Flocked Wallpaper from Victoria and Albert Museum

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008


Flock Wallpapers

The status of flock wallpaper has undergone a dramatic transformation over the space of three centuries. Once a luxury product used by the wealthy in the grandest apartments, it has declined into cliché, most familiar (at least in Britain) as nothing more than a commonplace decoration in Indian restaurants where it is intended to evoke an atmosphere of Colonial grandeur.

Portion of wallpaper with rococo floral design in flock on a diapered ground, about 1760. Museum no. E.1961-1934 Portion of wallpaper with rococo floral design in flock on a diapered ground, about 1760. Museum no. E.1961-1934 (click image for larger version)

Flock paper was originally invented to imitate cut-velvet hangings. Flock – powdered wool, a waste product of the woollen cloth industry – had been applied to cloth in the early 17th century. It is not clear when the first flock papers were produced, but trade cards and advertisements show that flock papers were available by the late 17th century. Edward Butling’s card of around 1690 declares that he ‘Maketh and Selleth all sorts of Hangings for Rooms’, including ‘Flock-work’, at his premises in Southwark. The advertisement for Abraham Price’s Blue Paper Warehouse, Aldermanbury, around 1715, shows panels at the extreme left and right with Baroque-style patterns which are almost certainly flocked. However, some of the earliest flocks seem to have employed quite simple linear designs; a green flock of oak stems and lattice from Welwick House, South Lynn, Norfolk, around 1715-20, is typical of this light style.

By the 1730s many flock papers that were direct imitations of damask or velvet began to appear. The range of patterns available seems to have been relatively limited, and one particularly magnificent design has been found in several locations. This was a crimson flock on a deep pink ground, which has faded to yellowish buff on most surviving examples. This pattern was hung in the offices of His Majesty’s Privy Council, Whitehall, London, around 1735; it was also used in the Queen’s Drawing Room in Hampton Court Palace, and in several town and country houses, including Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, and Clandon Park, Surrey, also in the 1730s. The same pattern in green flock was hung around 1745 in the Picture Gallery at Temple Newsam, Leeds. The design itself has been traced back to an Italian brocade and a damask curtain, both in the Department of Textiles and Dress at the V&A.

The flock papers proved extremely durable – certainly more so than the textile hangings they imitated – and so although they were relatively expensive in comparison to other contemporary wallpapers, they were nevertheless good value for money. The flock papers had an advantage over textile wall coverings in that the turpentine in the adhesive used for fixing the flock kept them free from moths. In the 1740s a green cut velvet for the Drawing Room at Longford Castle, Wiltshire, cost 25s a yard, and a green silk damask for the Gallery 12s. A flock paper supplied to the Duke of Bedford in 1754 cost only 4s. Even allowing for the fact that there were several qualities of flock available, and that 4s probably represented the cheaper end of the scale, a handsome, richly coloured, long-lasting flock paper compared favourably with the alternatives.

Portion of flock wallpaper from Clandon Park, Surrey, about 1735. Museum no. E.31-1971 Portion of flock wallpaper from Clandon Park, Surrey, about 1735. Museum no. E.31-1971 (click image for larger version)

The designs themselves also proved to have a long life, with several of the large-scale formal patterns – notably the so-called ‘Privy Council flock’ (now usually known as ‘Amberley’, the name given to Cole’s reproduction of the pattern) – continuously available to the present day. Although flock papers have been produced in every passing style, the designs of the early 18th century have survived as a sort of gold-standard for good taste and for an approach to decorating which stands outside fashion.

The grandest flock papers have a large pattern repeat, often 6 or 7 feet in length. Papers on this scale were intended for large formal spaces – the public and semi-public rooms of great houses. Sometimes, papers like Réveillon’s were flocked in more than one colour which produced a richer, more luxurious effect. Large-scale Baroque patterns symmetrical around a vertical axis were appropriate in formal settings and large rooms but were not used in more modestly sized private rooms. For these rooms small-scaled flocked patterns were available, ranging from simple diaper patterns to asymmetric floral designs similar to contemporary silks. A paper of this kind, with a yellow ground, blue-stencilled colour and dark-blue flock, was used in a bedroom at Clandon.

The designs of flock papers were swiftly adapted to changing fashions. The earliest known flock paper, from Saltfleet Manor, Lincolnshire, had a formalised design with architectural elements and typical 17th-century decorative motifs; the same paper was hung at Ivy House, in the Worcester Cathedral precincts, in panels alternating with lengths of embossed leather, another wall covering fashionable at the time. Chinoiserie designs were also produced in flock – a red-brown flock on a cream ground with a double-width repeat, from Hurlcote Manor, Easton Neston, is a fascinating melange of Indian, Chinese and English motifs. From the 1740s onwards the informal asymmetric style of French rococo was translated into flock. A particularly fine example with crimson ground, block printed in white, with mica, and flocked in crimson, was hung in a parlour chamber in the Sarah Orne Jewitt House, South Berwick, Maine, around 1775-80.

Portion of two flock wallpapers, one pasted over the other, about 1760-70. Museum no. E.596A, 596B-1985 Portion of two flock wallpapers, one pasted over the other, about 1760-70. Museum no. E.596A, 596B-1985 (click image for larger version)

A number of these small-pattern flocks were hung in bedrooms – a blue flock was used in a bedroom at the Chateau of the Bishops of Dax at St-Pandclon, France, in the mid-1770s; and a formal diaper pattern, crimson flock on a pink ground, in a second-floor bedroom at Temple Newsam, Leeds. Elsewhere they were used in parlours and drawing rooms. A popular formal pattern with rococo elements, blue flock on a lighter blue ground, was hung in the Drawing Room at Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire, between 1760 and 1765. A version flocked in red and yellow on a pink ground, with diaper filling in white, was hung in two first-floor rooms of Sir William Robinson’s house at 26 Soho Square in 1759-60 – the paper cost 9s per 12-yard piece, and 414 yards were supplied; it is described in Chippendale’s itemised bill as ‘Crimson Embossed paper’. The term ‘embossed’, which often appears on trade cards, seems to have been another name for flock because, like embossing, flocking produced a raised surface pattern.

In ‘A Complete Body of Architecture’, published in 1756, Isaac Ware specified that the first-floor rooms of a London house ‘better than the common kind’ should be for entertaining, and may include the dining and the drawing room. The use of a handsome flock paper would therefore have been appropriate to the probable functions of the rooms in which it was found in 26 Soho Square. However, it is unlikely that either room hung with flock would have been used for dining – flock papers tended to retain the smell of food, as well as gathering dirt and dust, and were therefore generally considered to be unsuitable in this context. This same paper was, it seems, supplied to Sir Rowland Winn for a bedroom at Nostell Priory; Chippendale’s invoice for 4 March 1768 specifies ’8 Pieces Norfolk Crimson and Yellow Flock’.

