Wallpapers for children

'The Sleeping Beauty', wallpaper, 1879. Museum no. E.60-1968

'The Sleeping Beauty', wallpaper, 1879. Museum no. E.60-1968

Children were generally housed in separate rooms or apartments in grand houses, although these rooms were not supplied with decorations or furnishings specific to children. But with the rise of an urban and suburban middle-class from the first decades of the 19th century, together with the separation of workplace and home, the houses of the middle-class also had, for the first time, sufficient space to dedicate rooms, even whole floors, to the accommodation of children and their carers - the nursemaid (later nanny) and the governess. This development was certainly fostered by writers on architecture, house decoration, and household management. For example, in The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion (1838), J.C. Loudon told his readers that, wherever possible, rooms were being set aside for children, and that these rooms were to be called 'nurseries'.

With the setting up of nurseries came the introduction of furnishings of all kinds designed specifically for children's use; these included wallpapers, though none have so far been discovered dating from any earlier than the third quarter of the 19th century. However, it seems to have taken some time for nursery wallpapers to become commonplace. In 1881, Col. R.W. Edis observed,

'ln the dreariness of town houses, nothing has struck me as so utterly cruel as the additional dreariness which generally pervades the rooms especially devoted to children.'

A number of the earliest papers, though drawing their subject matter and illustrations from popular literature, were clearly intended to have an improving influence, with mothers charged both with the moral education of their children and with decorating a home in accordance with those same moral principles. This accorded with the widely held view that children were uniquely sensitive to their environment, and must therefore be surrounded by things which were beautiful, 'honest' and inspiring, so the production of wallpapers which made this task easier was sound business sense.


Nursery wallpaper illustrating episodes from 'Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe, about 1875-1900. Museum no. E.714-1952

Nursery wallpaper illustrating episodes from 'Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe, about 1875-1900. Museum no. E.714-1952

A popular poem in the 1840s by Suffolk Quaker Bernard
Barton conflates the didactic role of furnishings with the mother's role as teacher; it was entitled The Mother of Dr Doddridge Teaching Him Scripture from the Dutch Tiles. It seems very likely that a similarly didactic purpose was envisaged by parents who chose to furnish a nursery with wallpapers illustrating scenes from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress or Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (both from the period 1850-75), each an example (if improving literature, though neither written specifically for children.

This idea, that children's wallpaper should serve to educate both in terms of informing, but also in terms of offering moral exemplars, is made explicit in the advice of Colonel Edis on the decoration of nurseries. He devotes several pages of his book The Decoration and Furniture of Town Houses (1881) to a discussion of the subject and suggests:

'Why not cover the walls of the nurseries with illustrations telling of the glories, and, if you please, the horrors of war - teaching peace and goodwill by illustrating the anti-type.'

He goes on to list other suitable subjects such as 'the various birds, beasts and reptiles that went into the ark...flowers and all other things which are bright and beautiful', and says, 'All these would make the children's room a bright and cheery spot, and in pleasant guise teach them many things, better than all the lesson books in the world.' He concludes that 'the writing on the wall' should be the earliest teaching of all that is beautiful in nature, art or science', and that 'illustrations of fairy lore [will] incline the thoughts of our little ones to all that is graceful and beautiful in imaginative faculties'.

Edis makes no distinction between the sexes in the subjects he advocates for nursery wallpapers, but is clear that although some wallpapers - such as nursery rhymes or 'Noah's Ark' subjects - were designed to appeal to young children of both sexes, others show a distinct gender bias. The neat, clean little girls who gather flowers and play with babies in The Months (machine print by David Walker & Co., 1893), a wallpaper derived from the hugely popular illustrations by Kate Greenaway, embody the distinctly feminine virtues expected of the middle-class female child. (Nevertheless, this paper was used for the large day nursery at Erddig in 1903, although the nursery housed two boys.)

Lady Barker reiterates the point in The Bedroom and Boudoir (1878), where she says that boys should be given room to play without being constrained by their furnishings, but girls should be expected to keep their rooms neat and clean'. A boy might be expected to draw inspiration and a sense of his future role in the world by spending his formative years surrounded by a wallpaper which recasts Defoe's eponymous hero in the mould of a Victorian Empire-builder, subduing and civilising savage nations. From their wallpapers, Victorian children might learn the alphabet, but they would also get a lesson in the deportment appropriate to their class and gender. As Samuel Smiles wrote 'The nation comes from the nursery.'

