Paper Hangings By Era
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 unknown.
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 United States.
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 runny paints.
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.