A history of shopping for wallpaper

The earliest makers and sellers of wallpapers were stationers. The trade cards of late 17th-century London stationers George Minnikin and Edward Butling both specify that they sold paperhangings (as wallpaper was then commonly known) in addition to 'Shop-Books, Locket-Books, Writing-Paper, Brown-Paper, and Whited-brown Paper, Cards, and all other Sorts of Stationary Wares, Good and Reasonable'.

Much of our information about the wallpaper trade in the 17th and 18th centuries is derived from trade cards, billheads (receipts) and invoices. These list, and occasionally illustrate, the various kinds and styles of wallpapers they sold, and in some cases manufactured.

James Wheeley's trade card, from London Wallpapers 1690 – 1840, by Treve Rosoman, 1992, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Consumer choice at this time was fairly limited, with London the main centre for production and trade until demand increased sufficiently to support provincial manufacturers. It is estimated that in the period between 1690 to 1820, there were more than 500 stationers, paperhangers and paperstainers operating in London, and that 90% of the 255,731 pieces of wallpaper produced in Britain in 1800 were manufactured in London.

Richard Masefield's trade card, from London Wallpapers 1690 – 1840, by Treve Rosoman, 1992, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At first, customers purchased paperhangings direct from the manufacturer, but by the middle of the 18th century, fashionable upholsterers such as Thomas Bromwich and Thomas Chippendale were printing and selling their own designs. These businesses, which dealt in furniture and furnishing textiles, were similar to present-day interior decorators.

Paper was generally printed to order once the customer had made their selection at the warehouse 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, "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".

Though wallpaper production developed in a number of towns and cities throughout the country, provincial upholsterers and dealers promoted their stock by advertising its London origins. William Armitage, advertising in The Leeds Mercury in 1773 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 ...". 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 could 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".

Soon though, paperstainers were comparing 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".

From the late 18th century, trade cards for manufacturers begin to 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, claimed "Export Orders Speedily Executed". For some prospective purchasers though cost seems to have been a discouraging factor. 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".

By 1839, French papers were being widely imported throughout Britain. Known for their luxury and elegance, a writer in the Art Union Journal also acknowledged their artistic excellence and superiority. In the United States, French papers became more popular than the English (especially when duty was removed in 1861). The commissioners in charge of decorating the White House, the official residence of the President, for the first time in 1800, discussed "the fitness of pattern, preferring French papers, or second best, those made in England".

Portion of wallpaper, maker unknown, hung in La Haute Ville, Vaison, France, formerly the residence of the Marquis de Taulignan, early 19th century. Museum no. E.3405-1922. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pictorial trade cards were supplemented by other forms of advertising. Manufacturers of lavish panoramic wallpapers publicised their new designs with promotional brochures, and coloured lithographs showing the whole design on a single fold-out sheet. This practice has continued into the 21st century as demonstrated by the Vivienne Westwood's wallpaper collection for Cole & Son (2009).

From the mid- to late 19th century, customers chose their papers from bound pattern books that contained samples of all the patterns and colourways in a manufacturer's current range. The name of the pattern, and sometimes its price, were noted beside each sample.

Pattern book, containing wallpaper samples, Jeffrey & Co., 1837 – 44, England. Museum no. E.431-1943. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Further insights into the wallpaper trade, changing tastes and decorating styles can be found in the order books of the London decorators Cowtan & Sons. 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. 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.

Wallpaper order book for the years 1836 – 41, Cowtan & Sons Ltd., formerly of Oxford Street, London, England. Museum no. E.1864-1946. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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 leading names of the time such as William Morris and Walter Crane.

(Left to Right:) Panel of wallpaper, Heywood, Higginbottom & Smith, 1853 – 55, Manchester, England. Museum no. E.158-1934. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 'Fruit' (or 'Pomegranate') wallpaper pattern, designed by Morris & Co., manufactured by Jeffrey & Co., 1866, England. Museum no. E.447-1919. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Portion of wallpaper, designed by Walter Crane, manufactured by Jeffrey & Co., 1877, England. Museum no. E.1849-1934. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However, the number of retail outlets open to the public was limited. Larger manufacturers such as Essex and Co. and Jeffrey & Co. 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, featuring displays of paper on the walls, on moveable hinged screens and in pattern books on tables.

(Left to Right:) 'The Westminster Wallpapers', bound pattern book with 163 specimens, Essex & Co. catalogue for the London showrooms, 1899, England. Museum no. E.6340-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Elsewhere wallpapers were sold direct to the public by firms such as Liberty & Co. and Morris & Co., both of which specialised in selling complete ranges of household furnishings. Generally, the ordinary customer purchased wallpapers from their decorator who kept a number of pattern books in stock for the purpose. This tended to give decorators a disproportionate power in directing customer choice, especially since the decorator was likely to be more concerned with profit margin than with the artistic quality of the papers he sold. Amongst those who objected to this situation 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.

Trade card of Ward, House Painter, Decorater and Paper Hanger, engraved by H. Colvill, early 19th century, London, England. Museum no. E.320-1967. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gradually, with the rise of department stores, as well as those which specialised in the full range of house-furnishings, wallpapers became more widely available.

The many publications 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. 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 the choice of wallpaper, recommending the products of particular manufacturers. Jeffrey & Co., Woollams and Essex & Co. are frequently mentioned as dependable sources of good wallpapers, and the designs of William Morris and Walter Crane are the most commonly illustrated or described.

Printed advertisement for Jeffrey and Co.'s artistic wallpapers, by Walter Crane, 1890s, Britain. Museum no. E.4188-1915. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Where earlier trade cards and advertisements had shown both male and female customers, often shopping together, 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. 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".

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 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, with many wallpapers now imitating effects such as stippling or rag rolling. Papers can be purchased from DIY stores found in every city and in out-of-town warehouses, as well as from decorators and the manufacturers themselves. Catalogues, swatches and sample books are used by customers to select the style, finish and colour-way. Much inspiration comes from the plethora of magazines and internet sites devoted to interiors and home decoration, and the home decorating and make-over shows that have become a television staple.

Background image: Detail: James Wheeley's trade card, from London Wallpapers 1690 – 1840, by Treve Rosoman, 1992, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London