Search Collections

Explore the Largest Collection of Wallpaper in New England

Historic New England’s extensive wallpaper collection contains more than 6,000 individual samples of wallpaper, historic photographs of wallpaper in situ, and ephemera dealing with the wallpaper industry.

In addition to papers that came off the walls of New England buildings, the collection includes wallpapers used to line trunks, cover bandboxes, and decorate fireboards. Wallpapers range from pristine examples with complete repeats to small fragments. Cataloguing and digitization of this collection is supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Below, read a history of wallpaper written by Richard Nylander.




Books & Periodicals

Clothing & Accessories

Decorative Arts








History of Wallpaper

wallpaper_1700Importing a Fashionable Commodity

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.

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.

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.

wallpaper_1780Rise of American Manufacturing, Increasing Imports

The years following the American Revolution were a fertile period of enterprise for Americans who began to manufacture goods formerly produced and supplied by England. By the late 1780s, a number of paper stainers established workshops in major cities along the Atlantic coast and began to advertise their merchandise. Many sold imported English and French wallpapers along with their own productions, offering consumers a choice of pattern types and a range of prices.

Rise of American wallpaper: To encourage the production of domestic wallpapers, state and federal officials passed protective tariff legislation that strengthened the fledgling American wallpaper industry, allowing it to secure a foothold in an increasingly competitive marketplace. By 1810, mills in Massachusetts produced 22,500 rolls for paper hangings and the three paper-staining manufactories in Philadelphia printed 115,000 rolls of wallpaper, making wallpaper an affordable decorating option for a growing number of prosperous middle-class households.

American manufacturers were proud of their domestically produced goods. The billhead of Appleton Prentiss boasts an image of the American eagle and the words “AMERICAN MANUFACTURE” above rolls of different patterns he made. Many of these patterns can be identified in Historic New England’s collection.

Wallpapers by several other New England paper strainers are also included in Historic New England’s collection. Ebenezer Clough established his paper staining business in Boston in 1795. An advertisement dated the next year lists patterns “of every description both large and small” in addition to many colors of “plain papers,” solid-colored rolls to be used with borders.

Clough is best known for the commemorative paper of George Washington he advertised less than one year after Washington’s death in 1799. Based on a variation of the pillar and arch design, “Washington’s Monument” includes classical motifs and allegorical figures of Justice and Liberty weeping over the loss of the national hero.

Moses Grant, who participated in the Boston Tea Party, became a successful upholsterer and wallpaper manufacturer. His son, Moses Jr., was equally successful. A number of patterns bearing his stamp have been found throughout New England. Many wallpaper manufacturers probably stamped their name on the ends of rolls, but because this portion was usually cut off during installation, stamps like the one Moses Grant Jr. used are relatively rare. The pattern is one of many similar designs created by the Grant firm using interchangeable blocks.

Zechariah Mills, (1770-1851) a Hartford, Connecticut, wallpaper manufacturer and dealer, sold his own papers and those he imported from Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and Boston. Mills is credited with being the first New England wallpaper manufacturer to routinely stamp and number his papers to protect his own designs.

A documented Mills paper in Historic New England’s collection is a stripe design composed of vertical rows of wheat printed in varnish green alternating with wide stripes of flowered vines. Though the pattern appears to be a simple two-color design, it is in fact fairly complex. A fine white vine and pinstripe design, now faded, originally formed an all-over background pattern on the slate blue ground color.

Mills’ stripe paper was one of the many “neat stripes, vines, and set figures” available to consumers in the beginning years of the nineteenth century. Also popular were a variety of small geometric patterns that were available in several different color schemes. American-made wallpapers did not entirely displace fine English wallpapers, especially on the upper end of the market. Samples of ten English wallpapers purchased by lawyer Harrison Gray Otis for the elegant three-story Federal-style mansion he and his wife were building in Boston in 1797 were uncovered during restoration in 1920. Many have been reproduced and can be seen in the Otis House Museum today.

Ten years later, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, merchant James Rundlet ordered seven different wallpaper patterns and complimentary borders directly from London. Rundlet kept detailed accounts of the building expenses for his impressive three-story house. Of the total construction cost of $12,604.47, approximately $283 was spent on 112 rolls of wallpaper. The paper and border identified as “Peach Damask” and “Paris Flock Border” on the shipping invoice were hung in the best parlor in 1809 and remain on the walls today.

Competition from France increases: Beginning in the late 1780s there was a dramatic increase in imported French wallpapers and, indeed, French wallpapers and their American copies set the style for the next seventy-five years. In 1787, the French eliminated export duties on wallpaper and thereby lowered the cost of purchasing this luxury item. Cost was not the only factor that contributed to the increased use of French papers in New England. French wallpaper firms produced the highest quality and most artfully designed and colorful wallpapers of this period.

