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1870-1900: Profusion of Patterns

French realistic floral

The industrialization of the wallpaper trade fueled its unprecedented use during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Wallpaper could be produced quickly and inexpensively to meet the ever-changing tastes of the growing middle class. In addition to papering the main living rooms of their houses, consumers wallpapered their kitchens, closets, attics, stairwells, and even privies. No room was left unadorned.

English Reform

The profusion of patterns appearing in American households was promoted by books on decorating and household management that were intended to educate newly established middle-class homeowners who were unfamiliar with current taste and managing large staffed households.

Owen Jones

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Americans began to select from styles advocated by the English design reformers. Owen Jones (1809-1874), a leader in the design reform movement, reacted to the poor-quality designs produced by English wallpaper manufacturers for the mass market and the overly realistic appearance of French papers. In his 1856 book, The Grammar of Ornament, Jones argued for designs based on forms found in nature or derived from universal principals of design he had observed in the natural world. Because Jones's geometrically organized motifs reinforced the flatness of two-dimensional wallpaper, he believed the designs to be "true" and ethically superior to the illusional and therefore "false" designs produced in France.

In the decade that followed the publication of Jones's book, English theories of design would slowly become familiar to most Americans and provide an alternative to French realism.

William Morris

William Morris trellis

William Morris (1834-1896), a leading figure of the Arts and Crafts Movement, opposed the common and spiritless designs developed for mass production. Like Jones, Morris sought to reform English design of the decorative arts. But rather than devising design formulas, Morris looked to medieval craftsmanship and nature for inspiration. In 1861, he launched his first business, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. (which later became Morris & Co.) and began designing and producing textiles, furniture, tiles, and wallpaper.

Designed in 1862, "Trellis," the first of Morris's many wallpaper patterns, illustrates the flatness of ornament and shallow space that the reformers sought, but the mathematical precision of Jones's geometric motifs is replaced by a stylized interpretation of natural forms which became more pronounced in Morris's later floral patterns.

Walter CraneEnglish wallpaper companies hired other well-known designers to create distinctive wallpaper styles that were widely imitated both in that country and in America. Among them were Walter Crane William Burges and Christopher Dresser.

Charles Locke Eastlake

Charles Locke Eastlake's book, Hints on Household Taste, published in England in 1868 and in America in 1872, popularized the principals of the English design reformers and provided Americans with a practical guide for furnishing their homes. Americans seemed particularly receptive to Eastlake's decorating ideas. His book helped form the preference for English abstract or stylized designs. Wallpaper designs at this time were often advertised as artistic and promoted the idea that the appropriate wallpaper would bring art into the house.  Eastlake

Influences from around the globe

One of the many wallpaper styles that took hold in America in the 1880s was based on English interpretations of Japanese motifs and design principals. Anglo-Japanese wallpapers are characterized by flattened shapes, defined outlines, a reliance on natural forms and asymmetrically composed Eastlakecircles, rectangles, and squares filled with Japanese or exotic motifs. Many were printed in olive and maroon, colors favored by the Aesthetic Movement, and were accented with metallic gold, which was used frequently during this period.

A popular and fashionable practice in the 1880s was to divide the wall into three sections--dado, fill, and frieze--to be papered with different but coordinated patterns. Wallpaper firms and decorating books also recommended that consumers cover their ceilings with either plain colored papers or small repeating patterns. Many ceiling papers featured celestial motifs and used metallic gold or silver liquid mica, which produced a glimmering effect upon the ceiling.Ceiling with stars

Interest in relief decoration was demonstrated by the different methods for producing imitations of embossed and gilded leather wallcoverings, which had been popular in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the earliest embossed wall coverings made to imitate antique embossed leather is Tynecastle, or Modeled Canvas. Developed and patented in 1874 by designer W. Scott Morton (1840-1903), it was produced by hand-pressing sized canvas into carved wooden molds and allowing it to dry. Tynecastle, like many embossed wall coverings of the period, was designed to be colored after it was adhered to the wall.

Japanese Leather Paper was one of the most successful and extravagant imitations of embossed leather. Produced in Japan by skilled craftsmen, Japanese Leather Paper is composed of fine individual sheets of handmade paper pressed together and then embossed. The entire roll was gilded, and the field color was stenciled over it. A layer of lacquer was then applied as a final coat to provide protection and a luxurious sheen to the finished design. Japanese leather paper

Perhaps the most well-known wallcovering with raised decoration is Lincrusta Walton. Created in 1877 by Frederick Walton, the inventor of linoleum, Lincrusta Walton is a composite of oxidized linseed oil, wood pulp, and other natural ingredients bonded together under tremendous pressure and embossed by engraved cylinder rollers. Like linoleum, Lincrusta Walton is virtually indestructible. Museum visitors can see it in situ at Historic New England's Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut. For the late 1880s redecoration of his summer home, Roseland Cottage owner Henry C. Bowen (1813-1896) selected ten different patterns of Lincrusta Walton that had been manufactured in Stamford, Connecticut, by the Fredrick Beck & Co. Bowen chose a variety of aesthetic and traditional damask patterns for the dado, fill, and frieze of the double parlor, front hall, and dining room.

Beginning in the 1880s, some wallpaper manufacturers returned to producing designs that imitated more expensive fabrics, including silk and wool damasks, cut velvets, and silk moirés.

Falling out of favor

The last decades of the nineteenth century saw major changes in the use and manufacture of wallpaper. Among some decorators, wallpaper began to fall out of fashion because of the difficulty in washing it and because of the profusion of fussy patterns in somber colors popular during the late Victorian period. In their 1897 interior decorating book, The Decoration of Houses, Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr. expressed disdain for wallpaper and found little reason to recommend it to their readers. Wallpaper companies and the public did not agree. In 1890 American mills were producing one hundred million rolls of wallpaper a year and quantities continued to be imported. One company advertised that the “decorative possibilities of the new WALL PAPERs are almost boundless.”

The elaborate tripartite designs of the previous decades gave way to schemes consisting of just the sidewall and a wide border. Ceiling papers were often designed with complementary designs. 

Manufacturers also began to develop waterproof wallpaper in response to the claim that wallpaper was unsanitary because it was difficult to clean. Sanitary papers were printed with engraved rollers in oil-based pigments that resisted water and could be washed lightly. These were recommended for kitchens, dining rooms, and bathrooms. 

Novelty wallpapers encompassed a wide range of designs. Nursery papers filled children’s’ rooms with images from literature and traditional nursery rhymes. Richly colored tapestry papers created the allusion of woven fabric by overprinting the design with thin black pin-stripes, dashes, or fine grids. Art Nouveau designs incorporated sinuous curves with floral motifs While “Adam” designs introduced sophisticated elements based on classical architectural details. 


1870-1900: Profusion of Patterns