I have mixed feelings about wallpaper, let’s call it a love-hate relationship.
Wallpaper can make a lovely design statement…or it can induce vertigo.
Apply with care.
It also offers a special window into the style modes of the past…and that’s really what I like best! Indeed it has always been the subject of debate: in good taste or poor?
Wallpaper was developed to mimic fabric wall coverings such as silk, damask and tapestries, and has never really been able to completely shake that “cheap imitation” reputation. Often the question of taste was a question of quality, both in material and design.
These “faux” patterns are from the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Early examples were hand-blocked and then colored by hand, making it an expensive commodity, and so considered high-end. By the mid-nineteenth century technological advances had made the production of large quantities of detailed wallpaper possible, in fact a good deal more detailed than (most) earlier hand-blocked papers.
Wallpaper was featured prominently at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, and the debate escalated. Aesthetics, subject matter, use in public vs. private spaces, health and cleanliness ranging from the ability to clean it, to inks made of arsenic…you name it!
So let’s fire up the Eyecandymobile and join the debate with a trip through the decades via…wallpaper…
Wallpaper is by nature ephemeral—styles go in and out of fashion, and it’s made of paper! Old specimens are hard to come by are often found in scraps and in out of the way places like closets that homeowners didn’t bother updating.
This example is the earliest known, an English block print from 1509.
A Chinese panel circa 1725.
Early flocked wallpaper was made by applying glue to the paper, then sprinkling bits of dyed wool over it to create faux velvet. This example is circa 1760.
We tend to associate drab colors with historic design, but this page from a sample book circa 1851 illustrates nothing could be further from the truth!
Wallpaper designs often commemorate an event. This one, circa 1853, fittingly celebrates the Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Here’s a more toned-down example, also circa 1853.
This scenic print is circa 1870.
Wallpaper followed trends, and the briefly popular Art Nouveau style is no exception. This one, circa 1899, is by the famous architect/designer, C. F. A. Voysey. Along with William Morris, he is associated with the Arts & Crafts Movement, and was a prolific designer.
The Progressive Movement concern for cleanliness and health brought about the innovation of “sanitary” wallpaper—the usual paper coated with varnish.
Today, if you prefer vintage wallpaper in your home, new-old rolls from the twentieth century can be found on the internet. Two great sources are Second Hand Rose and Hannah’s Treasures. These decade collage examples were all found on their sites…so they are available to hang in your home!
1970’s – Note how similar the flocked example second from the left is to the above block print from 1509!
Wallpaper finally fell out of favor in recent decades, but has been enjoying a bit of a comeback. For the fickle there are even temporary wallpapers that just peel right off—probably the route I would go if I wanted to do a feature wall.
If wallpaper piques your curiosity I highly recommend clicking through the links in Sources below, you’ll find lots of great info and photos there!
How do you feel about wallpaper? Like it or not, we all have memories of papered spaces in the homes of our families and friends—share them in the comments below or over on the My History Fix Facebook page!
Apartment Therapy, Quick History: Wallpaper, http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/quick-history-wallpaperretrosp-129500, accessed March 2, 2016.
Victoria & Albert Museum, Textile Influences on Wallpaper, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/textile-influences-on-wallpaper/ , accessed March 2, 2016.
Victoria & Albert Museum, Wallpaper: Health and Cleanliness, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/w/health-and-cleanliness/ , accessed March 2, 2016.
Victoria & Albert Museum, A Short History of Wallpaper, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/short-introductory-history-of-wallpaper/ , accessed March 2, 2016.
Victoria & Albert Museum, Wallpaper Design Reform, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/w/wallpaper-design-reform/ , accessed March 2, 2016.
Wallpaper History Society, Repairs & Conservation, http://www.wallpaperhistorysociety.org.uk/learning-research/conservation-history/, accessed March 2, 2016.