John Houghton, Collection for Improvement of Husbandry and Trade (1669)

During the US Civil War in 1863, J.M Swords tore wallpaper from the walls of his own home on which to print his Daily Citizen newspaper and get news to his fellow Confederate citizens.

THE TRADITION OF wall decoration dates back to Egyptian and Roman wall painting. Centuries later, and particularly in cooler climates, people used fabric to cover walls and windows to keep drafts out. In the homes of the well-to-do, these fabrics were elaborate, resplendent tapestries, which also adorned the walls of European palaces and castles. They were not only practical, but decorative.

A Cheap Substitute

Wallpaper began as a cheap substitute for tapestry and paneling. Some historians believe that the use of wallpaper dates back to the 1400s. The first wallpapers were decorations for wood panels, introduced into England by Flemish craftsmen. The papers were small squares with images printed by wood blocks, which were then colored in by hand. As the desire increased to find a less expensive alternative to the wall-hangings of the rich, printers produced simple yet decorative paper panels.

In the 1500s, the wealthy continued to cover their walls but now they did so with brocades, velvets and even embossed leather. The earliest known wallpaper in England dates back to 1509 – an Italian-inspired woodcut pomegranate design printed on the back of a proclamation issued by Henry VIII. Discovered in 1911 at Christ’s College in Cambridge, the paper is attributed to Hugo Goes, a York printer. In general, wallpaper of this period depicted floral designs and murals. Wallpaper’s popularity increased in Elizabethan England. Throughout Europe, a fascination began with these fine papers that offered protection against dampness and an improved ability to handle fireplace smoke.

But wallpaper wasn’t purely a Western invention. The Chinese began to produce it in the early 1600s, showered with painted birds, flowers and landscapes on rice paper formed in rectangular sheets.

A Period Of Innovation

The 1600s introduced a period of French innovation leading to wide acceptance of wallpaper. Writer Savary des Bruslons noted “a dominotier makes a type of tapestry on paper . . . which is used by the poorer classes in Paris to cover the walls of their huts or their shops.” Such dominotiers gained the reputation of experts in emulating fabric on paper.

Papers of this period fell into two classes, irrespective of whether they were produced in England or France: simple and complicated. The simple typically depicted a geometric pattern repeat, printed from a single wood block. The complicated consisted of more complex designs, including shields, vases or flowers and were created from several blocks. Either way, designs were first printed in black onto the paper. Using a kind of stencil, color was applied. The less expensive papers were printed less carefully from worn blocks and sold at rural fairs. The more costly papers were produced from carefully carved, new wooden blocks and were printed and colored carefully as well.

The 1600s also marked the debut of flock paper. Flock is the small shearing of wool left over from the manufacture of cloth. The process involved painting the background color onto paper or canvas, printing or stenciling the design onto it with a slow-drying adhesive, and scattering the flock over the adhesive, producing a velvet-like pile over the chosen design. The practice began about 1600 but enjoyed its heyday from 1715-45 when exceptional quality paper of this type was imported from France into England.

Though called wallpaper, the paper was not attached directly to the wall during this period. Instead, it was pasted onto linen and the linen was then attached to the walls with copper tacks. Sometimes the linen was attached to wooden battens, which were then attached to the walls.

From the 1680s, wallpaper offered an economical alternative to tapestries and leather hangings. Individual sheets were joined together in groups of 12 or more to form a roll, enabling faster printing and complex designs. New production techniques also meant that hanging paper required more skill.

The Zuber wallpaper company took advantage of US nationalism and republished its “Views of North America” wallpaper as “The War of American Independence”. Slight adjustments were made to the prints so they would appear to depict scenes such as the Bost Tea Party.

Colour My World

By the beginning of the 1700s, simple black and white papers had virtually disappeared in Europe. Colored papers were in vogue, especially imported paper from China.

In France, wallpapers evolved from the end papers used in bookbinding. The first ones were printed in small squares in marbleized patterns. Eventually, the squares were glued together into a long sheet and rolled up for convenience. Wallpaper became a royal affair. In 1778, Louis XVI issued a decree that required the length of a wallpaper roll be about 34 feet.

Patterns imitated scenic tapestries, brocatelles and patterned velvets. Americans often imported these papers. For instance, the wallpaper in the Duncan House in Haverhill, MA was designed by Carle Vernet and printed in Paris about 1814. Made of separate panels, it shows a single scene of a hunt.

The French continued to innovate and invented a machine to print paper in 1785. Wallpaper design began to attract artists and not just woodblock printers. Chinese paper continued its popularity and its style of hand-painted birds, trees, pagodas and sometimes Chinese figures in landscapes became known as chinoiserie. The paper found its way into manor houses, palaces and chateaux. It was usually applied in panels and was sometimes edged with gilt. European painters copied the Chinese designs, but the French-produced papers were the most sought after.

At first, wallpaper appeared in minor rooms while fabric continued to be used in the major ones. Use of wallpaper became so widespread that it inspired the introduction of a tax in England by 1712 on paper that was “painted, printed or stained to serve as hangings”.

