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1700-1780: Importing a Fashionable Commodity

copy book

The earliest record of wallpaper in America is in the estate inventory of a Boston stationer in 1700, where "7 quires of painted paper and three reams of painted paper" were listed. Like all early references, it is more descriptive of quantity than of design. Only one wallpaper in Historic New England’s collection with a history in New England dates to this early period; it was later used to cover a copy book of poetry in 1783.

At first, paper hangings, as wallpaper was called in the eighteenth century, were available from stationers and book sellers or as a custom order from merchants who specialized in imported luxury goods; later, it also could be purchased from upholsterers. Prior to 1760, only the wealthiest colonists in urban centers in New England could afford to decorate their homes with wallpaper but it became increasingly available as the century progressed. Much of the expense of these early wallpapers was due to the fact that the rolls they were printed on had to be made up of individual sheets of paper glued together and that they were hand-printed with wood blocks, one block for each color of the design.

The most sumptuous eighteenth-century wallpapers were the flocked patterns which imitated silk or wool damasks and cut velvets. The patterns were often large-scale foliate designs printed in bold colors.

Hancock House paper

A sample of an early flocked paper in Historic New England’s collection preserves its original vivid crimson color because it was never exposed to sunlight or smoke from a fireplace. Examples of eighteenth-century flocked papers that remain on the walls can be seen at Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick, Maine, and Joseph Webb House in Wethersfield, Connecticut.

Another type of large-scaled pattern available to New Englanders was the so-called pillar and arch paper. These classically inspired architectural designs were printed en grisaille and were most often used in stair halls where the forty-eight-inch repeat would not overpower the space and the pattern would transform it into a series of colonnades.  Pillar and Arch paper

The somber grisaille palette was not limited to use in only pillar and arch patterns, but was used for other large figured papers. Though large figured papers retain a similar scale to the pillar and arch design, the severity of the architectural pattern is enlivened by the inclusion of Rococo and Gothic architectural elements, and classical and pastoral motifs, which may have been copied from popular prints.

In contrast to these large monochromatic designs, a variety of colorful smaller-scaled patterns based on textile designs such as brocades and printed cottons were available. The simplest of these were called sprig patterns like this neatly composed daisy.

This is a timeless design and were it not for the stamp found on the reverse, it would be difficult to determine that it was an English paper printed in the eighteenth century.

Fascination with the Orient created colorful and fanciful depictions of Westerners interpretations of Chinese design known as “Chinoiserie.”  

Before the American Revolution the majority of wallpapers used in the American colonies were imported from England. As early as 1712, England established a tax on wallpaper of 1d (pence) per square yard in addition to the tax levied on the individual undecorated sheets of handmade paper used to make a roll. Duty officers stamped each individual sheet of undecorated paper with a "First Account Taken" stamp and, after it was decorated, with a charge stamp in the form of a crown above an interlaced GR monogram.  England repealed the duty tax in 1836 so stamps like the GR interlace help date and attribute early English wallpapers. 

Wallpaper borders were often used to complete a room. They were used at the ceiling level and on top of dados or baseboards as well as around door and window frames. In many eighteenth-century installations, the borders were also applied running down the corners of the room so that each wall appeared to be framed individually.

1700-1780: Importing a Fashionable Commodity