Generally speaking, it seems that the scale of the flock pattern was related to the size of the room, although there are occasional examples of over-sized patterns hung to overwhelming effect in small rooms. A bedroom of the Webb house in Wethersfield, Connecticut, was hung with a red flock with a rococo floral pattern in 1781, rather late for the style. Hung from coving to skirting, it has a disturbing effect in such a small, low-ceilinged room. It was supposedly hung in preparation for a visit by George Washington, and it may he that the status of the prospective guest had more influence on the choice of paper than did the size of the room itself.

A similarly outsize red rococo flock was hung in a bedroom in the Palazzo Salis Bondo in Switzerland around 1775. In this case its dominance was moderated by framing it in panels, with a lighter decoration below the dado, over the doors, and so on. On the whole, clients, or their decorators, did take room size into account when selecting a paper. Mrs Kenyon, describing the furnishing of her new house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1774), wrote: ‘The entrance is a broad lobby well lighted by a window over the door … it is wainscot painted white. The dining room is 21′ X 17′ wide and is to be new papered this week. The paper is to be a blue small patterned flock … Our lodging room is hung with a green flock paper.’

Portion of wallpaper with matching border, about 1750-75. Museum no. E.528-2001 Portion of wallpaper with matching border, about 1750-75. Museum no. E.528-2001 (click image for larger version)

Flocks were generally more expensive than other block-printed papers and most surviving examples come from the houses of the wealthy, although some exceptions are known. A paper of around 1760 with blue-flocked foliage and block-printed white leaves on a light blue ground was found in a house at 80 St John Street, Clerkenwell. The house itself was built in the 1750s and occupied from 1753 to 1790 by a distiller, John Watson. The area was not fashionable, and was inhabited in the latter half of the century mostly by tradesmen conducting their businesses on the premises.

For those who could not afford the real thing, mock flock paper was available; these papers copied the styles and motifs of flock papers with solid block-printed areas in dense black pigment on a diapered or ‘mosaic’ ground to give an effective illusion of true flock. A good example (now in the English Heritage archive) was retrieved from the first-floor back room of 17 Albemarle Street, London. This was a good address, in a fashionable part of town, so it is quite surprising to find a ‘cheap’ imitation in what would have been one of the public rooms for entertaining guests.

Such papers were usually considered more appropriate for bedrooms – for example, although Sir William Robinson had an expensive double flock made for the whole of his first floor at 26 Soho Square, he had a much cheaper green mock flock hung in one of the second-floor bedrooms at a cost of £3 2s in April and May 1760.

Cost, colour and durability were the key factors in the choice of wall coverings. Lady Margaret Heathcote writing to her father, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, in 1763, when she was choosing a wallpaper on his behalf, found several advantages in the mock flock papers. Having described some of the options, including an ‘Indian paper … [at] treble the price’ of a flock, she explains:

‘a Cloth paper can only with that furniture be Green, or Green and white as now; plain Green I doubt you would find very dark, and there is some difficulty in putting up a new paper of the same colours as the former one to vary the pattern so as it may not seem the very same; I have therefore ordered a pattern in Mosaick, Green upon a cloth colour ground in imitation of real flock (wch. they tell me in that light colour wears better than the real).’

Flocks continued to reflect the changing styles in textile design, and remained in demand through a sequence of architectural styles. Imposing formal patterns were still being designed in the 1820s, alongside lighter informal styles. Flocking was used to embellish designs in every style, from florals to borders with Egyptian motifs and troumpe-l’oeil printed ‘draperies’.

The 19th-century flocks were even more convincing as substitutes for cut-velvet than their predecessors, thanks to a further elaboration of the production process whereby the flocked areas were blind-stamped to give an embossed finish. A crimson flock of this kind with an imposing pomegranate design survives in two of the State Rooms at Lydiard Park, Wiltshire; a similar red flock was hung by Lady Hertford in the Picture Gallery at Temple Newsam in 1826 or 1827, where it remained until 1940.

Wallpaper border in the neo-classical style, about 1800-25. Museum no. E.2242-1974 Wallpaper border in the neo-classical style, about 1800-25. Museum no. E.2242-1974 (click image for larger version)

Red flock has, since the mid-18th century, been a favourite decoration for picture galleries, or for any grand room hung with Old Master paintings. The colour and texture can be a highly effective foil to gilt-framed pictures. In 1748 Thomas Bromwich was paid £45 16s by Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh at Uppark, apparently for supplying and hanging a red flock very similar to the ‘Flower’d Red Paper’ hung at Felbrigg, Norfolk, during Paine’s alterations of 1751-6. The original red flock in the Red Drawing Room at Uppark was replaced by another, also in red, during refurbishments in the 1850s.

Artists themselves certainly subscribed to the general view that red was the best background to pictures. In 1813 the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence P.R.A. wrote of his house at 65 Russell Square: ‘… thus I suffer a Yellow Paper to remain that I know is hurtful to my Pictures. I should have suffered it in my Painting Room but … it is now a rich crimson Paper with a Border’.

The 18th-century English flock papers were renowned for their superior quality. They were exported to Continental Europe, notably France, where papiers d’Angleterre were favoured by wealthy individuals such as Madame de Pompadour, who used English flock papers in her apartments at Versailles and in the Chateau de Champs. And like other English wallpapers, flocks were exported to America. Advertisements in the American press from the early 1760s included ‘Flock’, ‘velvet’ or ‘Damask’: both of the latter terms were used to describe flocked wall-papers. However, they did not suit all customers. Lady Skipwith, an émigrée from England, wrote in 1795 from Virginia to her agent in London: ‘I am very partial to papers of only one color, or two at most – velvet paper [flock] I think looks too warm for this country.’

The luxurious aristocratic associations of flock papers continued into the mid-19th century. Many of the design reformers (see ‘Design Reform’) produced flocked wallpaper patterns. Owen Jones produced a number of elaborate papers – an 1867 example in the Moorish style is block printed in bold colours, embossed and flocked. A.W. N. Pugin, whose papers employed Gothic and medieval motifs, often very simple and severe, also designed sumptuous flock papers. He believed that flock wallpapers were suitable as a medium for designs in the modern Gothic style because they were ‘admirable substitutes for ancient hangings’.

