840, nearly all the world’s wallpaper came from France. In fact it was hand-printed, using blocks and sheets of paper to produce a limited line of patterns. Making wallpaper by hand was a costly process. Only the very wealthy could afford to buy it.


Although France dominated the decorative arts, yet England possessed superior industrial technology. In 1837, England was responsible for the patent of the world’s first wallpaper machine. This machine, which resembled a Ferris wheel. It was a combination of rollers, stencils and brushes and could apply 24 colours to a continuous paper roll.

Rasch Florentine Floral Motif Flower Pattern Traditional Textured Wallpaper (Taupe Orange 449273)

Rasch Florentine Floral Motif Flower Pattern Traditional Textured Wallpaper (Taupe Orange 449273) : Amazon.com.au: Home Improvement

A less costly paper-making process was also developed, replacing expensive linen and cotton rags paper. With paper made out of straw and wood pulp. Overnight, the cost of wallpaper plummeted. By the end of the 19th century, the price of wallpaper plummeted.

History of Wallpaper – Early 19th century

In the early 19th century patterns copied traditional French designs,. These included scroll patterns and realistic looking flowers and foliage. Among the most popular designs were large, open roses. Early French-inspired patterns were often referred to as ‘cabbage rose’ designs. In the manner of trompe d’oeil, many patterns were elaborately shaded to resemble curtains, carvings, masonry, columns and arches.

With mass-produced wallpapers, Britain became a trendsetter in wallpaper styles and imported many patterns to the United States. France’s aid to the south during the American Civil War prompted northerners especially to look to England for wallpaper fashion,

Whereas earlier wallpaper patterns used vertical boundaries; namely delineated by stripes, fake columns, rows of flowers, etc. to break up wall space. English patterns used a coordinated set of companion papers to divide the wall horizontally:

  • a wide frieze at cornice level
  • a dado in the lower portion of the wall (usually about one metre high)
  • centre fill or screen portion

Paper manufacturers also supplied narrow border papers in rooms that had no chair railings or picture mouldings.

Affordable Wallpapers

The development of affordable wallpapers coincided with the young middle class’s hunger for anything that gave the semblance of wealth and culture. Wallpaper had traditionally been the hallmark of affluence. This created in the 1870’s and 1880s, an absolute wallpaper mania. Virtually every room in every house was wallpapered. Companies issued new patterns each season, and some homeowners changed wallpaper annually.

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Wallpaper became a sign of domesticity; in a new settlement, it was one of the few items that a general store would stock. Some stores boasted that having as many as 150 patterns in stock and 250 or so more they could order.

Much of the middle-class wallpaper trade occurred thought mail order. Catalogue advertisements, printed in black and white, gave a list of available colours. guaranteed that standard papers would coordinate. Unfortunately, many of these mail order papers were hideous, and for every tasteful treatment that graced walls and ceilings of middle and upper-class homes, there were five distasteful ones.

A fad for copper developed during the 1870s, and copper, gilt and mica highlights, especially on frieze papers, were typical. When treated with metallics, papers were usually embossed so they would shine viewed from any direction.

Wallpaper Craze

At the height of the wallpaper craze, someone discovered that two shades of green wallpaper contained arsenic, which was subsequently blamed for a host of illnesses and even deaths. Controversy arose over whether arsenic poisoning could occur by merely sitting or dining in a room with green paper and whether other colours might cause poisoning as well. Wallpaper manufacturers quickly removed the culprit green tones from the market and ran advertisements insisting that their papers were “nonarsenical.”

As germ consciousness expanded at the end of the century, papers were printed with oil-based, non-water-soluble paints that were advertised as scrubbable or sanitary.

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The upper-class continued to use fabrics as wall-coverings, so wallpapers continued to imitate damasks, silks velvets were developed. Ultra-thin veneers were glued to individual papers. After installation they were varnished to resemble wood.

Imitation leather wallpapers also came on the market. In fact it was one of the most popular and authentic-looking of these was leather paper which was made using a process which originated in Japan: the heavy paper stock was embossed while still wet, then often pounded with hammers, then glued to a cloth or waterproof backing.

Frederick Walton & William Morris and the History of Wallpaper

During the 1880s, the Aesthetic movement, which had been brewing in England for several decades came to the fashion forefront. William Morris, was one of the movement’s principal spokespersons. He truly believed that the Aesthetic tenets (use of natural and simple designs and materials) could be presented to the masses through the through the wallpaper industry.

Morris designed many popular papers that incorporated Aesthetic principles: simple designs, with flat, unshaded appearances. Many of Morris’s designs are wild drawn on spiral axes; some suggest that they were the product of opium dreams. Morris became extremely successful, and his papers became too expensive for the middle class he sought to educate.

Other famous wallpaper designers of the Aesthetic movement included

  • Walter Crane, a children’s book illustrator who designed (among different patterns) a series of nursery rhyme wallpapers for children’s rooms;
  • C.F.A Voysey, whose work was characterised by blocks of “Voysey birds;”
  • Christopher Dresser, a trained botanist, whose papers presaged the Art Deco era would occur 80 years after his time; and
  • Louis Comfort Tiffany of stained glass fame.

Taste in Wallpaper Changes

Although many persons, especially Americans, kept buying traditional three-dimensional appearing “cabbage rose” wallpapers, gradually tastes began to change on both sides of the Atlantic. Namely by the late 1890s, the Aesthetic principle shade became well-entrenched in the wallpaper industry.

Starting in the 1890s, in Queen Anne houses, natural wood dados began to replace dado wallpapers. Ornate wallpaper combinations lost favour, too, because they were incompatible with the newer, more rustic house styles (Craftsman, bungalow) that evolved. Frieze papers, for instance, were combined successfully with the natural wood treatments of later styles, and children’s papers. Many of them patterned after Cranes’ designs, became immensely popular at the turn of the century.

World War 1 rang the death knell for the wallpaper dynasty. Shortages of raw materials drove production costs sky-high, forcing smaller companies out of business or into the hands of large conglomerates. Since that time, wallpaper has not regained its prominence in interior decoration.

History of Wallpaper Sources

How we survived the wallpaper fad Sat, Feb 27, 1982 – 66 · The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California) · Newspapers.com


Additional Reading

William Morris’s Flowers

by Rowan Bain

William Morris’s Flowers

A passionate advocate of craftsmanship over mass-production, William Morris (1834- 1896) designed a huge variety of objects. As a result his highly original carpet, fabric and wallpaper patterns that have continued to capture the imagination. Morris created 600 designs, mostly based on natural forms, including trees, plants and flowers.

This beautifully designed, accessibly priced gift book offers a wealth of designs by Morris in which flowers are the principal motif, bringing together not only completed patterns but also working drawings in pen and watercolour, and examples of his pearwood, floral-pattern printing blocks.

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Born March 24, 1834 “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or beautiful.” That was the rallying call of the nineteenth-century designer, William Morris, a British designer and social reformer. He aimed to rid the world of shoddy mass-produced goods and replace them with objects that were designed and made by artists.

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