We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more
Open daily 10.00 to 17.45 Admission free Menu
Floral wallpaper, about 1850-75. Museum no. E.800-1969

Floral wallpaper, about 1850-75. Museum no. E.800-1969


By the late 19th century it had become apparent that one of the drawbacks of wallpaper was its tendency to accumulate dirt, such as dust, soot and grease. Unlike wood-panelling ('wainscot') or distempered walls, it could not be cleaned, and once the grime began to show it had to be replaced. In his novel Bel-Ami (1885), Maupassant suggests the squalor and poverty of a Parisian lodging house of the period by describing the

'wallpaper, grey with a blue floral pattern [which] had as many stains as flowers, ancient, dubious-looking stains that could have been squashed insects or oil, greasy finger-marks from hair cream or dirty soap suds from the wash-basin.'

For an earlier period a papered room had been a sign of cleanliness and good housekeeping. In 1795 the Journal du Lycée des Arts declared:

'For appearance, cleanliness and elegance, these papers [i.e. wallpapers] are to be preferred to the rich textiles of yesteryear'.

Hannah Solly's diary account of her family's summer holiday travels records their arrival at lodgings in Oban where they were 'highly delighted by the sight of a clean papered room. We were never more awake to the charms of cleanliness, having been in so many dirty stinking Holes for some days past.'  William Beckford, 'when about to sleep at an inn order[ed] it to be papered for him at the expense of £10', presumably as a precaution to ensure that it would be clean. In fact and in fiction there are frequent references to whitewashing or re-papering to make an otherwise poorly built or damp room look fresh, clean and dry.

Fragment of floral wallpaper with pin ground, about 1840-50. Museum no. E.2245-1974

Fragment of floral wallpaper with pin ground, about 1840-50. Museum no. E.2245-1974

Before the introduction of washable wall coverings some manufacturers made a virtue of designs which simply didn't show the inevitable dirt too obviously. A 1786 advertisement in an American newspaper claimed:

'Flies and smoke operate to soil paper in common rooms if the goods are too delicate; to prevent which I have pin-grounds that fly-marks will not be perceptible upon. Also dark grounds which the smoke will not considerably affect in the course of twenty years, at such low prices will eventually be found cheaper than whitewash.'

This continued to be an important consideration, especially for public and commercial buildings. In a letter of 1902 a man fitting up a Texas hotel wrote to his partner in New York:

'Paper should be strong, pretty and cheap. Patterns to reflect light as much as possible without too gaudily displaying dirt, tobacco juice, etc.'

Much of the advice about wallpaper found in the many guides and manuals concerned with furnishing, decoration and household management in the later decades of the 19th century relates specifically to the problems of dirt and dust. Most of these publications were aimed at the residents of ordinary middle-class homes, often town houses. The authors address the day-to-day problems of the dirt, dust and grime that were so much a part of 19th-century urban life. Homes were heated by open coal fires and lit by smoky oil lamps, while an open window would let in air that was often a noxious smog, compounded of factory fumes, soot and smoke. Various suggestions were made about choosing wallpapers conducive to domestic health and cleanliness.

Preparing the walls prior to hanging the papers was also important. Eastlake says that papering over the old wall-paper is 'a slovenly and unhealthy practice', while Edis advises against flock because of its inherent tendency to gather dust. Others objected to wallpapers being used in bedrooms because it was thought that they harboured insects such as bed bugs - a particular nuisance in inns and lodging houses. Elizabeth Wirt, in Washington, wrote: 'This papering of chambers is a dreadful business' of her struggle to eradicate bugs in the nursery. She tore off the paper and walls were thin as matchwood, and to hide the cracks they had been covered with layer after layer of pink paper, which had come loose and housed innumerable bugs. Lady Barker, in her book The Bedroom and Boudoir, considers the treatment of walls at length, because they are 'the most important from a sanitary point of view'. She suggests painted or distempered walls, but says she prefers paper because it is important that these rooms should be 'extremely pretty.'

Sanitary wallpaper, 1895. Museum no. E.1943-1952

Sanitary wallpaper, 1895. Museum no. E.1943-1952

Rhoda and Agnes Garrett recommended that the decorations on walls and ceilings be 'as inexpensive as possible' because 'they are certain to get dirty in our smoky atmosphere', and too often dirt is put up with because 'the decorations cost so much not so long ago', whereas a cheap paper can be replaced as necessary.