Wallpaper border with Egyptian motifs, 1806. Museum no. E.2259-1966 Wallpaper border with Egyptian motifs, 1806. Museum no. E.2259-1966 (click image for larger version)

Pugin designed all the papers for the Palace of Westminster; a book of samples compiled by Crace & Son, 1851-4, shows the variety of styles, and gives details of where each was hung. The simplest two-colour block prints were used in servants’ bedrooms, whereas the flock papers (often embellished with gold) were hung in the state and public rooms, such as the Royal Gallery and the Conference Room (now part of the Members’ Dining Room), and in the apartments of senior officials. For example, a red, gold and olive version of the ‘Tapestry’ design was used in the Queen’s Robing Room in the House of Lords and in the Dining Room of the Sergeant-at-Arms in the House of Commons. Pugin made concerted efforts to promote his wallpaper designs to a wider market, and encouraged Crane to advertise his papers in The Builder in 1851. However, the majority of his designs, and in particular the large-scale flocks, were entirely unsuitable to a domestic setting, both in scale and because they were thought by his contemporaries to be ‘too ecclesiastical and traditional in character’.

Charles Eastlake’s influential ‘Hints on Household Taste’, first published in 1868, advanced some strongly expressed opinions about wallpaper, and condemned illusionistic and pictorial patterns, however he defended flocks on the grounds that ‘at ordinary shops [they] are the best in design, because they can represent nothing pictorially’. But by the later 19th century flocks were well and truly out of fashion, casually dismissed or roundly condemned by successive writers of guides to interior decoration. Colonel Edis was particularly severe: ‘I can conceive of nothing more terrible than to be doomed to spend one’s life in a house furnished after the fashion of twenty years ago. Dull monotonous walls, on which garish flock papers of the vulgarest possible design, stare one blankly in the face with patches here and there of accumulated dirt and dust … if the flock paper be red, we had red curtains hung on a gigantic pole, like the mast of a ship …’ A writer in the Art Journal in 1889 concurred with this pejorative view of flock papers: ‘It is seldom now that one encounters the gaudily gilt monstrosities … or the heavily loaded ‘flocks’ shedding everywhere their poisonous dust.’

Cleanliness had by now become something of an obsession with the Victorians, and lighter colours and washable ‘sanitary’ papers were supplanting the dark velvety flocks. For those who advised on interior design and household management, such as Mrs Becton, flocks had a place only in the library, conventionally a sombrely furnished masculine room, or as a foil to pictures since they ‘throw up oil paintings to a marvel’. This advice is reiterated by the anonymous author of ‘Artistic Homes’, or ‘How to Furnish with Taste’ (1880), where Woollams flock papers are specifically recommended.

Dark, gloomy, a hindrance to cleanliness and a hazard to health – the fashion for flock paper was finally in decline, though as a writer in ‘The Builder’ observed in 1877, ‘This movement in the direction of good taste is, perhaps, hardly as general as is sometimes supposed … it has hardly reached the mass of the trading classes at all … and perhaps there are not a few among the professedly more cultured classes who are still sublimely indifferent to the design of their tables and chairs, their carpets and wallpapers.’ Certainly the prejudice against flocks amongst the design pundits did not result in their immediate disappearance from the market. Designs continued to he produced, including papers by Morris, Crane and other fashionable designers of so-called ‘art wallpapers’. And customers at Cowtan & Son continued to order flocks well into the 1920s, in defiance or in ignorance of these critical injunctions against them.

Flocks are still produced today, using rayon flock applied by a flock gun, but the market is more or less limited to restoration projects in historic buildings.

History of Wallpaper

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Traditionally, wallpapers have imitated more expensive materials, such as architectural details, painted wall decorations, wood grains, marble, and, most often, textiles. General stylistic trends, paralleling those of other furnishings and decorative arts can be traced in wallpapers.

The face side of the paper was designed with a field of gray covered with greenish-blue sheaves of wheat. This design could date as early as 1795-1805.

The meaning of the marking “J6″ is unknown.

Prior to the Revolution, English papers dominated the American market. Flocking was a specialty of 17th- and 18th-century English paper stainers, and its popularity was reflected in American houses. English flocked paper and canvas, with patterns of strapwork and scrolls, were used here in the 17th century. Floral patterned papers with flocking reflected 18th-century textile styles; formal symmetrical bouquets in flocked hangings were derived from damask-woven patterns, and patterns formed of branching stems putting forth flowers and leaves over backgrounds of diaper patterning were executed in flocking, as well as in distemper colors (figure 12). Other English floral patterns included some that featured flowing ribbons among the flowers, and floral stripes. Examples of each of these styles of 18th-century English wallpapers have been found in American houses.

Figure 12: A red flocked version of an English flowering vine with diaper pattern survives from its 1781 installation in the Webb House built in 1752 in Wethersfield, Connecticut. The enormous size of the repeat, 72-1/2 inches long and 38-1/2 inches wide, contrasts with the narrow border, just under 2 inches wide. The scale is unexpected in a low-ceiled bedroom. Many of the horizontal as well as vertical seams between individual sheets of handmade paper, each about 21 inches wide and 24 inches long, are apparent in this photograph. (Courtesy of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Connecticut)
Hand-painted, rather than printed, English wallpapers with large-scale nonrepeating views depicting ruined architecture are known to have been used in at least three important American mansions of the 1760′s: the Philip van Schuyler and Stephen van Rensselaer Houses in Albany, New York, and the Jeremiah Lee House in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The elegant views were surrounded by wallpaper “frames.”

A distinctive English pattern type was made of “pillar and arch patterns” (figure 14). These were recommended especially for use in hallways. These and many other 18th-century English wallpapers were generally monochromatic and subdued in palate compared to the French papers of the same and later periods. Many examples of grey papers, some with sparsely applied high lights of color have been found in this country bearing English tax stamps (figure 13).

Figure 13: This paper with tax stamp found on the reverse side (shown in inset) was retrieved from the General Philip Schyler House near Albany, New York. Both are shown in full scale. Such a stamp, with the insignia “GR” (for “George Rex”) could have appeared on any English wallpaper from the reign of King George I until the death of King George IV in 1830. It would be nearly impossible to determine the country of origin for such a simple repeating pattern without the English tax stamp. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

Figure 14: Block printed in black and white on a gray ground, this English paper was probably the original wallcovering used in the Samuel Buckingham House, built in 1768 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The remnant illustrated is about 24 inches wide. Such relatively large scaled neo-classical “Pillar and Arch Figures” were advertised for use in hallways. A copy of this pattern, which differs from this one only in that the figures and every detail is exactly reversed, bearing the mark of a Hartford, Connecticut paper stainer of the 1790′s is also preserved in the Cooper-Hewitt collections, illustrating the American practice of imitating imported papers. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)
The end of British colonial trading restrictions cleared the way for a dramatic increase in the importation of French wallpapers to this country. Yet it was not until the 1790′s that American advertisements began to feature the French paper hangings. Most distinctive of the French styles were the Arabesque patterns first popularized in Paris by Jean Reveillon (figures 15 and 16), and particularly admired in this country by Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries during the 1780′s and 1790′s. Through the use of many individual blocks to print the large number of colors within a single pattern, Reveillon was able to develop a clarity of color and a subtle combination of brilliant and pastel shades that distinguish his wallpapers and those of his successors.

