Wallpaper usage was extremely rare in early 18th century America; it is
only documented in public buildings of great import such as the
Governor's Palace at Williamsburg. However, by mid-century it had become
common in the homes of the wealthy, where installations utilized
sidewall patterns and narrow borders, often coordinated. In locations
more remote from urban and trade centers the choices were fewer and the
combination of papers was not always harmonious.
Some relatively small rooms featured rather expansive patterns, the
scale being quite startling to the modern eye. Whether this is
attributable to the esthetic of the period or scarcity of supply is
Plain papers (rolls having a ground coat of color, but no printed pattern)
were also a staple of mid-18th century interior finishes. These, too, were
most often accented with a narrow border, outlining the wall perimeter
plus architectural elements such as doors and windows.
After the Revolution, taste began to shift toward paper
with smaller repeat patterns. British imports, understandably, were less
ubiquitous and French wallpapers, such as arabesques, enjoyed
popularity. As was the case in other industries, the number of American
paperstaining manufacturers increased rapidly during this period. These
firms drew their inspiration from both English and French sources:
pillar-and-arch patterns, commemorative papers, chinoiserie and, of
course, small repeat patterns hung with narrow borders or occasionally
larger festoon friezes. There was also a tremendous interest in
neo-classical motifs, such as urns and goddesses coupled with Pompeian
color combinations of orange or red and black.
During the early years of this period English papers were
still imported to an extent, but by 1810 they had all but disappeared.
This period is dominated by the increasing importance of French
influence along with a dramatic shift to more "abstract" and geometric
patterns. These new patterns (both French and American) were
predominant, but small foliates and sprigs remained the choice for
bedrooms and secondary rooms. By 1815 plain papers were seldom seen.
Elsewhere in the house, chair rails were ripped out so that paper could
span from floor to ceiling and stucco cornices and paneling disappeared.
Generally, wallpaper became quite common.
The number and diversity of styles grew exponentially, both in
domestically produced work and in the supply from France. Even when
homeowners could only afford a simple American sidewall paper for their
best parlor, they might very well display their good taste with the
addition of a fancy French border. These borders were becoming wider and
more complex; flocking, which originated in the 18th century, again
became popular. The impact of sidewall patterns themselves was
heightened by both an increase in scale and an intensified palette.
Scenic papers - mural-like wallpapers depicting mythological characters,
historic events or exotic locales - represent a major new development in
this period, manufactured in France by legendary firms such as Dufour
and Zuber. Despite their complexity and relatively high costs, these papers were popular in the
The technologies needed to produce continuous paper and
decrease production time with roller printing of wallpapers were
developed early in the 19th century. However, it was not until the mid
1800s that they competed with the tradition of block printing on seamed
rolls. Even so, manufacturers of the highest quality wallpapers
continued to eschew the cheaper mechanized printing with its thin and
Partially as a result of manufacturing methods, but influenced more by
the desire for new directions, wallpaper design changed dramatically
during this period. In the 1840s and 1850s Gothic Revival patterns,
driven by the aesthetics of influential British designers such as A.W.
Pugin, spread from city home to farm house. A Rococo Revival, with its
heavy use of strapwork and ornament, instituted yet another shift.
Color choices began to veer toward a more muted corner of the palette
with ranges of grisailles and earth tones predominating. The newly
discovered and intense Ultramarine Blue often served as a highlight to
this subdued color scheme.
By 1860, roller-printed designs with small motifs signaled the end of the
golden age of block printing. Lower production costs resulted in
wallpaper becoming affordable for almost all of the population;
consequently design standards suffered with this increased demand. The
art of block printing continued throughout this period and was
rejuvenated by a handful of late 19th century English designers,
primarily William Morris, Charles Eastlake and Christopher Dresser.
For those interested in a more complete survey of wallpaper styles, here
is a short list of readily available titles.
-Hoskins, Lesley, ed. The Papered Wall, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
-Lynn, Catherine, Wallpaper in America from the Seventeenth Century to
World War I
New York: W.W. Norton and Co. Inc. 1980
-Nylander, Richard, E. Redmond and P. J. Sanders, Wallpaper in New
Boston: Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities
-Nylander, Richard, Wallpapers for Historic Buildings
New York: Wiley
and Sons, Inc. 1992