BY DAVID MCCORMICK
Very early on, civilized man placed great value on adorning the walls of his home. The Greeks and Romans used reliefs sculpted from marble and stone. That followed with marbled veneers and glazed tiles. Different treatments and colors of stucco were later employed to decorate one’s walls. Stamped leather from Spain became the rage, and painted cloths and tapestries were quite the fashion in wall hangings.
What followed was the development of wallpaper, which was a natural step in the evolution of interior decorating. The same wood printing blocks used for textiles could now be used in creating wallpaper. The application of wallpapers has been enjoyed all those years since, and to today.
The specific origins of wallpaper are somewhat sketchy, but its evolution and usage involves many countries. Most likely its introduction to European countries had followed the Dutch trade route from the East, China and Japan. Sometime in the sixteenth century, wallpaper first appeared in Holland. The Dutch traveled to the Far East with their ships filled with goods to trade. They returned laden with goods from China and Japan. The Dutch then exported those decorative papers to England and France.
Wallpapers that first appeared in Europe were produced in small sizes, approximately twelve to eighteen inches square and quite dear in price. Wallpaper hadn’t appeared in those lengthy rolls we think of today until the latter half of the eighteenth century. And, their use did not become commonplace until several years later, when they became more affordable to the multitudes.
Those early decorative small square panels of paper were made using the same block printing methods that had been used to produce woodcuts. Initially wallpapers were not applied to the walls. They were attached to frames and left to hang freely. Those early wallpapers also had a utilitarian purpose. The dark, dank halls of chateaus and manor houses were rather drafty, and the hanging papers were carefully placed where they might cut down on drafts that blew through the large open areas and hallways.
Up until the late 1700s, those small squares of wallpaper were hand painted. That made hanging the paper difficult because many times those smaller pieces didn’t join together very well. As a result, there were gaps, and designs and patterns didn’t meld together that well. It wasn’t until wallpaper was manufactured in those familiar long rolls that it began to replace the painting and paneling of walls.
A number of fine French wallpapers offered different themes than those of the classic English papers. Often, the French papers displayed floral patterns, and many rendered figures from history and literature, whereas the English wallpapers favored landscape and bucolic compositions.
The development of wallpaper in Europe had a few bizarre chapters and one really stands out. Mr. Reveillon, a French wallpaper manufacturer owned a factory that produced the papers in long rolls. In the late 1700s, a rumor had been whispered that he planned to cut the workers’ wages by half. Upon hearing that, the workers became an ugly mob. They took axes and torches to the factory, totally destroying it, along with the wallpaper. According to a newspaper account, along with the axes and torches that were wielded, glass and tiles were smashed about, and muskets were fired. When it was all over, there were numerous, lifeless bodies in the street. Who knew making wallpaper could be so deadly?
By the latter half of the 1700s, wallpaper was becoming more commonplace, especially in luxury apartments. Quite often, the term “decorated with wallpaper” was found in “apartment to let” advertisements.
Wallpapers made their way over that long open expanse, the Atlantic Ocean, to the colonies in America. When it made its arrival in the colonies, it was much too dear for many to afford. Rather than pay the expensive costs for the wallpaper, many continued to paint or stencil their walls. Some found the imitation French papers affordable and those were applied to the wall in small pieces. The appearance was directly related to the artist designing, as well as the one hanging, the paper. The walls were divided into smaller panels, each painted or papered individually. The floral designs and landscape scenes commonly found were sometimes primitive, with houses and trees out of proportion. The appearance was directly related to the skill of the artist or paperhanger. The progression leading to those long rolls of wallpaper allowed people to decorate large expanses of wall space without dividing the areas into those small panels.
During this time in colonial America, many were taken by this new mode of decoration for the walls of one’s home, even the father of our country. Apparently, George Washington had purchased some small pieces of wallpaper from abroad. Martha Washington had worried that she had no one to install the paper in the banquet room at Mt. Vernon, but General Lafayette, who happened to be their guest at the time, offered his services and those of General Washington to put up the paper for Mrs. Washington. And apparently that’s just what they did.
By the early 1800s, several large prominent New England homes were decorated with wallpapers. As a rule, many of those papers were imported and quite expensive. Those papers were of various designs and patterns, and some of them played out scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. The walls of one home were decorated with rolls of paper that, when they were all hung together, depicted a scene of one of Virgil’s adventures. The walls in the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home, revealed scenes from Ulysses on the Island of Calypso. American historical compositions were displayed in a number of homes. One such was “Mourning at the Tomb of Washington.” It was comprised of reoccurring columns and arches, with “Liberty” and “Justice” depicted as mourning for Washington. Scenes from around the world were often depicted. “The Bay of Naples,” scenes of “Mt. Vesuvius,” and the “River Seine” at Paris were among the more popular ones.