Figure 15: This panel of wallpaper, after a design by Jean-Baptiste Fay, was block printed in the Parisian manufactory of Jean-Baptiste Reveillon about 1788. The Arabesque pattern shown here was rendered in multicolors on a cream ground. Vertical panels like this with its curious mixture of grotesque and naturalistic elements, all branching symmetrically from a central stem, reflected contemporary neo-classical styles. Designers of the Arabesque wallpaper panels like this one, apparently relied heavily on the wall decorations like those painted at the Vatican by Raphael. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)

Figure 16: Oliver Phelps had this paper and an intricate combination of borders hung in the hallway of a new wing he added to his Suffield, Connecticut House in 1795. The principal pattern was made in the manufactory of Jean Baptiste Reveillon, perhaps under the direction of Reveillon’s successors, Pierre Jacquemart and Eugene Bernard. The incorporation of architectural elements and its large scale make this pattern comparable to English pillar and arch designs also popular for American hallways. (Courtesy of The Antiquarian and Landmarks Society, Inc., of Connecticut)
Both the English and French styles were influenced by hand-painted nonrepeating papers exported from China to the West from the 17th century onward (figure 17). The expensive Chinese papers can be generally grouped into three basic types: flowering trees bedecked with birds and insects, landscapes, and processionals. Chinese papers were only hung in the houses of the richest Americans, but this trend filtered down; the incorporation of chinoiserie motifs in wallpapers printed by all the Western wallpaper manufacturing countries was common during the 18th century.

Figure 17: Chinese craftsmen painted panels like this one in sets for export to the West where they were used as wallpapers. The rich of America made them particularly fashionable during the middle and later years of the 18th century. Elegant Chinese papers have been influencing Western taste in wallpaper design and craftsmanship since the 17th century, as they continue to do. The late 18th century example, which is shown here (43 inches wide), displayes white and pale yellow blossoms over a pale green ground. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)
The earliest documentation known to the author for the printing of wallpaper in America appeared in the 1756 advertisement of a dyer and scourer “lately from Dublin,” one John Hickey, who announced in the New York Mercury on December 13, 1756, that he “stamps or prints paper in the English manner and hangs it so as to harbour no worms.” In 1765 another New Yorker, John Rugar, is recorded as having begun a wallpaper manufactory, and in 1769 Plunkett Fleeson, a Philadelphia upholsterer who had been in business at least since 1739, first announced that he had for sale “American Paper Hangings manufactured in Philadelphia … not inferior to those generally imported.” The American paper stainers based their patterns on imports, but despite their claims to excellence, they seem to have been held in low esteem by most consumers. The advertisement of one paper hanger published in 1785 is revealing: he offered to hang “any paper, from the most elegant imported from the East Indies or Europe, to the most indifferent manufactured in this country.”

A late 18th-century style that lasted far into the 19th century featured the use of a plain solid shade of coloring applied to wallpaper, usually in green or in blue but available in a wide range of other colors as well. These papers were called “plain papers” and were usually advertised with “rich” or “elaborate” borders (figures 18 and 19). Walls painted in a solid color were also embellished with wallpaper borders; the “plain papers” had one advantage over paint—they hid the cracks.

Figure 18: The watercolor Piano Recital at Count Ramfords, Concord, New Hampshire was painted about 1800 by Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford). The plain green walls embellished with wide festoon borders at cornice level, and narrow edgings at chair rail level and around the door, were probably papered. They certainly illustrate the late 18th century taste for the plain colored wall with contrasting borderings, a fashion that lasted well in the 19th century. (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch)

Figure 19: Four lengths of festoon border survive uncut, side-by-side, as the paper stainer block printed them. They correspond closely to a border pattern illustrated on a late 18th-century bill head of Appleton Prentiss of Boston, who perhaps made them. Printed in orange, white, green, and pink on a gray ground, each border is 5-1/4 inches wide. Duplicates of the pattern in a variety of colorings, including one embellished with mica “spangles,” have been found in New England Houses. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)
French styles dominated the American wallpaper trade during the first 70 years of the 19th century. In the early part of the century bright, strongly colored, even gaudy, Empire styles (figure 21) vied for attention with the spectacular nonrepeating “views” and “landscape” papers (figure 20).

Figure 20: In the bedroom of a North Carolina house, this early 19th-century French “View” survived until the early 1940′s when it was photographed in this lamentable state of repair. Though battered, it can be identified easily by comparison with Joseph Dufour’s annotated illustrations published in 1804-1805 as the paper first made by Dufour in Macon, France. This celebrated paper depicted the voyages of Captain Cook, here shown on the Island of Tongatabo. It is apparent that the paper was hung directly on unfinished boards, a fact which contributed to its deterioration. The use of floral borders and of a paper imitating a coffered ceiling in conjunction with the scenic paper is particularly interesting. (Courtesy of Mrs. Wilson L. Stratton)

Figure 21: Shades of gray foil, vivid yellow and bronze shades in this bold French wallpaper dado which is 22 inches wide. It survived in a New Orleans House. A duplicate pattern with the drapery in blue can still be seen in the dining room at “Prestwood,” a house near Clarksville, Virginia, where it was hung in 1831 on the lower part of a wall that boasted an elaborate scenic paper above the chair rail. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)
In the scenic papers, French block printers refined their skills in creating realistic imitations of paintings. In other wallpaper decorations, printers imitated drapery, sculpture, ornamental carving, plasterwork and other architectural detail. Simpler repeating patterns and stripes enjoyed steady popularity, and the French patterns served as models for American manufacturers. Bright powdery pastel shades were featured in many of the simpler patterns during the early part of the century (figures 22 and 23).

