A Surprising History of Wallpaper You’ll Love

From ancient beginnings to clashes between classes, the history of wallpaper unrolls with surprising details

Photo by Nylon Saddle.

Since you loved our DESIGN REPORT ON ONE-OF-A-KIND WALL COVERINGS in the Summer 2022 issue of Cambria Style, we went digging into the history of this popular design element. What’s the most surprising part of the history of wallpaper? For some, it will be that this history extends over two thousand years. For others, the surprise will be that wallpaper was once considered a cheap imitation. But, from changing tastes to technological advances, the story of wallpaper remains on a roll.

The Beginning of the History of Wallpaper

The history of wallpaper starts in China, about 200 years BCE. At that point, people applied rice paper to the walls of their homes. As textiles evolved, the Chinese brought their expertise at painting and printing to more sophisticated wall coverings made of linen. Over the next thousand years, papermaking began making its way to Europe via the traders of the famed Silk Route.

Meanwhile, Europe was trudging through the Middle Ages. When there was anything on the walls, it was mostly intricately woven tapestries. On the plus side, they were often exquisite works of art and served as both insulation and decoration. On the minus, these textiles were costly and time-consuming to create. As the Renaissance arrived—with its love of décor and technological advancements—wallpaper gained prominence as a less expensive alternative.

Make the Match: Using a paper with a saturated turquoise? Pair it with a Cambria design such as KELVINGROVE™ (pictured left), which incorporates blue into its mix of seaside colors.

This pattern from the 1800s features popular elements of early wallpaper patterns such as grapes, leaves, pomegranates, and birds. It’s in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

Wallpaper Rolls Out in Europe

One of our earliest surviving examples of European wallpaper hails from 1509. The designer is the jauntily named Hugo Goes of York. The remnant is located at Christ’s College in Cambridge, England. The pattern features stylized pomegranates, a common element also found in Italian and Spanish patterns of the period. Importantly, its creators used block printing. In this process, paint-dipped blocks are repeatedly pressed to paper to create a pattern. And though these papers imitated the fabric and leather adorning the walls of the wealthy, the rich would long consider wallpaper a cheap imitation of their own wall coverings.

The next major milestone in wallpaper’s continued rise in popularity is the founding of the first guild for wallpaper makers in 1599. Sources from the time say its members made “tapestry on paper” used by the poorer classes.

Over a century later, they were still aping the rich. 1680 brought the advent of flocked wallpaper. Artisans first created patterns on paper with glue. Then, they sprinkled bits of wool (leftover from the cloth-making process) over the paper. It adhered to the glue, creating a textured pattern. And though some critics derided it, flocked wallpaper was the closest people of modest means could come to hanging their walls with cut velvet.

Make the Match: Considering a rich, red flocked paper? Consider pairing it with a surface such as Cambria WESTMINSTER™ with its complementary scarlet and contrasting smoky hues.

The Napoleon Bonaparte Room in New York’s Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library features appropriately French-inspired flocked wallpaper. Photo by Lallint.

Wallpaper Under a Tax

What’s the surest sign that something is a success? The government comes for its cut. And that’s exactly what the government of Britain’s Queen Anne did in 1712. However, Her Royal Highness would not live to see much in the way of profits. She died two years later.

But not even taxes could stop wallpaper from sticking. Its ancient originators, the Chinese, were on the scene again. In the middle of the 1700s, they massively expanded their workshops and exports. They were catering to the Western public’s rising fascination with the East. And soon, even European paper makers were borrowing from patterns of Asian flowers, birds, and landscapes. These patterns—known as Chinoiserie—became all the rage.

Not to be outdone, the French were innovating their way to better wallpaper. Around 1785, Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf invented the first machine for printing wallpaper. And Nicholas Louis Robert invented a way to make an endless roll of wallpaper. Makers like Jean-Baptiste Révillon produced lavish and pricey papers. They featured images associated with wealth and plenty—flowers, swans, overflowing cornucopia. Perhaps it’s no surprise that when the starving lower classes rebelled, one of the first violent outbreaks of the French Revolution took place at his factory in Paris.

Make the Match: Does your paper have an autumnal palette? Accentuate it with the rust-colored veins winding through Cambria RIDGEGATE™.

This frieze from the collection of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum is an example of how far machine printing progressed in the course of the 1800s.

The History of Wallpaper Picks Up Steam

By 1806, wallpaper had become a contentious business. In England, forging wallpaper stamps was even punishable by death. And many thought the wallpaper tax was preventing English manufacturers from competing with the French. But the government removed the tax in 1836. Innovators also brought the power of steam to the printing process. This allowed papers to be printed faster and more inexpensively. The machines could print up to eight colors by 1850—up to 20 just a quarter-century later. This combination of economic incentive with advances in mass production, made paper more available and in greater varieties.

Trompe-l’œil wallpapers gained popularity. People transformed their walls into vistas that appeared to look at ancient Rome or scenes from the American Revolution. The company Zuber gained notoriety for such designs. One of their panoramas hangs in the White House. Another is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive wallpaper in the world. It is valued at about $30,000.

However, others did not find joy in trompe-l’œil. The Arts and Crafts Movement called for a return to more traditional designs depicting the abundance of nature. Makers such as Morris & Co. served them with two-dimensional designs based on pre-industrial patterns dancing with plants and animals. Somewhat less natural was the profusion of arsenic such manufacturers were using in their wallpaper dyes. More and more children suffered negative outcomes after exposure. Such companies were forced to change their formulas. Soon they were proudly advertising their new papers as arsenic-free.

Make the Match: Using a paper with some sparkle? Try pairing it with a design such as Cambria’s NEVERN™, which also features a subtle shimmer.

The More Recent History of Wallpaper

Wallpaper remained popular in Europe and the United States during the beginning of the 1900s. Then Modernism took hold mid-century. With it came the fashionably paper-free walls of the Mad Men era.

During this time, some saw wallpaper as dated. But technology marched onward. This allowed for more durable papers, longer-lasting dyes, and easier application and removal. Better than ever, wallpaper surged in popularity again as the century drew to a close. In the new millennium, it continues to be on trend. And today’s digital printing is calling a new generation of designers to the medium. They’re creating large-scale murals and patterns of previously inconceivable complexity. Meanwhile, Cambria’s library of designs continues to expand, ensuring we’ve got a surface to suit any wall covering.

Still stuck on walls? See some of the BOLD WALL COVERINGS featured in our trend coverage.