Most papers of this time imitated textiles and their manufacturers boasted that they could emulate damask, velvet and needlework. One major designer of this period was John Baptist Jackson, born in 1700, and a pupil of the engraver Kirkhall. In 1725 he went to Paris and came into contact with paper stainer Jean Michel Papillon before he went on to Italy and became interested in Italian Renaissance design. In 1746, he returned to England, determined to revive English wallpaper printing, which had taken a beating from the French.

Dawn of the Designer

The French had taken over the industry. They paid their designers well and French nobility paid special commissions for custom papers. One manufacturer deserves special mention, Jean-Baptiste Rveillon, who became a “Manufacture Royale”. For some years before the French Revolution, his factory in Paris produced the finest and most beautiful papers for the French aristocracy. It was attacked by the angry mob in 1789 and Rveillon fled to England. The factory reopened with the help of others who found favor with the Revolutionaries by printing patriotic papers in red, white and blue. Rveillon took his inspiration from painted decoration on wooden paneling, doors and shutters – a style originated by Raphael in the Vatican. His designs featured long vertical and graceful designs of urns, flowers, swans, birds and beasts block-printed in dozens of different colors, and flowing upward from a central motif. His papers were to be hung as panels, separated by borders and plain wallpaper sections. He also introduced papers that used strong colors – reds, ochres, terracottas, greens and azure blues – in addition to the traditional black. Classical motifs, medallions and dancing figures filled the panel area. Rveillon papers became a popular export to the US during the 1700s and can still be seen in New England homes.

A Taxing Situation

Meanwhile, back in England, wallpapers were being colored by hand on the wall to outwit the tax man. The industry continued to grow in spite of the taxes and grew strong enough that by 1773, Parliament lifted the ban on imported papers, though customs duties still applied. Taxation continued into the next century and generated a significant amount of revenue. By 1806, falsification of wallpaper stamps was added to the list of offenses punishable by death. To deal with the tax, English manufacturers sought to increase sales by catering to the mass market. They simplified their designs. This allowed the French to maintain their firm grip on the finer, more complicated designs.

Dramatic Design

The use of wallpaper borders is almost as old as wallpaper itself. Borders, originally used to hide the tacks used to hold the wallpaper in position, assumed their own importance by the late 1700s, because they could visually alter a room’s proportions. Border designs featured florals and architectural friezes. Many of these were printed to look like a cornice and hung at a junction of the wall and ceiling to add importance and grandeur to the room. Often, they were used to outline doors and windows or architectural details within the room such as a fireplace.

By the beginning of the 1800s, dividing the wall into three parts – the dado, filler and frieze – became fashionable. Borders differentiated each section, which bore distinctive yet interrelated patterns. This style is often seen in Victorian homes.

Stripes – reminiscent of a military campaign with their military colors – became popular in Napoleonic France and in England, not only on the walls but extending to the ceilings as well. The practice spread throughout Europe. Panoramic landscapes were also popular in France. Never before had designs been attempted on such a large scale. To cover the walls of a large room without repeating a scene, 20 to 30 lengths were printed, with each length about 10 feet high and 20 inches wide (300cm by 50cm). Massive amounts of time and energy, not to mention risk, were required to print such scenes, using thousands of hand-carved blocks and hundreds of colors. For the most part, the Zuber company in Rixheim and Dufour in Mcon and Paris produced them. In 1852, Zuber took advantage of a nationalist wave in the US and republished a previous paper, “Views of North America”, as “The War of American Independence”. He substituted foreground figures so the Boston Harbor became the Boston Tea Party. Peaceful scenes became battlefields.

Landscapes were not common in England as they did not accommodate the ancestral portraits the British preferred as wall decoration.

For most of wallpaper’s history, it has been created by hand using carved blocks. A printing machine was first adapted for wallpaper in 1839.

The British Revolution

It was now Britain’s turn to innovate. The repeal of wallpaper taxation in 1836 encouraged designers in England to produce very complex designs that became popular in the Victorian era. And a breakthrough in production, credited to a calico printing firm, Potters of Darwen in Lancashire, England, adapted a printing machine for wallpaper, patented in 1839. Wallpaper was now applied directly to plaster. As production increased, prices dropped, and more and more people were able to buy it for their homes. Wallpaper suitable for a child’s nursery appeared. In the Victorian era, front halls boasted bright colors that often included wallpaper. By the late 1800s, British designers like William Morris and Owen Jones, author of The Grammar of Ornament (1856), began to react against the excesses of the mid-century. They wanted to restore good taste and re-establish quality workmanship. Morris, for example, insisted on the purest colors and techniques and his influence is evident in the hundreds of mass-produced papers manufactured from the 1880s until the end of the century.

By the 1920s, futurist and cubist designs arrived on the market making both modern and traditional patterns available. Elite society reverted to using fabric like silk and paint finishes, considering paper inferior. Practical innovations continued such as vinyl wallpaper’s appearance in 1947 and pre-pasted papers in the 1950s.