Figure 22: The French wallpaper that was hung when the French-Robertson House was built about 1820 at Mille Roches on the St. Lawrence River in Canada survives in the house. The pattern of alternating motifs between widely spaced stripes (like that in figure 23) is typical of the early 19th century as is the use of borders at cornice and chair rail levels, and outlining the mantle. Some paper hangers’ manuals suggest that borders served practically as well as decoratively: they covered up any gaps or irregularities should a length of paper be cut improperly, and helped to hold down the paper at the top where it might have begun to peel away from the wall. (Courtesy, Upper Canada Village, Morrisburg, Ontario)

Figure 23: An advertisement that appeared in a Hartford, Connecticut newspaper of 1821 shows simple stripes, closely akin to French papers from which they were doubtlessly derived. The simpler stripes flank another French wallpaper pattern type that was popular in America and copied by manufacturers here through the first 35 years of the 19th century. This central paper is also a stripe: the vertical lines of patterning at the edges of the paper width formed borders for a field of spotted, small-scale motifs which were the background for two larger motifs. These larger motifs, here flowers, alternated vertically over the entire length of paper. (Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut)
During the 1820′s the Zuber factory in Alsace developed a printing technique that became a style in itself, widely imitated by European and American factories well into the 1840′s (figure 24). The technique was one for printing subtle, blended color effects, called “irisée” by the French, and advertised as “rainbow papers” in this country. They resembled the ombré textiles of the same period, which were printed or woven with graduated alternating dark and light bands of the same or various colors. Factory records preserved in Alsace, document the dealings during the 1820′s of the Zuber factory with a hundred American importers from Maine to New Orleans. The Zuber rainbow papers have survived in houses in New England, as well as the South.

Figure 24: The shadowy chevrons of alternating darker and lighter tones shown in the repeating pattern above the floral border are deliberately contrived color shadings in tones that range from white, through yellow-gold to green. The color-shading technique introduced by Zuber et Cie, a manufacturing firm in Alsace, was very popular in this country during the 1820′s-1840′s. The Zuber Company, which is still in business, shipped these patterns to America in quantities. This pattern, found in a samplebook of 1828-1829 which is preserved in the factory archives, duplicates the paper found in the Calhoun house in Clemson, South Carolina. Sold here as “rainbow paper,” the Zuber prototypes had many imitators. (Courtesy of the Zuber et Cie, Rixheim, Alsace, France)
From the middle years of the century, elaborate Rococo Revival styles were peculiarly characteristic among the thousands of patterns annually offered by hundreds of manufacturers (figure 25). Using wallpaper, the Gothic Revival found its way into numerous domestic interiors during the 1840′s and 1850′s, while in many cases exteriors remained chastely classical. During this period, combinations of vivid green with grey, strong harsh red with brown, or a brilliant shade of blue paired with brown were particularly popular. Shiny, polished satin finishes for wallpaper had also grown in popularity since the beginning of the century (figure 26).

Figure 25: An 1849 lithograph shows a Philadelphia wallpaper store with a wide selection of patterns ranging from scenes in the Gothic Revival taste, to Rococo Revival panels featuring elaborate scrollwork, to floral stripes and diaper patterns. Close inspection of the illustration will reveal that the diamond diaper pattern which forms the border background around the storefront in fact depicts rolls of wallpaper stored on a diamond grid of shelving. (Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia)

Figure 26: On a mid-19th century stripe, realistic flowers were printed in bright blue, pink, and orange, shaded with maroon over scrollwork in gray, blue, and gold, all on a polished white satin ground. Typical of French imports of the period, this 22 inch wide paper was used in the Early House in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)
The restoration of this paper to preserve it in place would have been so demanding and expensive as to render it impractical. It would probably have required that the paper be faced for removal, while a proper backing was prepared before it could have been rehung. Then a great deal of in-painting would have followed, so that the end result would have been little more than a newly painted reproduction. The alternative of replacing it with an antique copy of the same Captain Cook paper would have been the more practical and economical.

Scrollwork and miniature scenes appeared in profusion on wallpapers of the mid-19th century. Renaissance Revival styles competed with patterns of the other revival movements. Realistic flowers blossomed on many mid-Victorian walls (figure 27). There were also patterns for more sober tastes: in the 1850′s and 1860′s, papers featuring small embossed gold motifs, evenly spaced over grey or off-white grounds were considered very tasteful. Many of these embossed papers were imported from Germany.

Figure 27: Panel sets like the one shown here divided the walls of a room into vertical segments. They became fashionable in the mid-19th century. This engraved mid-19th century illustration shows a set by the Parisian firm Delicourt, a firm whose papers were prominently advertised in New York. Fragments of this design found in a house in Camden, Maine, are preserved at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Panel sets were called “fresco papers” in the advertisements, and elaborate decorations in wallpapers like these are preserved in houses from New England to Mississippi. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)
In the 1870′s, English styles pushed the French ones aside and regained dominance of the fashionable wallpaper trade. Turning away from the elaborations and realistic painterly effects of French papers, Americans accepted the abstract and stylized flower patterns introduced by the English, and praised in Charles Eastlake’s newly popular book, first published in 1868, Hints on Household Taste (figure 28). The impact of these new English designs was strongly felt at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Figure 28: The Englishman William Morris (1834-1896) designed this “Willow” pattern in 1874. It was one of the most successful of the stylized flat patterns—as contrasted to the naturalistic 3-dimensional patterns (like that of figure 26)—that won a generation of taste conscious Americans away from French designs. Morris papers inspired “artistic” imitations by American wallpaper manufacturers. Morris himself designed a total of 41 wallpaper patterns between 1861 and his death in 1896, and 5 patterns for ceilings. Because each was registered by name and number with accompanying sample at the English Board of Trade, and because these records are preserved in the British archives, the dating and identification of the designs of Morris, and of many other well-known British designers, can be quite precise. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)
American taste-makers continued to endorse the stylized artistry of Englishmen like William Morris, Christopher Dresser and Walter Crane during the last quarter of the 19th century. The subdued, grayed palates of their patterns were particularly admired. In 1882 Oscar Wilde toured America, popularizing the English ideas about decorative design that included admiration for the exotic styles of Japan and the Middle East. In the wake of his visit, American wallpaper manufacturers popularized Moorish motifs, and a style known as “Anglo-Japanese” (figure 30). The patterns were rendered commercially in metallic golds, maroon, olive, black, and creamy yellow-beiges. Even on the most commercial level during the 1880′s a degree of self-conscious interest in “good” flat pattern design and in abstraction was manifested that had never before been apparent and was soon to disappear.

