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A History of Hanging Paper



Rob Hardy


Add this one to the list of books whose subjects I never thought I would read about. Who reads about the history of wallpaper? Who writes about it? In this case, readers are in good hands; Robert M. Kelly hangs wallpaper, but he does so in locales like the White House, and he has shared his expertise on the history of wallpaper in various articles for historic preservation journals, and for the Wallpaper History Society (again, who knew?). He has now written The Backstory of Wallpaper: Paper-Hangings 1650 - 1750 (, and it is fun to see how far his researches have carried him. He has mined advertisements for the trade, and looked at bills from wallpaper sellers, and manuals from the time. The result is a book full of oddities, since it is a close look at such a small slice of human endeavor; at least Kelly didn't call it The Wall Covering That Changed History. He admits that the account "is fragmentary because the subject is fragmentary." He reminds us that wallpaper, unlike windows or tiles, are useless except for visual delight, and although well-produced and well-installed wallpaper can hold its own against more costly coverings like silk or leather, it isn't meant to last, and fashions change. The study of the changes brings in history, economics, art, and literature, so even if you have no particular care for wallpaper, there will probably be something of interest here. 




One of the surprising aspects of wallpaper history is that wallpaper did not start as a luxury for the rich, as many have believed. It was a folk art, because people liked sprucing up their places with a bit of printed paper. Decorative paper had been used for covers for books and as linings for trunks and boxes. The scenes and patterns originally from books were used as decoration, often over fireplaces and other locations of prominence, by peasants in France and Germany. Discarded paper from the printer would be block printed with patterns or flowers and hung (not initially pasted) just for the sake of having something to look at. When, around 1650, there was a steady supply of strong and inexpensive paper (characteristics wallpaper has always had), wallpapering took off. There had been heavy, dark wood paneling, but lighter fare came with the restoration of the British monarchy; cotton and silk were used to cover the walls, but when paper became strong enough, it could be pasted and hung. It is a mark of the economic importance of wallpaper that England created a wallpaper tax in 1712 for paper "Printed, Painted, or Stained." There are other nations in the wallpaper story, but the English were the first to join pieces of paper into rolls which could then get a ground color and be block printed or stenciled with patterns. 




A Frenchman at the center of this history is Jean-Michel Papillon, an expert in the wallpaper business because he had been forced in 1705 at age seven to take up his father's trade. He gets credit for the repeated designs on wallpaper that could match up from one sheet to the next. More important for the history of wallpaper, he documented his world for the famous Encyclopedie edited by Denis Diderot. Invited to contribute about his area of expertise, he "submitted ten or twelve plates filled with an enormous number of figures plus three thick folio-size notebooks with minuscule writing." The drawings show workmen busy with plumb bobs and chalk lines, measuring dimensions, and readying the plaster walls, much as would be done today.  




Kelly uses descriptions from Daniel Dafoe's The Complete English Tradesman of tradesmen and handicrafts to show how paper printers and paper hangers fit into the hierarchy between merchants and peddlers. He also tells of how the apprentice system worked. Thomas Bromwich's trade card read, "Thos. Bromwich at the Golden Lyon on Ludgate Hill, London. Makes and sells all manner of screens, window blinds and covers for tables. Rooms, cabins, stair-cases, and c. hung with guilt leather, or India pictures. Chints's, callicoes, cottons, needlework, & damasks matched in paper to the utmost exactness, at reasonable rates." He was prosperous enough to take on a series of apprentices, according to strict rules: "Like many tradesmen of his time, he gained as much as 20 from agreeing to take on each of twelve apprentices. More important, apprentices provided unpaid help for at least three years. Thomas accepted the apprenticeships of J. Sherman in 1744, W. Cotton in 1747, and T. Willis in 1750. The three-year gap was a requirement of the Painter-Stainers' Company, the trade guild that Thomas belonged to." Another aspect of social history dealt with here is the reluctance of the wealthy to pay their bills. A contemporary remembered that the First Duke of Devonshire was of "nice honour in everything but the paying his tradesmen." 




It isn't surprising that the craft of making or hanging ephemeral paper should be hard to research. Wallpaper manufacturers were the ones who did the work, but they were subcontracted to stationers and warehouses, so they became invisible to the historical record. The work was done in "down-and-dirty workshops," while retail shops would try for glamor as the goods were sold. The rural paperstainers were folk artists, but their realms were grimy workplaces "which were often small, reeked of hide glue, and had messy colouring materials strewn about." They would have been happy to have their wares in a pristine local stationery shop, and further into linen drapers and dry-goods sellers who dealt with the upper class. While wallpaper started as a rural craft, eventually sold in the city, there was a reversal of the path, as the fashionable depended on city tastes in selecting papers for their country homes.  




A magazine in 1752 reflected how successful wallpapering had become: "Our painted Paper is scarce distinguishable from the finest Silk; and there is scarce a modern House, which hath not one or more Rooms lined with this Furniture." Wallpaper had to compete with other wall covers like silk, velvet, and leather; of them all, we still use wallpaper. "Even though our homes have fewer doors," Kelly writes, "and our rooms are unlikely to be wrapped up like pretty packages with borders running round, we still have walls. And where there is wall, there is need to decorate that wall." I don't know enough about the other writings about the history of wallpaper to compare, but this is an entertaining account focusing on a colorful craft. Before reading it, I would not have thought wallpaper could have much of a history, but Kelly has it covered. 




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