Shopping for wallpaper
The earliest makers and sellers of wallpapers were stationers, so the trade cards of late 17th-century London stationers George Minnikin and Edward Butling (about 1690) both specify that they sold paperhangings in addition to 'other sorts of Stationary Wares'. Much of our information about the wallpaper trade in the 17th and 18th centuries is derived from trade cards, bill-heads and invoices. These list, and occasionally illustrate, the various kinds and styles of wallpapers they sold, and in some cases manufactured. The Blue Paper Warehouse sold the imported Chinese papers alongside a range of papers locally produced; these included imitations of 'Irish Stitch, Marble and Damasks'. The card also shows papers hung in the shop behind a counter at which an assistant is showing samples to a customer. A more familiar scene is represented both in James Wheeley's card (about 1754) and in that for Richard Masefield's Manufactory (about 1760s), where the rolls of wallpaper can be seen stacked on shelves, end on like bolts of cloth in a draper's. A roll of wallpaper is unfurled for the customer to inspect the full length of the pattern.
French scenic wallpapers, which were popular in America, seem to have been favoured as dramatic and enticing window displays. In an 1847 lithograph showing John Ward's Paperhanging Warehouse, panels from Dufour's Monuments de Paris can be seen in the window.
Given the fact that several late 17th- or early 18th-century papers of the same design have survived in different localities and in different houses in the same locality, we must assume that there was a fairly limited choice at this time. It also confirms that London was the main centre for the production and trade in wallpapers, until demand had increased sufficiently to support provincial manufacturers. Recent research has established a provisional list of more than 500 stationers, paperhangers and paperstainers in London in the period from around 1690 to 1820. It has been plausibly argued that 90 per cent of the 255,731 pieces of wallpaper produced in Britain in 1800 were manufactured in London.
It seems that at this date wallpapers were often made to order, although many customers were quite content with 'off the peg' designs. Frances, Countess of Hartford, was among the latter. In a letter to a friend in 1741 she explains:
'Yesterday I was busy in buying paper, to furnish a little closet in that house, where I spend the greatest part of my time within doors ... The perfection which the manufacture of that commodity is arrived at, in the last few years, is surprising; the master of the warehouse told me that he is to make some paper at the price of 12 and 13 shillings a yard, for two different gentlemen. I saw some at four shillings, but contented myself with that of only 11 pence: which I think is enough to have it very pretty; and I have no idea of paper furniture being rich.'
'Paper-hangings are a considerable article in the upholstery branch, and being occasionally used for rooms of much elegance, it requires taste and skill rightly to conduct this branch of the business.'
Many sellers of paperhangings stressed that they could produce wallpapers to match fabrics: in 1787 John Colles, a New York paperstainer, told customers that they could order 'any kind of Paperhanging agreeable to their fancy' in a 'colour to suit their furniture'. It seems that paper was generally printed to order once the customer had made their selection at the warehouse, from a pattern book or from samples sent out. One customer buying wallpapers at Bromwich's in London for a friend wrote to explain: 'They do not keep any quantity by them (only samples of each sort), but promised they shall be finished in a week.' On 8 May 1819 the London decorators Duppa, Slodden & Co. wrote to Thomas Coulthart of Pully-wrath near Cowbridge, Wales, as follows: 'We have selected a few patterns for your inspection ... and beg to say that any of them can be made in a week or ten days.' And although they were a London firm, their letter continues 'we shall be happy to send a workman to put up the paper'.
In Britain the trade was centred in London. For those living at a distance, samples were sent out. Others entrusted friends, relatives or agents with their purchases. The poet Thomas Gray shopped for wallpapers for his friend Dr Wharton of Old Park, Durham, when he was visiting London. He wrote to Wharton on 8 September 1761: 'I am just come to town where I shall stay six weeks or more and (if you will send me your dimensions) will look out for papers at the shops.' He was not successful, writing six weeks later:
'... after rumageing Mr Bromwich's and several other shops I am forced to tell you there are absolutely no papers that deserve the name of Gothick or that you would bear the sight of. They are all what they call fancy, and indeed resemble nothing that ever was in use in any age or country.' He continues: 'one of 3d. a yard in small compartments thus [a drawing inserted] might perhaps do for the staircase, but very likely it is common [i.e. readily available] ... therefore I would not send it alone.'