Manufacturers like Jean-Baptiste Reveillon (1725-1811) refined the process of printing with wooden blocks and distemper paints, and raised wallpaper manufacturing to new artistic heights. Reveillon created a vast workshop of more than three hundred craftsmen and divided the labor into specific and repetitive tasks. He ground his own pigments and in 1767 purchased a paper mill where he was able to control the quality of the paper used to make up rolls of wallpaper.

Reveillon employed the finest designers and engravers who were well versed in the neoclassical vocabulary of ornament derived from archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Several of Reveillon’s arabesque designs survive on the walls of New England houses, most notably in Phelps-Hathaway House in Suffield, Connecticut.

A French arabesque paper from The Mount in Bristol, Rhode Island, features characteristics typical of Reveillon’s style. It contains mythological motifs including satyr heads, winged nymphs, scenes of Leda and the Swan, and a bacchante enclosed within an elliptical frame. The neoclassical elements are separated by garlands and arabesques printed in bright colors against a pastel colored ground. These elegant arabesque papers were particularly popular with trend-setting Americans. Thomas Jefferson was so taken with the French wallpapers he saw while he was Ambassador to France that he ordered more than 120 rolls in 1790 upon his return to Virginia.

Although many American manufacturers were quick to advertise that their products were equal in quality to imported ones and were less expensive, comparisons reveal that their claims were most often unfounded.

By the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the abundance and popularity of French wallpaper threatened the existence of many American wallpaper firms. The French excelled in creating three-dimensional modeled forms and realistic detailing in floral patterns, imitation drapery and marble masonry designs, charming landscape figure papers, flocked borders, and expensive scenic landscape papers.

The latter represent the highest achievement in French wallpaper printing and design. Composed of between twenty and forty individual panels, an entire set required thousands of blocks to produce the elaborate design. A room hung with a scenic paper became a substitute for travel as it offered a view of the great monuments of Europe or an escape to an exotic, far-away place.

One of the most popular sets of scenic paper exported by Dufour was Telemachus, also known as Les Paysages de Telemaque dans l’ile de Calypso. Based upon a 1699 French adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey by novelist Francois Fenelon (1651-1715), Les Adventures de Telemaque was immensely popular. The set, created about 1818, was printed in eighty-five colors and required more than two thousand wood blocks to print the design. The continuous scene of non-repeating panels is filled with visual delights and narrative drama, including the moment when Telemachus attempts to escape from the Island of Calypso. Andrew Jackson ordered two sets of Telemachus for the hallway of his house, the Hermitage, in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1830s.

Innovative pattern types and techniques: Another pattern type that originated in France and was extremely popular during the early nineteenth century was called a “landscape figure.” These formulaic patterns were composed of rows of two or three repeating vignettes with pastoral or classical themes separated by vertical stripes on a dotted or diapered field. To keep pace with their French competitors, American wallpaper firms produced many adaptations of this style. Made around 1810-1815, this American landscape figure paper was used in a house near Plymouth, Massachusetts; apparently, the home owner didn’t mind that the design was misprinted.

French wallpaper manufacturers also developed relatively simple techniques for producing spectacular designs. Jean Zuber experimented with ways of applying multi-colored grounds to the papers. His cousin, Michel Spoerlin, perfected a method of blending multiple ground colors, called irise, on a single roll of paper.

In America, these were called rainbow papers. The brilliant green, pink, and yellow matte ground of this Zuber paper dating from 1825-1835 is over printed with a restrained foliate medallion pattern en grisaille.

The same blocks could be used to print the pattern on a solid or a blended background, thereby creating two totally different looking wallpapers.

In addition to all-over floral designs, striped floral patterns remained popular during the first half of the nineteenth century. Many of these small-scale designs feature stripes with stylized flower alternating with bands of Xs or dots and are printed in two or three colors. A pattern book of the Hartford, Connecticut, firm Janes & Bolles, in business between 1821 and 1828, contains five colorways of a striped pattern that relates to this variation used to line a pine trunk.

Larger-scaled medallion papers offered an alternative to the smaller striped patterns. In addition to being applied to walls, many of these medallion wallpapers can be found on band boxes—all-purpose receptacles made in several sizes and intended to hold bonnets, ribbons, and other trinkets.

Many bandboxes were hand made at home using leftovers from decorating a room. At least one enterprising woman, Hannah Davis of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, developed her own cottage industry making bandboxes as a means of supporting herself. She sold them to local shopkeepers and directly to young mill workers. She is the most well-known maker today because she applied printed labels with her name inside the lid.

