An introduction to wallpaper

Wallpaper has not always had the attention it deserves. It generally occupies the background rather than the foreground of our lives, but in doing so it can reveal a lot about who we are or who we would like to be. The history of wallpaper is the story of fashion and taste, industry and technology, class and identity, and trade and empire. It has been used to decorate palaces and public houses, and also the most intimate and personal of the spaces we inhabit - the home. Thinking about wallpaper is a starting point for thinking about the way we use the spaces in the homes, and much more besides. 

Wallpaper began life as an elite product. Wealthy people imported hand painted papers from China to decorate their rooms, and some of these are still visible in country houses.

Block printing became the method most commonly used to print wallpapers in Britain in the eighteenth century. Wallpaper printers used carved wooden blocks, first dipping them into pigment then pressing on to paper. The blocks generally measured around 24 by 32 inches, and weighed 30-40lb, meaning that printers required considerable strength and stamina as well as skill.  Wallpapers became an important part of the decorative choices for prosperous town-dwellers, merchants and gentry as well as the aristocracy.

By the early 1800s wallpaper had become a standard requirement for the furnishing of any respectable middle class home. As wallpaper came within the reach of the slightly less well-off it was accompanied by anxiety about social status. It became a battle-ground for debates over the appropriate display of wealth. Choosing wallpaper to decorate your home meant saying something about the social class you thought you were, or aspired to be.  Manufacturers tried to produce papers to suit every pocket by re-using printing blocks in different combinations to create different patterns. They also employed cheaper unskilled labour to do some of the more menial tasks.

In the early 1800s several new inventions began to make the production of wallpaper cheaper and quicker than ever before. The production of paper in continuous rolls and new printing techniques meant that thousands of yards of paper could be produced in a day. This was in contrast to the slow and labour intensive technique of block printing. These new technologies were not adopted instantly, since they required considerable financial investment. But over the first few decades of the nineteenth century more mechanized process were introduced into wallpaper factories. 

 

By 1830, Britain was producing around a million rolls of wallpaper per year, around five million per year by 1850, and as many as fifty million per year by the end of the century. As a result, wallpaper became much more affordable. It moved from luxury product to everyday commodity.

 

By the mid nineteenth century (and throughout most of the twentieth), it was a necessary part of the furnishing of any home, for both rich and poor. Consumers favoured more expensive and showy papers for reception rooms, and cheaper, plainer papers for bedrooms and servants’ quarters. 

 

By the 1860s and 70s there was so much more wallpaper on offer that consumers needed advice on how to navigate through the available choices.

One of the wallpaper designers frequently recommended to the fashionable middle classes was William Morris. Morris designed his first wallpapers in 1862, and from 1864 commissioned the wallpaper firm Jeffrey and Co to print his designs for him. Morris had strong opinions about the kinds of patterns that were appropriate for wallpapers, believing that plants and flowers should give the impression of growing naturally up the wall.  

 

William Morris was one of the first people to understand the value of attaching his own name to a product. He marketed his wallpapers as ‘art’, ensuring that they maintained an exclusive appeal for his wealthy clients.  But the names of the majority of nineteenth and twentieth century wallpaper designers are not known to us now, because wallpaper firms did not credit their designers personally. 

By the 1930s Britain’s wallpaper production had increased to around a hundred million rolls per year. The majority of those millions of rolls were cheaper papers for which surprisingly little evidence survives, except occasionally in museum collections. Wallpapers in non-elite domestic spaces may have been removed or papered over countless times in the past century.  Fashions change and each new set of inhabitants use wallpapers to make a house feel like their own.  

Historians are now as interested in how and why people purchased wallpaper as in its design and manufacture. The choice of wallpaper can be an important part of the process of making a home and asserting an identity, especially in the context of stories of migration.  And for those interests in researching the history of their house, wallpaper can often reveal interesting detail about the economic status and aesthetic choices of previous occupants. Wallpaper can provide a sense of connection to those who inhabited that most intimate space – our home – before us. 

 

Zoe Hendon