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History of Reproduction Wallpapers

Hamilton pillar and arch

The interest in reproducing historic designs began in the late nineteenth century. It was kindled by an interest in the American past fostered by the Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia in 1876 and by architects who were studying early buildings for design inspiration. Before 1900 some historical societies and a few private homeowners had commissioned reproductions of the early wallpapers they had found on the walls during the course of restoration.

Chinoiserie pagoda

Reproductions of early designs became standard offerings of many wallpaper companies from the 1920s on, particularly the Thomas Strahan Company in Massachusetts and M. H. Birge and Company in Buffalo, New York. They were used to lend an air of authenticity in privately owned antique homes, in historic house museums, and in new homes built in a traditional style. Increased interest in eighteenth-century decoration developed as the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg was publicized in the popular press. Colonial Williamsburg licensed “authorized” reproductions of the early wallpapers in its collections, as did a few other outdoor museums. In contrast, many of the “Early American designs” mentioned above, which depicted Grandma Moses paintings, images from Currier and Ives prints, whimsical depictions of the “Gay Nineties,” and countless small geometric patterns printed in red, black, and gold, had little to do with historic precedent.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a renewed interest in historic wallpaper designs. Many new companies were established and the product lines of design firms that had always carried a small selection of reproduction wallpapers expanded to include even more. A better understanding of nineteenth-century design and decoration created a new enthusiasm for the once-scorned Victorian period, and wallpapers in the Victorian Revival style once again covered both walls and ceilings in a wealth of pattern.

Re-creating the original bright colors of the designs, rather than the faded colors taken directly from worn fragments, gave period rooms a startling but more accurate appearance. Historic New England was in the forefront of this new approach, commissioning silk-screened reproductions of wallpapers from the documented samples its collection for use in its many properties.

Waterhouse Wallhangings was one of the many new companies that helped promote the use of historic wallpaper reproductions. Founded by Dorothy Waterhouse in the 1960s, it began by reproducing many of the hundreds of historic wallpaper fragments she had collected since she first became interested in the subject in the 1930s while restoring a small house on Cape Cod.

History of Reproduction Wallpapers