Figure 29: “Lincrusta-Walton” of the 1880′s was preserved from the dining room of the John D. Rockefeller House in New York. In the thick, linseed-oil based composition material, highly embossed gold flowers on a dull red ground are stylized in the flattened abstracted “Aesthetic” manner that originated in London during the 1870′s. Advertised as the “Indestructible Wall Covering,” Lincrusta-Walton was first patented in England, and became so popular that its producers established a factory at Stamford, Connecticut. “Lincrusta” has lived up to its advertising, surviving in remarkably good condition in many stylish patterns in diverse settings: a log cabin in Leadville, Colorado, a Gothic cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut, and Mr. Rockefeller’s New York mansion. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)

Figure 30: In a commercialized American version of the “Anglo Japanese” style, owls, fish, and flowers, are all arranged in a strange asymmetrical configuration considered “artistic” in its day. Printed in maroon, yellow, light green, black, and olive on an olive green ground, this pattern is typical of quantities produced by American factories during the 1880′s and into the 1890′s. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)
Three special types of late 19th-century wallcoverings were very popular. The first is “Lincrusta Walton,” an invention of the 1870′s made by an Englishman, Frederick Walton. Lincrusta is a composition, which like linoleum, is based on linseed oil. Very thick and strong, and patterned in high relief, it was sold both colored, and plain, to be painted after hanging (figure 29). In 1882 a company was organized to manufacture the English invention at Stamford, Connecticut. It was advertised during the 1880′s as “The Indestructible Wall Covering,” and had many imitators.

The second of these wallcoverings especially popular during the late 19th century was Japanese “Leather Paper.” The final appearance of this product was so realistic that it fooled many a connoisseur into accepting it for actual leather. The heavy gauge paper was highly embossed and varnished, and featured richly colored and gilded decorations. It was not only hung on walls, but also frequently used to decorate the bamboo and imitation bamboo furniture that was popular during the period.

Finally, a third category of papers popular into the 1920′s was “Ingrain” paper. According to the 1877 patent, the paper was to be made from mixed cotton and woolen rags, which were dyed before pulping. The process gave a thick, roughly textured “ingrained” coloring. Similar papers with rough grainy surface were known in the trade as “oatmeal papers.”

Innovative flat patterns in the Art Nouveau taste had limited impact in America around the turn of the century. Some English designs continued to be bought by the design conscious avant-garde in America. But the 1890′s witnessed a general return to commercial production of scrollwork and naturalistic styles not far removed from those of the mid-century. Commercial manufacturers leaned heavily on palates that featured saccharine pastel shades, and color blendings.

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Last Updated: 26-Apr-2007

History of Wallpaper

Monday, February 25th, 2008

The development of the methods by which wallpapers were fixed to the wall provide further dating guidelines. During the early 18th century, the English used tacks to hang wallpapers and evidence for this practice in America has been found as early as 1741.2

2Walter Kendall Watkins, “Early Paper-Hangings in Boston,” Old Time New England, Publication of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, vol. 12, no. 3 (Boston, 1922), p. 110.
The tacks used along the edges of paper were covered with borders, which were also tacked to the walls. English instructions of 1700 for tacking up wallpaper include the advice that the back side of the paper first be gently wetted to make it hang smoothly.

Early 18th-century wallpapers were sometimes pasted sheet by sheet to the wall. American references indicate that papers were sometimes fixed to fabrics and canvas before they were hung. But by the mid-18th century, papers were more commonly bought in rolls, and pasted directly to the walls. An invoice of paper hangings shipped in 1799 from London to Virginia was accompanied by a note: “The process of putting up paper hangings is to have the wall as smooth as possible and then to be well sized over. The ingredients used for making of paste is flour and water with a small quantity of Allum put in and boiled till quite thick.” Although such water-soluble pastes were the most common, not all paper was put up with water-soluble adhesives. (In salvage operations one finds that some pastes resist all chemical solvents!)

In spite of smooth plastered walls being recommended as the proper surfaces on which to paste papers, early papers are sometimes found in American houses pasted directly on unfinished boards (figure 20). Skills of paper hangers, as well as budgets of houseowners dictated the methods used. A common practice, intriguing to the researcher, was that of simply pasting new papers on layers of older ones (figure 1). During the late 19th century, textile liners were used to prepare a smooth surface on the wall to which the paper was then pasted.

Flocked Wallpaper

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Wool and silk flocking were added to many 18th-century papers. From the 17th century to the present, chopped colored shavings of silk or wool have been spread over areas of patterning printed (or stenciled) in adhesive varnish on wallpaper (figure 7). Occasionally, powdered mica or isin glass was added to 18th-century papers, and in the late 19th century, became very popular wallpaper decorations. Metallic colors, gold and silver, are found in papers of the 18th century, as well as in later wallpapers. Because their use was so long lived, the presence of any of these textured decorations does not in itself provide a basis for dating a paper.

Silk Screening Wallpaper

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Silk Screening

Silk screens are sophisticated stencils carried on very finely woven silk textile screens, stretched over wooden frames. Patterns produced from these screens can often be recognized with the aid of magnification. The crisscrossing of the woven threads of the textile leave their mark, especially along curves and diagonals. The fact that the coloring material has passed through a woven fabric is indicated by minute little “stair steps” that form the edges of shapes. Silk-screened wallpapers, which have become particularly popular for the more fashionable and expensive patterns produced since the 1940′s are often marketed as “hand prints.” http://www.ScreenPrintedWallpaper.com

Machine Printing Wallpaper

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Machine Printing

In the 1820′s, as textile printing was being mechanized using engraved copper cylinders, experiments were made for incorporating this technology in the printing of wallpaper. The Zuber Factory in Alsace produced papers in this manner using thin-bodied, glossy coloring. But the resulting patterns were composed of thin lines, similar in character to engravings, and the venture was of limited commercial significance. Evidence of their use in the United States has not yet been found.

In the 1840′s a significant commercial impact of machines on wallpaper printing occurred (figure 8). Steam-powered machines were developed with efficient systems for feeding color to cylinders that printed from raised, rather than engraved surfaces, employing the conventional principle of the woodblock. The standard cylinder had a wooden core with the raised printing surfaces, formed by strips of brass which were tapped into the wood core and made cloisonne-like raised outlines of shapes. Inside of these little walls, felt was tightly stuffed to carry the colors for the solid areas of patterning (figure 9). Details such as lines and dots were printed by appropriately shaped brass pieces. The cylinders were placed on a machine that had at its core a large revolving drum, or giant cylinder, upon which the blank paper rode while it engaged in sequence a series of the smaller cylinders, each of which had a raised surface to print one color of the pattern. Each printing cylinder was coated with its individual coloring by a roller fed belt from a trough that held the appropriate color.

Old papers that bear the impression of these raised-surface cylinders of machine printing can not safely be dated before 1841. The little metal outlines filled with felt left a distinct impression: an outline of thicker coloring around the edges of each shape combined with traces in colored areas of the unidirectional streaking caused by the constantly rotating cylinders (figure 10 and 10A). The colors used on the machines were thin bodied for quick drying. These characteristics of ma chine printing are particularly easy to recognize in cheaper papers.


