Wallpaper and Historic Homes


In better-constructed homes, the tremendous amount of water required to plaster a house is a consideration that is lost on today’s modern homeowners who are used to the convenience of drywall and plasterboard. It was recommended that newly plastered walls were required to dry out for at least a year before a better class of decoration, such as wallpaper, could be successfully applied.

For homeowners not comfortable with living for such a period with the whiteness of the drying plaster walls, a distemper colouring was frequently applied. Distemper, also known as calcimine, was a water-based colourant that was brushed on to the drying plaster. Compatible with the water in the plaster, the distemper took the harsh glare off the white walls and imparted a soft range of pastel colours to the new rooms. Soft green, blue, and peach were popular colours. Sometimes a stencil frieze was applied near the top of the wall as a nod towards the fashion for borders.

It is ironic that some homeowners today, with the intention of “restoring” their home to its earliest period, sometimes think that this temporary calcimine colouring was the first permanent decoration. Rather, they need to think about the “make-do” attitude of the Victorian homemaker, who was waiting to upgrade to wallpaper!

Styles and fashions of wallpaper, and how it was used in interior decoration, have varied from decade to decade. Simple designs of the 1850’s tried to simulate fabric designs, while the 1890’s featured lavish and exotic room set designs that included coordinating ceiling papers and lush frieze patterns.

A Waterlily frieze with a 'Sunset' background, shading from dark to light, from c1900

A Waterlily frieze with a ‘Sunset’ background, shading from dark to light, from c1900

 

A 1906 wallpaper found in a house restoration. Wreaths were a popular design motif at this time

A 1906 wallpaper found in a house restoration. Wreaths were a popular design motif at this time

The early 20th century imparted more natural designs and colourings to wallpaper through Arts & Crafts inspired patterns. Patterns included less gilt, and more natural colourings, with designs frequently overlaid with ‘tapestry’ or ‘burlap’ patterns, to simulate a textural appearance to the wallpapers of the period.

A 'Sanitary' wallpaper of 1915. Designed like tile and varnished, it could be washed.

A ‘Sanitary’ wallpaper of 1915. Designed like tile and varnished, it could be washed.

 

A 'Scenic' American wallpaper of the 1930's depicting a European Castle

A ‘Scenic’ American wallpaper of the 1930’s depicting a European Castle

During the 1920’s and Thirties, ‘Scenic wallpapers’ became popular, with special emphasis around 1926 – the 150th Anniversary of the American Revolution – on American Colonial designs, though more exotic scenes – like European castles – were frequently depicted as well.

The 1940’s wallpapers were frequently grayed down in colour, as befitting wartime years, and the 1950’s wallpapers – when not imitating Atomic amoeba – sometimes looked back on rose garland borders of Georgian design from the 1820’s, in yet another design revival that washes through the wallpaper industry at frequent intervals, making wallpaper identification extremely difficult at times.

A 1940's 'Ribbon and Rosebud' design

A 1940’s ‘Ribbon and Rosebud’ design

 

Hick's Moghul wallpaper 1960's

Hick’s Moghul wallpaper 1960’s

By the 1960’s and 1970’s the bright India-inspired colours and ‘kicky’ Mylar wall coverings of the day spoke of completely different social developments in our lives. The current revival of mid 20th century wallpapers has been credited for the overall revival of interest of designers and homeowners in wallpaper today.

Wallpapers add a richness in traditional interiors that no other design elements can match. They can be subtle or bold in both colour and pattern, and they provide a suitable background for art and furniture.


For a good selection of historic wallpapers, see the Charles Rupert Designs online catalogue at: www.CharlesRupertDesigns.com


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