A brief history of wallpaper
By Michelle Garner

Much like the fashion industry, the decorating industry goes through cycles. In the fashion industry, high waists and bellbottoms are the new fad one minute, then replaced by low waists and skinny legs. In the decorating industry, professionals love the colors and variety of painting walls and accenting with a border one minute, then rave over the patterns and variety of textures offered by wallpaper. Now, it seems that wallpaper is making a slow but steady return to the decorating radar. Since wallpaper is back in style, let’s take a look at where and how it began.


What do you prefer on interior walls?
  • 1. Paint
  • 2. Wallpaper
Although it is difficult to say exactly when the first wallpaper was made, records state it was first used in China as early as 200 B.C. The first Chinese wallpapers were of birds, flowers and landscapes painted on rice paper. Chinese prisoners passed this knowledge to their captors in the Middle East. This led to a better quality paper with people in the Middle East making paper out of linen.

In the 16th century, wallpaper was imported to Europe from China. At that time, wallpaper came in rectangular sections (about 12 inches by 18 inches). Around 1620, a method of imitating cut velvet was introduced in Europe. Papers made this way became known as flocks. This was done by shaking silk or woodpile on a design that had been glued or varnished. The demand for wallpaper grew rapidly in Europe and wallpaper manufacturing became a recognized trade.

The French had a profound impact on wallpaper and the processes used today. A guild of painters and paperhangers known as Dominotiers (also known as the PDC of France) was set up in France in 1599. The first papers they produced were imitation marble designs. The same method used then is still similarly used today. In 1620, the Dominotiers introduced the process of printing the designs onto blocks of wood. The blocks of wood were painted and pressed onto the paper. This process is still used today for very expensive handprints.

In 1675, a Frenchman and engraver named Jean-Michel Papillon made the first repeating designs that matched on both sides. It not only repeated, but also was continuous from one sheet to the next. Papillon is known as the inventor of wallpaper as it is known today.

The late 17th century and early 18th century were also very influential for the wallpaper industry. A 1778 decree by Louis XVI required rolls of wallpaper to be approximately 34 inches long. In 1785, Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf from France invented the first machine for printing wallpaper. Germany made its contribution in 1798 when Alois Senefelder invented lithography.

Through the years, the wallpaper industry advanced and in the early 1800s full-wall murals or scenics were introduced. In 1839, Charles Harold Potter from England introduced a machine that printed in four colors with the design cut on rollers instead of blocks. This machine was capable of producing 400 rolls per day. Eight-color printing was introduced in the 1850s, and 20-color printing was introduced in 1874.

The wallpaper industry advanced further and flooded the market with cheaper paper and poor-quality workmanship. During the late 1800s to early 1900s the wallpaper market declined and the paint industry became popular, drawing people away from wallpaper. While this wallpaper decline was going on, the more alert and progressive wallpaper manufacturer realized he had to improve his design and quality. This led to the invention of wallpaper paste by Ferdinand Sichel in 1888.

The 20th century revolutionized the wallpaper industry. Wallpaper pasting machines aided in making the process faster. In 1920, the invention of the mechanical silkscreen machine allowed for the production of more varieties of wallpaper. This helped pave the way for wallpaper to flourish in the Victorian Era. Artists used wallpaper as a pallet for their colorful and flamboyant designs. The Victorian Era’s love for wallpaper led the wallpaper obsession in the 1920s. In the 1920s, hundreds of millions of wallpaper rolls were sold, and this period was given the moniker the “Golden Age of Wallpaper.”

Even with the variety of colors and designs, wallpaper was not durable. It was easily damaged by water, torn or scraped. To transform wallpaper from delicate to durable, plastic resins were introduced to the industry after World War II. This addition was the beginning of the evolution from wallpaper to wall covering. Plastic resins gave wallpaper stain resistance, made it more durable and stronger. Even with these new traits, wallpaper was not popular with the new Modern Era.

Now it seems wallpaper is trying to make a comeback. For those who are reminded of the colorful past of the Chinese, the hand-painted murals of the old English churches and castles, and the robust colors of the Victorian Era; the new technological advances of wall coverings are appearing in residential and commercial markets.

Today’s wall coverings are a refreshing change to painted walls. Not only can wall coverings be used to add multidimensional color to walls, it can also be used to add a variety of textures to walls and make drab walls look new and vibrant. Unlike paint, wall coverings give you the option to have a reproduction of art in your home with a fraction of the cost. If you have not yet tried the versatility of wall covering, maybe it is time to look into the past to give your home a more colorful and textured outlook for the future.

Michelle Garner is the marketing coordinator at Harry C. Garner Contractor, Inc.