However, it is significant that none of these writers suggests using the new 'sanitary' papers which were specifically designed to be washable. Only Lady Barker, in an oblique reference, mentions papers 'made expressly, which do not attract dirt' and suggests that some are of 'lovely design'. But for most authorities it seems that their practical advantages were vitiated by their poor colouring - either dull or garish - and their designs, which embodied all the faults of the popular patterns of the mid-century. The earliest sanitaries were either pictorial, or made in imitation of other materials, often tiles or mosaics, in an obvious reference to their own claims to waterproof durability.

19th-century manuals do recommend other strategies to protect the wallpaper, such as the use of a panelled dado up to a height of three feet because it protects 'delicately-tinted paperhangings' from 'contact with chairs and careless fingers'. Edis advocates the use of embossed imitation leather, lacquered and varnished, because it will not be affected 'by gas or smoke'; he recommends such papers as supplied by Jeffrey & Co. But it seems that the sanitary papers themselves were thought fit only for the poor. The sternly didactic Journal of Decorative Arts published an article in 1887 entitled The homes of the Lower Classes; How to make them Sweet, Clean and Beautiful, which proposed the use of the economical hard-wearing sanitary papers for poorer houses.


A bathroom, about 1910. Museum no. E.2017:78-1990

A bathroom, about 1910. Museum no. E.2017:78-1990


Tile pattern sanitary wallpaper, 1923-4. Museum no. E.2651-1983

Tile pattern sanitary wallpaper, 1923-4. Museum no. E.2651-1983

Distemper colours, used to print most wallpapers, were not waterproof, and manufacturers had been trying to produce a washable paper since the mid-century. In 1853 John Stather produced oil-printed papers, but it took another 20 years to develop a commercially viable process.

In the meantime varnishes and other treatments were used to waterproof conventionally printed papers. In the early 1870s the Manchester company Heywood Higginbottom & Smith produced a monochrome washable paper printed in oil colours from copper rollers; this success was soon followed by other firms, such as Lightbown, Aspinall, who launched polychrome sanitaries in 1884. These were printed by engraved copper rollers with finely ground pigments to produce a fine, smooth surface which was then varnished.

From the 1880s tile patterns were a favourite style of decoration in the bathrooms of more modest homes (a good example can be seen in the Amy Miles' dolls-house, dated 1890, at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood). These economical strategies were disparaged by the critics who objected to their deceitful character. Warren K. Clouston, writing in the Ladies Realm in 1897 said,

'The poor bathroom is never allowed to be anything but a sham. The speculative builder has but two ideas: to cover the walls with a fearful mosaic paper ... or else to content himself in the cheaper houses, with an equally hideous imitation of plain tiles ... I hate imitations of all sorts, and if you cannot have real tiles do not have a copy.'

Some of these tile patterns were simple, but among examples produced by John Stather & Sons were elaborate designs copied from Turkish 'Iznik' tiles.

Naturally, bathrooms, kitchens and sculleries were the rooms most often papered with sanitaries, but such papers were also widely used in halls, passages and staircases. A showroom specimen from the London firm Dugdale, Poole & Co., of the 1880s, is labelled: 'A New Sanitary Decoration for Halls, Dining Rooms and Stairways.' Some nursery papers were also produced as sanitaries. Kate Greenaway's drawings for her Almanack of 1893 were acquired by David Walker & Co. of Middleton, near Manchester, 'with especial and exclusive permission to reproduce them as designs for 'sanitary wallpaper'. Although there is little surviving evidence, it seems very likely that they were also used in pubs and hotels; a number of pictorial and commemorative papers were produced as sanitaries, notably for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 - the pictorial design is much better suited to a pub than to a domestic setting, and washable papers would have been a great advantage in such a setting.

A 'sanitary' wallpaper, about 1903. Museum no. E.467-1967

A 'sanitary' wallpaper, about 1903. Museum no. E.467-1967

Arsenic and lead in wallpaper pigments were other health hazards. In 1775 the Swedish chemist Scheele discovered a pigment containing arsenic (copper arsenite), thereafter known as 'Scheele's green'. By 1800 this was widely used in paints, fabrics and wallpapers. Mrs Beeton warned against 'Brilliant (emerald) green, which contains arsenic, and some kinds of glossy white, which is produced by the use of oxide of lead', both of which had a 'pernicious influence on the health'. Rhoda and Agnes Garrett considered these bright greens to be 'aesthetically as well as physically poisonous'.