Figure 7: Machine Printing—Four machines for printing wallpaper are shown in the factory of Christy, Shepherd and Garrett in New York as illustrated in the July 24, 1880 issue of Scientific American. The largest machine, second from the left, was equipped to produce patterns in 12 colors, printed from 12 cylinders or rollers ranged round the giant central dram on which the paper was carried. The workman’s left hand rests on the color trough, while with his right hand he adjusts the belt that feeds color to a printing cylinder. (Courtesy of the Science and Technology Research Center, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)

Figure 8: Machine Printing—A cylinder or roller for printing wallpaper, used by the F. E. James Company during the mid-19th century. Cylinders like this, each adding details in different colors, would have been used on machines like those pictured in figure 7. On the wooden core of the roller, 19-3/4 inches long, the raised printing surface has been built up by hammering in strips of metal (usually brass) which form little walls standing out about a fourth of an inch from the wooden core, and appear here as the dark outlines around solid shapes. Those shapes are filled with felt, which carries the colors. The circumference of this cylinder is 16 inches, the measurement that dictates the repeat length of the printed pattern. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)

Figures 9 and 9A: Machine Printing—The 20 inch wide sample is probably American, of about 1840-1850. Marblized effects have been machine printed in pale gray on an off-white, ungrounded stock; other elements in the patterns are printed in red and blue. The enlargement shows the imprint of the metal outlines used to form printing surfaces on rollers for machine printing. The thin-bodied pigments are characteristically transparent, giving a grainy texture in which all the streaking runs in a vertical direction, the direction in which the printing rollers were turning. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)

Figure 10: Flocking—An illustration of the 1880′s shows the principle for flocking was little changed from the 17th century. The man on the left block prints a pattern in varnish on paper which is then fed into the flocking trough with its flexible, drum-like bottom. Boys beating on that bottom raise clouds of finely powdered wool shavings to spread them evenly overthe surfaces printed with the adhesive varnish. (Illustration from Scientific American, November 26, 1881. Courtesy of the Science and Technology Research Center, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)

Block Printed Wallpaper

Monday, February 25th, 2008


Ordinarily, in analyzing the wallpaper, a restorationist will be called upon to distinguish among the various methods of mass-producing pattern, that is: (1) stenciling, (2) block printing, (3) machine printing, introduced in the 19th century, and (4) silk-screen printing, which became common after the Second World War.


Early 18th-century wallpaper makers in France produced pattern outlines from woodblocks using black ink. The black ink was thin bodied, unlike the thick distemper colors of most 18th- and 19th-century wallpapers. In early examples, the black printed outlines were filled in freehand, or with the aid of stencils, in thin, transparent water colors. This stenciling can be recognized by the presence of multidirectional brush strokes, ending abruptly at the edges of solid-colored pattern shapes, where outlines of color often collected and streaked. Stenciling appears in cheaper wallpaper of the mid to late 18th and early 19th century, but was not a common feature of wallpapers of the best quality.

Block Printing

The use of woodblocks with the printing surfaces carved in relief has been standard in making fine wallpapers. A separate block is required for printing each color. During the mid-18th century, a tradition of fine craftsmanship in this skilled work developed in France and survives today in spite of the development of many alternative methods for mass producing wallpaper.

Distemper colors were normally used for color printing from woodblocks. To make distemper colors, pigments were mixed with water and glue size to produce the thick-bodied, opaque, chalky colors still favored in fine wallpapers. Occasionally, oil-based mediums were used to produce glossy accent colors, but sometimes they were also used for ground colors.

Naturally occurring organic and inorganic pigments were used to make the distemper colors of the 18th century. A list of the standard colors “proper to be used for paper hangings” was published in London in 1758 by Robert Dossie in his Handmaid to the Arts. Dossie’s list of colors includes archaic words and color names that are fully analyzed by Rosamond D. Harley in Artist’s Pigments ca. 1600-1835 (New York: American Elsevier Publishing Company, 1970). Dossie’s list and Harley’s study of early color nomenclature and history should be consulted by any researcher undertaking chemical analysis of the pigments present in old wallpapers.

In dating papers, chemical analysis of wallpaper colors may be helpful. The presence of some of the “new” colors discovered and developed in the late 18th and early 19th century may be evidence for the earliest possible date that a wallpaper could have been made. For example, the presence of Chrome Yellow (PbCrO4) indicates a date after 1809. Chrome Yellow was discovered in 1797, but the formula was not published until 1809, and not widely available until after 1820. By mid-19th century, it was used by many wallpaper makers. Sheele’s Green-Copper Arsenite is another new color commonly used in the wallpaper trade after its discovery in 1775. Another, Schweinfurt Green-Copper Aceto Arsenite was first produced commercially in Schweinfurt in 1814; the first publication of a method for making the color followed in 1822. A still later color, “Artificial Ultramarine” was discovered in 1826, but its formula was not published until 1828, and the earliest known mention of its use in the wallpaper business was in the year 1864.

In the standard 18th-century wallpaper manufactory, thick distempers were used both for “grounds” and for printing the patterns (figures 4 and 5). After the individual sheets of paper had been “joined”—pasted together—to form a roll of hanging paper, a coating of coloring or of white was applied with wide brushes. This ground color concealed both the joints and any discoloration in the paper stock itself. Multidirectional brush strokes applied by hand are often apparent in the grounds of early papers. Grounding was one of the first processes in wallpaper making to be mechanized. Machines for rotating long cylindrical brushes that applied an even coating of ground color were introduced to the trade by the early 19th century. The uniformity of vertical streaking is sometimes apparent in grounds applied by this mechanical process.

Once the ground coat had dried, the pattern could be printed. The craftsman pressed his block (figure 3; figure 4 just left of center; figure 5, center) against a pad, which had been coated with a layer of the liquid distemper color. Then he lifted his block and let it strike the paper, sometimes tapping it with a mallet to make a firm impression. It was almost like marking a letter with a rubber stamp. The block met the paper in a straight up and down motion. Close examination of the coloring in pattern elements that have been block printed will reveal multidirectional “veining” within pattern shapes that have sharply defined outlines. The veining will often take the form of little sunbursts, formed as the block came down, pressing the color out in all directions. Also visible in the areas of solid coloring may be little holes from the bubbles created during the moment of pressure and release of the block (figure 6A).