Other band boxes were commercially made and sold by wallpaper manufacturers who often designed patterns to be used specifically on them. The patterns of the coach and horses, the deer, and the buildings of Yale were printed horizontally on the roll of paper and were never intended to be used on walls.

1840Changing Technology and Increasing Production

Dramatic changes in the way wallpaper was produced and marketed made it increasingly available to a wider base of consumers. The mid-nineteenth century witnessed the establishment of wallpaper warehouses and the beginnings of machine printing on continuous rolls of paper rather than on rolls made from individual sheets of paper glued together. Machine production was uneven at first and block printing continued to be preferred for better quality designs.

Invented in England, the first cylinder printing machine was imported to America in 1844 by John Howell of Philadelphia. By the mid-1850s, American wallpaper manufacturers were producing hundreds of thousands of rolls of wallpaper and quickly introducing new designs in response to a variety of decorating styles.

Machine printing changed the appearance of wallpaper in subtle ways. The pattern repeat was restricted by the circumference of the roller. In contrast to the opaque pigments used in block printing, the inks used in machine printing were thinner and often ran together as they were transferred quickly from the cylinders to the paper.

Nineteenth-century designers and architects revived many earlier styles such as the Gothic, Rococo, and those from the Renaissance and Elizabethan periods.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Gothic Revival style in architecture offered an acceptable alternative to neoclassicism. English critics, most notably John Ruskin (1819-1900) and A. Welby Pugin (1812-1852), praised Gothic design for its ordered spaciousness and “honest” ornamentation. Pugin and Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) championed the Gothic Revival style for religious and public buildings, and in 1836 began work on The Houses of Parliament, London, a vast complex of government offices and a symbol of national pride.

Like A.W. Pugin in England, A. J. Downing in America favored the Gothic Revival style for architecture but he deplored the use of artificial, uniform shading to indicate three-dimensional modeling of niches, pointed arches, quatrefoils, and tracery in wallpaper designs. Although it was much criticized by tastemakers, Gothic Revival wallpapers that incorporated all these elements proved to be quite popular with consumers who wanted to update their interiors with stylish designs.

Rococo Revival wallpapers feature naturalistic flowers, C-scrolls, fanciful bouquets, and delicate garlands. American wallpaper manufacturers often copied imported French designs but also created many of their own. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish a high-quality American wallpaper printed on a satin (highly polished) ground from its French counterpart.

Interlacing strap work was derived from ornamental designs of the European Renaissance. It was sometimes combined with the ubiquitous floral motifs of the period but often formed a dense pattern that would be repeated across the walls of a room.

Floral motifs were also combined with vines and stripes to create more open patterns. They could be printed on the more expensive satin grounds or inexpensively on paper that had no ground color at all. Greens, reds, and browns were popular colors of the period.

Mid-century diaper patterns varied in scale from small restrained patterns suitable for parlors to more boldly printed larger sizes for hallways. They could be either block printed or machine printed in both subtle and more jarring color schemes.

Among the most elegant mid-century patterns were those that were embossed and gilded. Printed on heavy paper that could withstand the embossing process, the motifs were sparsely spaced and sometimes included stripes. This type of wallpaper was most often used in parlors.

Borders were still in vogue but were usually found only at the ceiling level. They were printed in fright jewel-like colors and many were flocked.

1870Profusion of Patterns

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.

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 (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.

English 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.

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 circles, 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.

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.

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.

1900Design for the New Century and Modern Consumer

Many of the wallpaper styles developed during the 1890s continued to be popular into the first decades of the twentieth century. Sidewalls designed with coordinated wide borders and ceiling papers were used in every room of the house, including the kitchen. Darker colors were most often found in parlors, halls, and dining rooms, while lighter shades were appropriate for bedrooms.

Novelty papers continued to include nursery and Art Nouveau designs and any other motif that would appear new and different.

For those who wanted to avoid any pattern on the walls, solid-color oatmeal and cartridge papers were available in a range of shades. Borders were optional. Imitation grass cloth and other subtle textures, some imitating stucco work, provided a bit more visual interest. Sanitary papers with tile designs became increasingly popular for bathrooms.

Beginning in the first years of the twentieth century, wallpaper manufacturers, mail-order houses like Sears, Roebuck, and Company, and many wallpaper retailers created sample books to feature their new patterns. Today these are among the best ways to learn about the broad range of wallpaper designs and colors available at any given time. Manufacturers continued to produce patterns to complement the interiors of many different architectural styles, both old and new, from traditional Cape Cod to Art Deco Modern, Arts and Crafts bungalow, American, Dutch, or Spanish colonial.