'The Months', nursery wallpaper, 1893. Museum no. E.1823-1934

'The Months', nursery wallpaper, 1893. Museum no. E.1823-1934

This pedagogic approach to furnishing a child's surroundings continued - in their influential book The Decoration of Houses, first published in 1897, Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman proposed that

'the child's surroundings may be made to develop his sense of beauty'. They compared 'poor pictures, trashy 'ornaments' [i.e. patterns], and badly designed furniture to 'a mental diet of silly and ungrammatical story-books'.

From the 1870s onwards, many more nursery wallpapers appeared, the great majority with subjects adapted from children's books. Indeed some were the work of artists and designers who were themselves directly involved in book illustration, though others such as Greenaway and Caldecott simply allowed their illustrations to be purchased for the purpose. Perhaps the best known artist associated with the design of nursery wallpapers was Walter Crane, a prolific illustrator of fairy tales and toy books. His wallpaper designs, produced by the fashionable manufacturer and retailer of 'art' wallpapers, Jeffrey & Co., illustrate nursery rhymes - such as The House That Jack Built (1886) - or fairy tales - such as Sleeping Beauty (1879).

Crane's wallpapers were bought by discerning customers concerned for their children's pleasure and comfort: in 1874 Samuel and Olivia Clemens built a splendid new house in Hartford, Connecticut, and a few years later, having more money, they decorated the nursery with Crane's Miss Mouse at Home (also known as Ye Frog He Would A-Wooing Go) (1877), newly available in America. In November 1879 Olivia Clemens wrote to her mother: 'The nursery is perfect ... When I remember the sense of being taken care of ... I feel I must give the same sense to the children.' A Crane nursery rhyme paper was also used by the Earl and Countess of Carlisle at Naworth Castle, and in the top floor nursery of artist Linley Sambourne's London house. Both families favoured Morris papers elsewhere in their houses.

Crane's papers telling 'the tales of fairy land and nursery rhyme' were praised for their educational potential. A writer in the British Architect, 1884, suggested that 'With the aid of a little intelligent and sympathetic talk, nursery walls, covered with these designs, might be made to live within the lives of children. They would repay their cost many times.'

On the whole, Crane's nursery wallpapers are flatter than his other designs, with simple obvious repeats that make them easier to 'read'. Indeed, they appear to be direct adaptations of book illustrations, with little modification. Only Sleeping Beauty employs a hidden repeat, which makes it more decorative than narrative, more pattern than picture. Another important point was that his nursery wall-papers, unlike his other papers for Jeffrey & Co., were all machine prints, and therefore significantly cheaper than the majority of his papers. Edis recommends Crane's papers as 'admirably adapted for the walls of day nurseries, and cheap ... enough to be frequently changed'. It would no doubt have been considered an unnecessary extravagance to use expensive hand-block printed papers in rooms where their only adult audience would have been the servants, and where they would soon have become grubby and graffitied, and would therefore need to be regularly replaced. For the same reason, it seems that nursery patterns were amongst the earliest of the so-called 'sanitary' papers, which were printed with fast colours, or varnished, to render them washable (see 'health and cleanliness').

Page from 'Décor', a pattern book illustrating wallpapers in domestic interiors, about 1928. Museum no. E.2021:42-1990

Page from 'Décor', a pattern book illustrating wallpapers in domestic interiors, about 1928. Museum no. E.2021:42-1990

Edis also makes a novel suggestion which combines an educational element with economy. He suggests allowing children to cut what he describes as the 'really good illustrations' from the many monthly and weekly periodicals, and use them 'to paper over the whole of the lower portion of the walls'. In similar fashion a decorative frieze could be devised using illustrations from the Christmas books illustrated by Henry Stacy Marks, Walter Crane and Greenaway, and pasting them up 'in regular order and procession'. Children and teenagers have continued this DIY tradition, personalising their rooms by pasting up newspaper and magazine cuttings illustrating their hobbies, passions and 'crushes' - favourite subjects include horses, cats, aircraft, pop singers and actors.

Mrs Beeton, writing on the furnishing of the nursery in her Housewife's Treasury of Domestic Information (around 1865), suggested that if children preferred the drawing room to the nursery, it was not simply that their parents were there, but that the room itself was attractive. Though she did not specify the use of wallpapers for the nursery, she did urge her readers to make the room pretty and pleasing, as did other writers, notably Lady Barker and Edis. Certainly as the 19th century progressed, there were more and more wallpapers for children that were simply pleasing rather than instructive.