Figure 3: Block Printing—Three wooden printing blocks shown here are each about 8 inches high, 24 inches long, and 1-1/2 inches thick. Each was used in France during the 19th century to print a different color in a “swag” border pattern. The one at the bottom was used to print the first color, forming large areas of patterning. After that first color had dried, the second block was used to print more detailed parts of the pattern over the first color. Fine details were added last, over the first two colors, using the block at the top. The raised printing surface is formed of carved wood in the first block, of wood and bits of metal in the second, and in the third, all of the printing area is formed of bits of metal driven into the block. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)

Figure 4: An engraving at the top of a billhead illustrates the basic steps in making wallpaper during the 18th century. On the far right, two craftsmen mix colors in barrels. The gentleman wielding a large brush in either hand is laying on ground color. Immediately to the left of the tablet describing the business, a printer with his left hand under the handle on a carved woodblock raises a mallet with his right hand to strike a firm impression. The boy standing to his left prepares the color between each impression, spreading it on a pad. The man on the far left, with the assistance of yet another boy, is probably rolling and trimming paper in standardized lengths for sale. (as Illustrated in Nancy McClelland, Historic Wall-Papers (Philadelphia and London; J. B. Lippincott Co., 1924) p. 268.)

Figure 5: A page from an 1860 edition of Charles Tomlinson’s Illustrations of Trades, printed in London, indicates that block printing continued relatively unchanged well into the 19th century. The use of carved blocks with raised printing surfaces has been improved: a wooden structure with levers carries the weight of the printing block in the central vignette, so the workman has only to guide it. Mechanization has also simplified the basic process of color grinding and mixing. (Courtesy of the Science and Technology Research Center, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox. and Tilden Foundations.)

Figure 6 and 6A: Block Printing—To make this French paper of the late 18th or early 19th century, a series of woodblocks was used to print opaque layers of thick, chalky distemper colors in pastel shades over a brown ground color on a sheet 23-1/2 inches wide. The impressions made by stamping with carved woodblocks are characteristically sharp edged. Little bubbles formed in the process of printing with the thick liquid left tiny holes in the surface of the color. The ground as well as the printed colors have been applied over the horizontal joint between two handmade pieces of paper which appears at the center of the detail. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)

Machine Made Wallpapers

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Machines for producing “endless” paper were the important innovation of the early 19th century that made possible the industrialization of wallpaper making. Developments in England included the Fourdrinier machine of 1799 that used a cylinder to form paper. In 1817, the first machine-made paper was produced in America by Thomas Gilpin in Delaware. Though wallpaper manufacturers would have been the logical early users of the new endless paper, they do not seem to have adopted it in France until 1820, in England until 1830, and in this country not generally until 1835. The widths of machine-made paper varied from country to country. By the 1850′s the standard width of French paper was 18 inches, of English paper 21 inches (20 inches when hung) and of American paper 20 inches. Despite standardization, papers from all these have been found in widths varying from 18 to 40 inches.

Early handmade papers were composed of textile fibers and were generally heavier and more durable than later machine-made papers. The introduction of wood pulp for making paper was first commercially successful in England in the 1850′s, and was introduced to America in 1855. By the 1880′s, the bulk of commercial hanging paper stock had been greatly cheapened by the introduction of wood pulp, straw, and other less expensive ingredients. Such paper is now characteristically brittle, and browned from the acids present in the wood pulp. Superficial examination usually serves to distinguish cheap, machine-made papers from the handmade, that is; machine-made paper will tear in a neat line and the browning and brittleness are often all too apparent. But further microscopic examination may be required to determine if a fragment of higher quality paper with a high rag content is machine-made or hand-made.

HandMade Wallpaper

Monday, February 25th, 2008


Wallpaper manufactured before ca. 1835 consisted of small sheets of paper, pasted together to form the length long enough to extend from floor to ceiling. The special class of paper known as “hanging paper” was described in the 18th century as “made from the coarsest and cheapest rags and woolen stuff.” It was rarely bleached white, but by modern standards it was of high quality and strong. The size of handmade paper was limited by the size of the mold. The mold was made up of two parts, a deckle and a frame, and was limited to a size that could be easily handled (figure 1).

Figure 1: Making Paper—An English engraving printed for F.C. and J. Rivington in 1821 shows a papermaker plunging his mold into a vat filled with pulp made from old rags, water and other ingredients. He is about to scoop a small quantity of pulp and water onto the wire surface of the bottom half of the mold known as the “frame.” The “deckle” or top half of the mold will then hold the pulp mixture in place while the water drains out and the pulp has dried. The product will then be further dried, pressed, and flattened in the press seen at the left, and finished as paper. In this process, the mold could be no larger than the papermaker could handle and that, in turn, restricted the finished size of a sheet of paper. (Author’s Collection)
The individual sheet that made up a “piece” or a roll of wallpaper were not uniform in size, but usually were smaller than 22 by 32 inches. Early in the 18th century, most paper “stainers” printed sheets which were then pasted individually to a wall. But by mid-century, the sheets were usually pasted together to form rolls before any coloring was applied. The standard length of a “piece” of joined wallpaper, formed from the individual sheets, was established by English excise officials at 12 yards and most were 23 inches wide.

Horizontal seams in a length of wallpaper are good evidence of handmade paper (as described above) and likely suggests that it predates ca. 1835. Such seams are the first item to look for, and this can be done by shining a strong beam of light, held close to the wall, horizontally across the surface. Under this raking light almost any irregularity on the wall should become apparent in the resulting shadows. Indications of seams between the sheets and between the lengths of wallpaper could appear, even under a coat of paint. However, if subsequent layers of paper have been applied over a handmade paper, evidence of seams could be hidden by the smoother surfaces.

If an edge of the paper can be uncovered, evidence of the handmade process might be indicated by the slightly ruffled or “deckle edge” caused by the uneven drainage of the water from the top half of the mold (called the deckle). Although for stationery and other fine papers, deckle edges are sometimes imitated on machinemade products, there is no evidence that this was ever done on hanging papers.

If only small fragments of paper are found, examination under magnification will distinguish between the multidirectional patterns of the fibers characteristic of the handmade process, or the regular vertical alignment of machine-made paper. The paper should also be examined over a strong light for the imprint of the wires that made up the surface of the frame on which the pulp was pressed under the deckle to form the sheet. Other characteristics of handmade paper which might appear include watermarks, sometimes visible in areas where opaque coloring has not been thickly applied to the paper, and tax stamps. A royal insignia would indicate that the paper had been printed in England previous to the repeal of the tax laws there in 1832 (figure 13).

Figure 2: Stenciling with Block Printing—An early 18th-century French pattern printed in black with stenciled washes of red, green, yellow and blue, is shown here in a piece 14 inches wide and 20-3/4 inches high. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)

Figure 2A: Detail of early 18th-century French wallpaper shown in 2, which shows the thin-bodied, poorly registered stenciled coloring. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)