After further correspondence Wharton seems to have persuaded him that what was on offer was quite acceptable, for Gray's letter of 13 November lists all the papers he has now ordered for his friend, including the Stucco paper for the staircase mentioned previously, a crimson paper of unspecified design but the 'handsomest I ever saw', a pretty 'spiral scroll' border, a small-patterned blue 'mohair flock paper' at a shilling a yard which was 'so handsome and looked so well I could not resist it' and a 'cloth colour' library paper.
Though wallpaper production developed in a number of towns around the country, provincial upholsterers and dealers - in Leeds, for example - promoted their stock by advertising its London origins. William Armitage advertised in The Leeds Mercury [29 May 1770] that he had 'just returned from London with a fresh assortment of the following articles, viz Paper hangings of all sorts, ...' Again in 1773 he announced he had 'just returned from London where he has laid in an elegant assortment [of paper-hangings] which are of the newest construction and the genteelest Taste ...' But in due course paperstaining manufactories were established in the region, notably in York, and later (around 1782) in Leeds, and advertisements for paperhangings began to compare their own products to those from London: Hargrave & Plowman in Leeds claimed they were
'... now manufacturing a collection of new and fashionable patterns in flock, mock flock and inferior papers which will be sold considerably under the London Prices, and equally as good in quality'.In Norwich, Samuel Best advertised his new business as 'Cabinet and Chair Manufacturer, Plain and Ornamental Paper-Hanger, Appraiser and House Agent' in the local press. He claimed he would be able to execute commissions 'tastefully' because, in addition to his experience 'in some of the first houses in London' he would 'constantly receive fresh fashions from London ... [including] A new assortment of paper-hangings ... not to be excelled for quality by any house in Britain.' Even in America, 'Printed Paper for Rooms lately imported from London' remained fashionable and desirable into the 19th century, despite a flourishing native trade.
Papers were also exported, though cost seems to have been a discouraging factor for some prospective purchasers: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote to her daughter Lady Bute from Italy on 22 August 1749: 'I have heard the fame of paperhangings, and had some thoughts of sending for a suit, but was informed they are as dear as damask here which put an end to my curiosity.' From the later 18th century onwards, trade cards for manufacturers additionally specify their involvement in the export trade. Messrs Crompton & Spinnage announced 'Paper Hangings of all Sorts for Home Trade & Exportation', and in the early 19th century Ballard & Co. of Finsbury Square, London, claim 'Export Orders Speedily Executed'.
Of course, papers were also imported, notably from France. The Rev. Sydney Smith wrote to his wife from Paris on 26 April 1826:
'Dearest Kate, I went yesterday into a great upholsterer's shop. Nothing can exceed the magnificence and beauty of the furniture. Their papers are most beautiful so that I think I shall bring some over.'By 1839 French papers were being more widely imported, and an English writer in the Art Union Journal acknowledged their artistic excellence and superiority. In the 1840s the fashion for French papers was widespread in England: the Leeds shopkeepers Trumble & Cooke, and Joseph Wood & Son, both offered papers from Paris in their advertisements in the local press. At Uppark one of the best bedchambers, the Yellow Bedroom, was hung with a lavish French paper, about 1850, block printed with 17 colours.
French wallpapers stood for luxury and elegance across Europe and beyond. In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Dolly Levin visits Anna in the house she shares with her lover Vronsky, and finds it furnished to give
'an impression of wealth and sumptuousness, of the new kind of European luxury which she had read about in English novels, but never seen in Russia...before. Everything was new, from the French wallpaper to the carpet ...'In America too, French papers became more popular than the English (especially when duty was removed in 1861). The commissioners in charge of decorating the White House for the first time in 1800 discussed 'the fitness of pattern, preferring French papers, or second best, those made in England'.