A 1937 sample book by the Hickey Company used cut-out room settings through which customers could view actual wallpaper samples. This demonstrated how a pattern might look in different settings, such as a living room with up-to date-furniture or an Art Deco hallway. The plain neutral tones shown suggested that textured wallpaper could introduce a richness and warmth to a room that was unmatched by painted walls, which were becoming a popular alternative.

During World War II, the wallpaper industry suffered a serious setback. The War Production Board classified wallpaper as a non-essential commodity and greatly reduced the number of allowable styles, new patterns, and sample books, and prohibited the use of metallic bronze and aluminum powders. Manufacturers were required to use a lighter-weight stock of paper, which affected the overall quality of the wallpaper. Full production resumed in 1945 when the limits were removed and manufacturers increased production to keep pace with skyrocketing consumer spending and the building boom that followed the war.

Mid-twentieth century consumers had a wide variety of wallpaper patterns and styles from which to choose: traditional, Early American, contemporary with stylized motifs in machine-age colors, abstract geometrics, and patterns with cabbage roses or oversize tropical leaves, to name only a few. Many sample books guided customers towards appropriate patterns for the different rooms in their houses, such as kitchens, dens, children’s rooms, and powder rooms.

As the century progressed, new materials and printing methods, such as silk screening, were introduced, and vinyl papers gained an important place in commercial and industrial settings. Selected for its durability and ease in cleaning, vinyl wallpaper expanded the wallpaper market beyond the traditional residential consumer to the contract buyer who selected vinyl wallpaper for use in hospitals, hotels, and restaurants. Introduced in 1947 by United Wallpaper, vinyl wallcoverings would become a leading product of the wallpaper industry by the mid-1960s and account for nearly fifty percent of all wallpaper sales.

Although painted walls still provide stiff competition, each year the wallpaper industry produces thousands of new patterns. A visit to any home decorating center proves that wallpaper still enjoys considerable popularity for the visual interest, richness, and sense of history it brings to the interior of a home.

reproductionsHistory of Reproduction Wallpapers

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.

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.

dorothywaterhouse2Dorothy Waterhouse’s Extraordinary Collection

Historic New England’s wallpaper collection grew significantly in 2000 thanks to the addition of the Waterhouse Archive of Historic Wallpapers. This collection includes approximately 1,400 wallpaper samples collected by Dorothy S. Waterhouse, founder of Waterhouse Wallhangings, a company that specialized in reproducing historic wallpaper designs. Her business partner Bernard Scott donated her archive to Historic New England.

Dorothy Waterhouse credited her fascination with old wallpapers to the restoration of a 1799 house she and her husband purchased on Cape Cod in the mid-1930s. “It was a tremendous job getting those ugly 1890 papers and ornate Victorians scraped off . . . Suddenly I spotted beneath the drab looking top layers some beautiful colors . . . all in fascinating block-print designs,” she related in a newspaper article describing how her hobby was born and how it turned into a business. Through newspaper and magazine articles and her numerous lectures throughout New England beginning in the late 1940s, word spread of Mrs. Waterhouse’s interest in the subject.

Dorothy Waterhouse was most interested in early wallpapers, and her collection includes many eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century examples. It is equally rich, however, in samples of popular patterns from the mid-nineteenth century. The Waterhouse collection also contains fragments and unused rolls of wallpaper, wallpaper-covered boxes, trunks lined with wallpaper, and several sample books, some from the early 1950s, that relate to Mrs. Waterhouse’s first venture in reproducing samples from her collection for commercial use.

Beauport Photo Shoot with E.RothPapers from China

Wallpapers from China were by far the most exotic but they were much harder to find than their English, French, and American counterparts. Chinese papers from the eighteenth century were hand-painted in gouache or tempera on mulberry-fiber paper which was then reinforced with bamboo paper. In 1784, the ship Empress of China sailed from New York Harbor bound for Canton, China. It returned laden with precious commodities including a set of wallpaper ordered by Robert Morris (1734-1806), a Philadelphia banker who held half interest in the vessel. An account of the receipts from the voyage records Morris’ payment of “one hundred dollars for paper hangings,” an extraordinary sum at this time.

For unknown reasons, Morris never installed the set of Chinese papers he purchased. The rolls, stored in their original crate, were discovered in the attic of a Marblehead, Massachusetts, house in the early twentieth century and purchased by Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934) for the decoration of his summer residence, Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House, in Gloucester, Massachusetts (pictured). The paper depicts rice cultivation and porcelain manufacture.

Other Chinese papers are painted with rare birds and flowers with a high degree of accuracy. Many of the species of flowers depicted are now easily identifiable, but they were unfamiliar to Westerners at the time.

More to Explore

See extraordinary wallpaper at Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House.

Learn More

See wallpaper reproduced from the Federal era at Otis House.

Learn More

Become a member and tour Historic New England properties for free.

Learn More