Wallpaper is synonymous with heritage homes. Old photographs show a wealth of pattern peeking out from behind paintings, showing a rich background for stiff family portraits, and generally giving another-world atmosphere redolent of an earlier age.
Decorating with wallpaper has a long history, back to the Renaissance or earlier, but that form of decoration was rare and expensive. That early wallpaper was not printed on the rolls that we know today, but was hand-painted or block-printed onto small squares of paper that were then applied to the walls with overlapped edges, giving an overall pattern.
The first imports of wallpaper in North America generally came from England or France as early as 1700, and would have been relatively expensive, coming first in sheets and rolls soon after. This paper was only seen in more expensive homes, leaving pioneer and early farm dwellings unadorned. American wallpaper was manufactured by block printing from around 1790. Around 1840 machine-made wallpaper made its debut in the United States. Advances in new machinery made it possible for continuous rolls of paper to be printed at inexpensive pricing.
Once established, the new wallpaper industry in both Europe and North America grew relatively quickly, and adapted to changing tastes and fashions through the following decades. Well-known English designers such as William Morris and C.F.A. Voysey were prolific in their output of distinctive wallpaper patterns. North American designers were generally more anonymous, but manufacturers wrote, “the best of our artists were employed” for their designs.
By the 1890’s, wallpaper manufacturing was a major industry, primarily centred in the eastern manufacturing areas of both Canada and the United States. Mail order wallpaper suppliers ensured a wide distribution of their designs across North America through small wallpaper sample catalogues . In the United States mail order suppliers included Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and Larkin Wallpapers. Eaton’s and David Spencer were two of the suppliers in Canada. Small original wallpaper sample books from these distributor/manufacturers can still be found at garage sales and junk stores, and give glimpses to the bright colours and intricate designs popular in earlier time periods.
Wallpaper was thought to be a good class of decoration, and was produced at all price levels. Even the very cheapest papers were considered a civilized improvement on original pioneer construction of rough logs or plank walls, where it was hung on a layer of muslin, which was tacked up and then shrunk with water to provide a tight, smooth base to hang the wallpaper. The wallpaper applied a gilded and colourful veneer of gentility to the humblest homes.