Pictorial trade cards were supplemented by other forms of advertising. The manufacturers of the lavish panoramic wallpapers publicised their new designs with promotional brochures, and with coloured lithographs showing the whole design on a single fold-out sheet. A good example of the latter is the lithograph issued by Dufour around 1818 for Télémaque; the story reads from left to right and the division of the scene into the individual lengths of wallpaper is indicated by numbered division running along the lower edge of the print.
From the early 19th century onwards we have surviving examples of sample books from which customers would choose their papers. The name of the pattern, and sometimes its price, are noted beside each sample. Further insights into the wallpaper trade, changing tastes and decorating styles can be found in the order books of the London decorators Cowtan & Sons. The V&A holds the archive consisting of records from 1824 to 1938. Each order is detailed under the name of the client and the name and/or address of the house, with small samples of the papers (and some fabrics) pasted in below, each annotated with an indication of the room for which it was intended. Repeat orders for the same house show us how often people redecorated, and how tastes had changed, or not, in the intervening period. It is clear that by the mid-19th century, with the growth of the industry and the mechanisation of production, wallpaper was used by all but the poorest in society. In the Cowtan order books the customers range from queens and dukes to clergymen and hoteliers.
From the late 19th century, bound pattern books containing samples of all the patterns and colourways in a manufacturer's current range were being produced. These would be consulted in the showroom. Eastlake makes the point that 'Nothing is more difficult than to estimate the value and intensity of colour when spread over a large surface from the simple inspection of a pattern book.' He suggests that the purchaser should 'suspend several lengths side by side in the room for which it is intended' to get a proper sense of the effect. Walter Shaw Sparrow, writing in 1909, also warned 'large patterns printed in gay colours, however attractive in a shop window, are (as a rule) too vivid for home use ... such patterns are like advertisements'. The problem continues to the present, with the customer having only a pattern book to consult, though that pattern book can often be borrowed and taken home. Some suppliers are now using computer simulations to get an impression of the finished room, but inevitably local conditions, such as the aspect of the room, the light and other furnishings, will alter the effect.
By the later decades of the 19th century there were many companies producing wallpapers, ranging from Heywood, Higginbottom & Smith, who specialised in machine prints, especially pictorials and 'sanitaries', at the cheaper end of the market, to Jeffrey & Co., self-advertised as manufacturers of 'Art wallpapers', mostly hand-block printed, and designed by names such as Morris and Walter Crane. Prices ranged from a few pence for simple patterns printed by machine on cheap paper, to 24s or more for elaborate embossed wall coverings, or hand-block prints using many colours. However, the number of retail outlets open to the public was limited. Larger manufacturers such as Essex and Co., and Jeffrey's, had imposing showrooms in which the range of their products was displayed, but these were in London, and existed primarily to trade.
Sandersons' new showroom at 53 Berners Street opened to the trade in January 1895. There were panels of paper on the walls, and moveable hinged screens; in the centre of the room was a selection of standbooks, with smaller pattern books on tables. A visitor to the showroom in 1901 was moved to rapture by the sight:
The suite of chambers in which we found ourselves were toplighted, so as to display their wall-space to best advantage, and those walls were covered with papers of a magnificence, of a beauty, such as we had never imagined even in our wildest dreams of marble halls. Each panel here contained a sample covering specially selected for its charm or novelty... Here were papers light and papers dark: papers suitable for the walls of drawing room, for bed-chamber, or of sober library; papers stretched on screens, and papers displayed in handsome pattern books where every page you turned gave up a specimen more graceful in conception, more original in style and treatment, than the one you looked at last.