Section of 'Mickey Mouse' wallpaper and frieze, about 1930. Museum no. E. 3100-1930

Section of 'Mickey Mouse' wallpaper and frieze, about 1930. Museum no. E. 3100-1930

And by the early 20th century designs had become unashamedly entertaining, designed to please or amuse. This seems to have met with the approval of writers and critics such as Walter Shaw Sparrow, who maintained that 'obtrusive theories of education are out of place in a nursery'. He objected to nurseries where

'reading lessons were given from the words printed on a wall-paper, and where all the decoration was false just in order that children might be taught by silly pictures'.

No longer were children surrounded by images of moral fortitude and heroism, or even figures of fantasy and imagination; instead they were domiciled with idealised representations of themselves, in imagery that ranged from the chubby babies of Mabel Lucie Attwell to the playful sturdy children in friezes by Cecil Aldin and Will Owen.

New subjects with innate child-appeal appear in the early decades of the 20th century, some reflecting more spectacular forms of popular entertainment, ranging from the stylish sophistication of the frieze La Cirque (French, 1920s), to the lively depiction of the new Disney cartoon character Mickey Mouse (Sandersons around 1930). As well as printed wallpaper, the doting parent could also purchase cut-out stickers to create a do-it-yourself nursery frieze. Similar printed pictorial friezes had been recommended in an American advertisement of 1907 as introducing 'charm and ... character' to a child's room and serving as a source of 'continual delight ... to the little people'.

Very few nurseries survive intact with wallpaper in situ, but some evidence for the use of nursery friezes can be seen in dolls-houses of the period. The Amy Miles' house, dated around 1890 (now at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood), for example, is decorated with a scaled-down replica of a Cecil Aldin frieze of ducks and chickens.

Amy Miles' dolls-house, showing a detail of the nursery, around 1890. Museum no. W.146-1921

Amy Miles' dolls-house, showing a detail of the nursery, around 1890. Museum no. W.146-1921

Like so many other designers of nursery papers, Aldin (1870-1935) was better known as an illustrator. Another dolls-house, 3 Devonshire Villas, from about 1900, has a well-stocked nursery with a pictorial frieze. And in the 1930s-style Pamela Warne house, two replicas of full-size friezes can be seen in the nursery, including a panel from The Hunting Frieze designed by H. Watkins Wild for Sandersons, and first issued in 1904. The full-size version had been intended for an adult audience, probably in a billiard room or a smoking room. The decorations - of horses ploughing, and a hunting scene - were executed by different hands.

Of course, the choice of wallpapers for a nursery play-room or child's bedroom has not, until recently, been the choice of the child; instead, the decoration of the nursery reflected the parents' class, tastes and income, as well as expressing some of their assumptions about childhood in general and expectations for their child in particular. Increasingly, however, children have been allowed to choose their own furnishings, and their choice of wallpaper has reflected their hobbies and enthusiasms, but also the current popular culture, with space travel, television, films, pop music and various sports translated into wallpaper patterns. In America in the 1950s teenagers became a recognised demographic group and manufacturers of all kinds began to develop and market products aimed at this new market. Amongst the wallpaper patterns the teenager could choose were prom corsages, 45rpm records, football games and hot-rod cars.

'Quad Player 2', wallpaper, 1995-6. Museum no. E.187-2000

'Quad Player 2', wallpaper, 1995-6. Museum no. E.187-2000


Children of all ages are now a specific market targeted by the merchandising operation that inevitably accompanies the launch of films (The Lion King, Pocahontas, Toy Story, and so on) and the promotion of pop groups (Spice Girls), and football teams (Manchester United, Arsenal, etc.). What remains common to all of these designs - for children from the 1850s to now - is that they are all baldly pictorial, with motifs repeated with little or no attempt at integration into a conventional pattern.

The gendering of choice in decoration is still apparent, even when children make their own selection. In an article on children's wallpaper in The Independent (25 October 1997) an 8-year-old boy said he liked the wild animal border he'd chosen, but went on: 'I'd love Star Wars wallpaper' and Indiana Jones curtains. His 10-year-old sister, however, chose 'a border with unicorns, rabbits, fairies, and a castle - it was pretty and I like those kind of things'. And a new kind of moral message appeared in children's wallpaper in the 1990s: now the middle-class child could express his or her interest in saving the planet by choosing Crown's Go Wild! wallpaper featuring endangered animal species.

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