Wallpaper evolved into an art form, and many examples of papers brought to America between 1800 and 1860 were put on display at the Art Museum in Boston. One such wallpaper was of the Scottish Highlands, complete with sportsmen stalking deer. Another example was a scene of Italian peasants dancing and harvesting grapes, while another paper exhibited riders leaping fences.
Others were quite unusual. A home in Hoosac Falls, NY, exhibited wallpaper with scenes of Captain Cook’s adventures. Each separate scene was within its own medallion, and the medallions were connected with sprigs of foliage to one another. This turned out to quite a gruesome paper, as one cameo included the cannibals’ feast with Captain Cook as the central figure.
According to legend, it was wallpaper that was responsible for the birth of the Nantucket Historical Society. A Nantucket woman had been visiting the Art Museum of Boston and discovered that she had a roll of paper at home that matched the one on display at the museum. When she returned home to Nantucket, she proudly put hers on display.
Many old papers had been preserved into the early twentieth century, but unfortunately, today a considerable number of those are lost forever. Early in the 20th century a huge market developed for the older designs. To meet this demand, wallpaper manufacturers reproduced those designs that had been in favor 100 years earlier. Those with the means preferred the hand-printed papers because, although less expensive, the mass-produced wallpapers had their drawbacks. In machine-made papers, the colors were thin, not deep like the hand-made type. Also with machine printing, all the colors were laid down at the same time, whereas with hand printing, each color was allowed to dry before applying another. This produced colors with sharper detail, and hand printing also yielded much softer tones than those produced by metal rollers.
Today there are several options available to people looking for vintage or antique wallpapers to collect or to decorate their home with. There are a number of companies involved with old wallpapers in one way or another, and some trade in remnants of 18th and 19th century wallpapers. One online merchant is offering a number of antique wallpapers in odd lengths. One lot includes five different lengths, two of which are 86 and 65 inches respectively. The total cost would be over $200. Another offering is of two odd pieces of William Morris, 19th century Arts & Crafts-era wallpaper, totaling a little more than 90 inches in length. The cost would be around $100. Sometimes antique papers are offered at live auctions, bringing handsome prices to the assignee. Full rolls of vintage wallpaper from the early 1900s into the 1930s through the 1970s are available. The price per roll ranges from between $35 to $95. What better way to enjoy collecting wallpaper than to sit back and relax, surrounded by your collection?
Old books with wallpaper samples, as well antique books on the history of wallpaper, are also highly collectible. Sometimes the latter type contains swatches of original antique wallpapers. One such volume, titled, Old Time Wall Paper by Kate Sanborn contains swatches of English and French wallpapers from the 18th and 19th centuries. There were two separate versions published in 1905, in limited numbers, with one being done on rice paper. Prices range from $150 to $250 per edition. Swatches can be removed from these books and sold at a reasonable price and then framed.
Also highly collectible are the carved wood print blocks used in the art of hand-printed wallpapers. These wood blocks are the same type as those used in the printing of designs onto textiles. The blocks are constructed of extremely hard woods such as rosewood, pear wood or boxwood. The larger examples offered can measure between 12 to 15 inches square, with prices usually ranging from $150 to $250 each. These can be found at antiques shops and on-line merchants. Smaller fragments or stamps are offered on eBay for less money.
Vintage wallpapers are of interest to several kinds of collectors. Some might be interested in specific themes or designs, such as papers depicting historical scenes, or those displaying floral patterns; wallpapers from England or France or some other country might engage the attention of others; still, some individuals like to collect papers produced by certain manufacturers, such as Cole & Son, or the aforementioned William Morris. And a number of those assembling a collection might be interested in a certain time period such as wallpapers manufactured in the 17th or 18th century.
People can also avail themselves of the services of those who offer the restoration of original, old wallpapers. Other artisans reproduce original designs using age old methods. And at a lesser cost, those old patterns are mass produced using modern methods.
Article: “Wallpaper,” History Magazine; October/November, 2001
Old Time Wall Paper, by Kate Sanborn, 1905
Paper-Making Through Eighteen Centuries, by David Hunter 1993
Textiles in America 1650-1870, by Florence M. Montgomery and Linda Eaton 2007
The Papered Wall: The History, Patterns and Techniques, by Lesley Hoskins, editor, 2005
Twentieth-Century Pattern Design, by Lesley Jackson 2002
Wallpaper of New England website: historicnewengland.org/explore/collections-access/wallpaper/
David McCormick holds a master’s degree in Regional Planning from the University of Massachusetts. He was employed by the City of Springfield, Mass., for several years. Now retired, McCormick works as a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Naval History, Elks Magazine and Wild West Magazine.