Elsewhere wallpapers were sold direct to the public by firms such as Liberty's and Morris & Co., both of which sold a complete range of household furnishings in addition. Generally the ordinary customer purchased wallpapers from their decorator who kept a number of pattern books in stock for the purpose. This situation tended to give disproportionate power to decorators to direct customer choice, and the decorator was likely to be more concerned with the profit margin than with the artistic quality of the papers he sold. Amongst those who objected was designer and critic Lewis F. Day (who designed for Jeffrey & Co., amongst others): in an article in the Magazine of Art in 1897 he advised readers to 'find out the names of the best paper-stainers and insist on seeing their books', suggesting that this was the best way of ensuring they enjoyed a full choice of the many designs then available.
Gradually, wallpapers became more widely and generally available, with the rise of department stores as well as those which specialised in the full range of house-furnishings, such as Maples.
The many publications - books and periodicals - which addressed the subject of interior decoration and household management in the later decades of the 19th century were a further source of advice and information for the ordinary consumer. They were addressed to
'that large borderland between the very rich who can hand over their houses to one or other of the high class decorators of the present day, and the very poor, who have neither taste or ambition, and whose taste is not as conspicuous as it might be'.The Journal of Decorative Arts, a trade magazine, acknowledged that it was 'forced to notice the power wielded by those "Home Art" writers who, in the pages of high-class society papers ... write for the decorative education of our lady clients themselves'. The writers of these guides and articles were often specific in their advice on choice of wallpaper, recommending the products of particular manufacturers - Jeffrey's, Woollams and Essex & Co. are frequently mentioned as dependable sources of good wallpapers - and on occasion naming designers and even patterns - Morris and Walter Crane designs are the most commonly illustrated or described.
Where the earlier trade cards and advertisements had shown both male and female customers, often shopping together, the examples from the turn of the century suggest that the choosing of wallpapers had become the responsibility of the woman alone. From the late 18th century we find examples of men abdicating responsibility to women in the matter of choosing wallpaper for the home. In 1787 David Spear asked the advice of his fiancée Marcy Higgins about buying wallpaper. Although he had some knowledge of current tastes he admitted, 'There are a great variety of fashions. I am totally at a loss what to get.' Indeed, a typical advertisement of the time claimed a stock of more than 200 patterns. When John Gale married Sylvia Lyon of Colchester, Vermont, in 1858, he had given 'Sylvia the money to get the paper and she got it to suit herself.' An American poster from about 1900 shows a fashionably dressed woman gazing at a wall of samples under the guidance of a male assistant. The patterns on offer include the up-to-the-minute Art Nouveau styles as well as more traditional floral. A colour lithograph view of the interior of a wallpaper showroom has a female customer seated beside display stands offering a range of revival styles.
The majority of the later 19th century writers on home decorating assumed their readers were women, and that the home was a woman's creation. As John Ruskin wrote, a woman's '...intellect is not for invention or creation, but sweet ordering, arrangement and decision', exactly the qualities needed to furnish and decorate a home. This view prevailed well into the next century: Elsie de Wolfe wrote, in The House in Good Taste (1913):
'It is the personality of the mistress that the house expresses. Men are forever guests in our homes, no matter how much happiness they may find there.'By the 1920s and 1930s the manufacturers were addressing the 'lady of the house' directly, flattering her taste and discernment and playing on her desire to have the best for herself, and most importantly, for her family.
Now both men and women involve themselves in decisions about home decorating. Home improvement (DIY) has become a major leisure activity, and redecoration is undertaken on a regular basis. Wallpaper is no longer sold in the vast quantities that it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it remains a popular choice amongst a range of other wall coverings and wall treatments. Indeed, many wallpapers now imitate effects such as stippling or rag rolling. Papers can be purchased from the DIY stores to be found in every city and in out-of-town warehouses, as well as from decorators and the manufacturers themselves. Catalogues, swatches and sample hooks are used by customers to select the style, finish and colour-way, but much inspiration comes from the plethora of magazines devoted to interiors and home decoration, and the home decorating and make-over shows that have become a television staple.