Lucy Ellis: 'I believe in wallpaper'
Lucy Ellis talks about wallpaper salesmanship and The Wallpaper Magazine, the industry trade journal, in the 1920s and '30s
When I started my MA in the History of Design & Material Culture at the University of Brighton in September 2017, I had always hoped to find myself researching wallpaper history as part of my studies. My goal was to use primary material from the collections at MoDA (Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture) at Middlesex University, as I had always been fascinated by their extensive collection of wallpaper and textile designs, largely from the Silver Studio, particularly as it was so rich in content from the inter-war period, my primary period of interest. I imagined myself feasting on sample after sample of jazz and moderne papers, but with only a vague notion of what I might say about them.
So it was with surprise and delight that I found myself being led down quite a different path, one that took me to the very heart of the wallpaper industry in the 1920s and '30s. Among the archive boxes I discovered a number of copies of The Wallpaper Magazine, the house organ of the wallpaper industry in the interwar period. Inaugurated in April 1920, it was distributed free of charge to anyone in the trade and remained in existence until the outbreak of war in 1939.
Its publisher was WPM (the Wall Paper Manufacturers Ltd), the all-powerful business conglomerate which dominated the wallpaper trade until the 1960s, making the trade journal not just the voice of the industry but a powerful tool for influencing those working within it. The magazine aimed to 'not only further the interests of the trade in the general sense, but... prove a source of practical help to all engaged in it...in short, deal more intimately with the distributor's difficulties than the wall paper publications already in existence.'
I was struck by the conjunction of the clearly expressed commercial imperative - the need to boost sales of wallpaper in the slack post-war period - with the friendly overtures being made to the distributor, and decided to research the nature of wallpaper salesmanship and the way in which the magazine was instrumental in promoting the new science of selling. Inside the magazine's colourful covers, which develop from lush floral wallpaper designs in the early 1920s through restrained woodblock prints to black and white photography in the late 1930s, there are a multitude of features including wallpaper history, design guidance, practical tips, competitions, sports results and cartoons; but by far the greatest number of column inches are devoted to salesmanship.
"We want the distributor to feel that in this little magazine he has a personal friend which will always give him information and advice, and to which he is heartily welcomed to write of both his experiences and his problems."
The Wallpaper Magazine, April 1920
In the aftermath of World War One, wallpaper manufacturing in Britain was in a parlous state. Paper and dye shortages had meant a shutdown for four years and much trade had been lost to the USA and Germany. In addition, design critics held wallpaper in disdain and promoted plain painted walls as the fashionable choice. The industry desperately needed to get back on its feet and looked to the independent wallpaper distributor for help. With the aid of advertising consultant Charles Higham, The Wallpaper Magazine was launched as a means of direct contact with the people who would actually be selling wallpaper. Higham had spent many years in the USA and brought back with him the go-getting methods of salesmanship being taught there. My research looked at the variety of approaches WPM adopted within the magazine to educate, influence and motivate the salesman, a figure often overlooked in histories of retailing and consumption.
What proved fascinating was to see the evolution of selling techniques from the early 1920s to the late 1930s. Just after the war, when WPM management was full of former army officers, the approach to the salesman was to treat him like a subordinate, using very didactic language and military metaphors like 'The Spring Offensive'. The housewife, largely understood to be the decision-maker where wallpaper was concerned, was to be 'educated' in buying the right kind of paper and shamed if she did not accept redecorating as a necessary part of spring cleaning. Salesmanship was portrayed as a masculine role with targets to meet and competitiveness heavily promoted.
As sales picked up in the 1920s, so there was a softening of the militaristic approach and a greater acceptance of the need to understand the customer as an individual. Although the evangelical zeal remained, by the mid-1930s market data was consulted as a way of better understanding population distribution, class segmentation and the consumer base. Salesmanship focused less on manipulating the customer and more on motivating her to buy, based on her style of home and status. Different 'prospects' were identified and even the health benefits and educational value of wallpaper were used as selling tools. By the end of the 1930s the selling of wallpaper was considered both an art and a science. The Wallpaper Magazine did not survive World War Two but as an insight into the inter-war wallpaper trade offers an unique and entertaining source of information.
I am indebted to the Wallpaper History Society for awarding me the Merryl Huxtable Prize which enabled me to travel around the UK to conduct my research.
All images are by the author