The often-cited story of Napoleon dying on the island of St Helena, poisoned by the arsenic in his wallpaper, has been disproved, though there was a paper printed with an arsenic green pigment in the Drawing Room of his residence, Longwood House, and the place was chronically damp, an aggravating factor. However, it is certainly true that the vapour containing arsenic given off by this pigment on a damp wallpaper could be injurious to health, especially for children or the sick. Illnesses and even deaths were often attributed to wallpapers described as 'highly arsenical.' This was yet another reason for avoiding wallpaper in bedrooms.

Jeffrey & Co. were one of the first manufacturers to respond to growing public concern about the levels of lead and arsenic in wallpaper pigments. In 1879 they invited Robert F. Alison, an eminent chemist at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, to examine their products; he declared them entirely free of poisonous substances, and from then on Jeffrey papers enjoyed an enhanced reputation for health and safety as well as for artistic qualities. In the mid-1880s they produced a range of 'Patent Hygienic Wallpapers', with designs by artists including Crane, William Burges and Bruce Talbert. These were shown at the International Health Exhibition in London in 1884 where one critic remarked

'with our walls covered with such papers we can gratify our artistic taste and at the same time may rest assured that we are not slowly being poisoned.'

Though the earlier examples were dismissed by critics as aesthetically poor, by the 1890s sanitaries were being designed in fashionable styles by named designers. Arthur Gwatkin's Art Nouveau-style sanitary friezes, such as Flaming Tulip, 1901, for Wylie & Lochhead, were said to be very popular. Certainly they employed richer colours and more elegant designs than those which preceded them. Some manufacturers of 'art' wallpapers, such as Essex & Co., sold huge quantities of sanitary papers, but the proprietor continued to abhor this popular taste and claimed he never sold them 'without a protest' because, in his view, they lacked artistic character.

Manufacturers even co-opted medical opinion to support the use of wallpaper, and to guide customers' choices of colour and pattern. The pattern book Backgrounds of Character (1926), from T. Whatley & Son of Middlesbrough, is prefaced by quotes from an anonymous Harley Street doctor. He says,

'Wallpapers are the most important of all the furnishings of a room; because either they swallow up the light and make the room dark, or else they give the light back to our eyes and bodies. In the one case we live in 'dark air', which is weakening; in the other case the air is filled with light, and so acts on our lungs as a tonic.'

Mental health was also taken into consideration. Mrs Beeton warned that

'care should be taken in choosing bedroom papers to avoid any outré forms which the eye of a restless invalid, condemned to weary hours of solitude, could torture into the form or face of demon or grotesque horror'.

This concern continued, with an article in the US magazine House Beautiful arguing in 1915 against 'nervous discordant' colours that bred neurasthenia. By this date wallpapers were required to be 'quiet' and 'restful'.



'Kelpie' wallpaper sample and photograph of room set, 1976. Museum no. E.1102-1979

'Kelpie' wallpaper sample and photograph of room set, 1976. Museum no. E.1102-1979

In the 20th century' new kinds of washable coatings were developed and applied to papers designed especially for the kitchen and bathroom. In the 1950s and 1960s, pictorial patterns relating to the function of the room were popular - fruit and vegetables in kitchens, soaps, tooth-brushes and rubber ducks for the bathroom. Where the old sanitaries had soon yellowed to a dirty nicotine colour as the varnish was degraded by exposure to light, the new papers used vinyl resins or latex derivatives which stayed fresh and clean-looking. By 1961 ICI had developed 'Vymura', a paper coated with PVC and printed with specially developed inks. Such papers were no longer limited to kitchen and bath-room, but were promoted for use throughout the house. A bold screen-printed vinyl, Kenzan, was presented as a classy decoration in the hallway of the home of actress Susan Hampshire in Sandersons' successful 'VIP' campaign in the mid-1970s, and the rehabilitation of the 'sanitary' wallpaper was complete.

Beautiful gifts from the V&A shop

Browse the beautiful V&A Shop for exclusive gifts, jewellery, books, fashion, prints & posters, custom prints, fabrics and much more. All your purchases support the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Shop now