Skip to content

Personal tools

1750-1780 Importing a Fashionable Commodity

Prior to 1750, few colonists in New England could afford to decorate their homes with wallpaper (or painted paper as it was called in the eighteenth century), and surviving examples from this period are rare. There is documentation that wallpaper was available as early as 1700 as evidenced by the inventory of a Boston bookseller which lists "7 quires of painted paper and three reams of painted paper."

Wealthy urban colonists could purchase "painted paper" (a translation of the French term papier peint) from stationers, book sellers and as a custom order from merchants who specialized in imported luxury goods. Wallpaper was an expensive decorative material, yet it was created as an affordable alternative to more costly wallcoverings.


The most sumptuous wallcoverings in seventeenth-century Europe were leather, silk or wool damask and Italian cut velvets. Early eighteenth-century English flocked wallpaper frequently imitated the latter. Flocked papers were quite striking because of their bright colors and large-scale foliate designs. An early flocked paper in Historic New England’s collection is an unused sample found in the attic of the house of stationer Thomas Hancock. This paper is believed to have hung in the parlor of the prosperous merchant’s 1737 Boston home. The vivid crimson color survives because the wallpaper was not continually exposed to sunlight or to smoke from the fireplace.


By the mid-eighteenth century floral patterns based on more common textile designs such as brocades and cotton chintzes had come to dominate the market. A neatly composed daisy-like sprig paper of 1760-1790 was found in a house in Ipswich, Massachusetts, installed over a later paper dating from 1810-1815. Were it not for the charge stamp (see below) found on the reverse, its English origin and earlier date would not be conclusive. Block printed black, green and white on a pink ground this type of simple floral pattern remained popular in New England into the mid-nineteenth century and has recently been reproduced. Historic New England’s collection contains several other examples of English hand-blocked floral wallpapers which were used as pamphlet covers and as trunk linings. Though their original use on walls is unknown, they serve as important documentation of eighteenth century color schemes.


1926_960In contrast to the brightly colored flocked and floral patterned wallpapers, New Englanders frequently selected classical architectural pillar and arch designs printed en grisaille to decorate the stair halls and formal parlors of their elegant homes. These grand spaces could easily accommodate the large repeat of the patterns (some measure almost 48 inches high) and when installed would create a double-tiered colonnade across the wall. The popularity of pillar and arch papers printed by both English and later by American paper stainers is attested to by the variety of designs found throughout New England. Variations of the pillar and arch design were hung in the Josiah Quincy House, Quincy, Massachusetts, in Sparhawk Hall, Kittery Point, Maine and in the Timothy Johnson House in North Andover, Massachusetts.


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 create a romantic effect. Sometime around 1765 loyalist Daniel Murray hung this pastoral paper in his house in Rutland, Massachusetts. The rustic scenes may have been copied from prints.


England was the principal supplier of wallpaper to pre-revolutionary America, and English merchants benefitted financially by exporting their goods to the colonies. 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. However, the duty paid on the surface decoration could be reclaimed by the merchant if the paper was exported. 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 one found on the Ipswich sprig paper help date and attribute early English wallpapers. After the war, England’s wallpaper industry stagnated. Perhaps because of increased taxes and a lack of skilled craftsmen, English wallpaper manufacturers focused their efforts on increased production rather than improved quality. Technical innovations in block printing allowed French firms to surpass their English counterparts and led to the unrivaled supremacy of French wallpaper design for much of the nineteenth century.

1750-1780 Importing a Fashionable Commodity