A Lively Experiment

Notes on collections at the RIHS

Tearing Down the Walls…Carefully

Nowadays conversations about wallpaper are normally about computer desktops. For hundreds of years, however, honest-to-goodness paper wallpaper was a highly fashionable and important element of interior design. Indeed, according to the architects Newsom and Newsom in the 1885 publication, Picturesque Californian Homes:

White walls unrelieved by any color are relics of barbarism and are almost a thing of the past. House-papering is now incorporated in building contracts, and a house is considered incomplete without these adornments.

For visitors to the John Brown House, the museum’s wallpaper is one of the most striking and memorable features. The Eurasian Red Squirrels of the informal front parlor’s French wallpaper were an inspiration for the RIHS’ squirrel logo. This paper, along with some other wallpapers in the John Brown House, is a reproduction of patterns stored in the collection.

Wallpaper has never been made to last. Yet, because it is easier to cover over existing wallpaper than to replace it, a scrap of ancient wallpaper is an underappreciated archeological specimen. Except in the rare instance that there is a watermark or stamp, it is hard to identify the manufacturer or precise age of wallpaper. Nonetheless, even within the Society’s collection, the early history of the American nation can be traced in the changes of the decorative styles.

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, wallpaper was almost exclusively a British good which was subject to import duties. Abstract patterns and an affinity for monochromes characterized the wallpaper sold by London’s booming industry.

RIHS Collection (15.86)

There were also hand-painted Chinese wallpapers available through the China trade, but these tended to out price most Americans’ incomes.

When Americans started producing wallpaper themselves, they aimed to replicate English patterns. One of the earliest advertisements for American wallpaper was placed in the New York Mercury on December 13, 1756 by John Hickey, an Irish immigrant. It stated that he “stamps or prints paper in the English manner and hangs it so as to harbour no worms.” American makers — such as Thomas Strahan in Massachusetts and Jones & Erwin in New York — sought to surpass their British competitors not in quality (which was considered inferior), but in affordability.

Following the Revolution, former colonial trade restrictions were lifted, allowing the new country to indulge in its Francophilia. Soon the colorful and painterly French paper, and its American facsimiles, dominated the American market.

French wallpaper remained in vogue until a short-lived rebound of the British style in the 1870s. By the turn of the century, wallpaper was an old guard against aesthetic minimalism. Because of its history as a trade good and because of its abundance, wallpaper ought to be of greater interest to scholars of history, art, and design.

Posted by John Shamgochian, an Arts Intern from the Studio Institute (https://studioinstitute.org/) The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the RIHS or its members.

Sources:

  • “History of Wallpaper Styles and Their Use.” National Park Service, 2007. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/tpsd/wallpaper/sec2.htm 
  • Lynn, Catherine, Wallpaper in America: From the Seventeenth Century to World War I.” The Barra Foundation, 1980.
  • Mapes, Phillipa. “The English Wallpaper Trade, 1750-1830.” University of Leicester, 2016.

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This entry was posted on 16 October 2020 by in Collection Notes and tagged , .

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