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. Homes at that time 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 of factory fumes, soot and smoke. Unlike wood-panelling or distempered walls (coated with a water-based paint made from powdered chalk and glue), wallpaper could not be cleaned, and once the grime began to show, it had to be replaced.
Before the introduction of washable wall coverings, some manufacturers made a virtue of designs which simply didn't show the 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".
Much of the advice about wallpaper found in guides and manuals concerned with furnishing, decoration and household management in the late 19th century relates specifically to the problems of dirt and dust. Various suggestions were made about choosing wallpapers conducive to domestic health and cleanliness. Papering over the old wallpaper was considered "a slovenly and unhealthy practice", and choosing flock (a wallpaper that imitated expensive cut-velvet hangings) was advised against 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.
However, it is significant that none of these writers suggest using new 'sanitary' papers, which were specifically designed to be washable. Lady Barker, in her book The Bedroom and Boudoir (1878), mentions papers "made expressly, which do not attract dirt" and suggests that some are of "lovely design". But for most it seems that their practical advantages were outweighed 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 sanitary wallpapers 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 recommend other strategies to protect wallpaper, such as the use of a panelled wood topped with a decorative rail (dado) up to a height of three feet because it protects "delicately-tinted paperhangings" from "contact with chairs and careless fingers". Others promote the use of embossed imitation leather, lacquered and varnished, because it will not be affected by gas or smoke. But it seems that the sanitary papers themselves were thought fit only for the poor. The 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.
Distemper colours used to print most wallpapers were not waterproof and manufacturers had been trying to produce a washable paper since the mid-19th century. In 1853, John Stather & Sons Ltd., a wallpaper manufacturers founded in Hull, England, 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.
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. Some nursery papers were also produced as sanitaries. Kate Greenaway's drawings for her Almanack (1893) were acquired by David Walker & Co. "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 space, and washable papers would have been a great advantage in such a setting.
Another more serious health hazard associated with wallpapers was the presence of arsenic and lead in wallpaper pigments. In 1775, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742 – 86) discovered a new green pigment that contained arsenic (copper arsenite). 'Scheele's Green', as it then became known, was hugely popular and used widely in paints, fabrics and wallpapers. Illness and even death 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 & Co. 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 Walter 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 sanitary wallpapers 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 hugely popular, using richer colours and more elegant designs than those which preceded them.
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".
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, and soaps, tooth-brushes and rubber ducks for the bathroom.
Where the old sanitary papers had soon yellowed to a dirty nicotine colour as the varnish was degraded by exposure to light, the new papers, which used vinyl resins or latex derivatives, stayed fresh and clean-looking. By 1961, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) had developed 'Vymura', a paper coated with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and printed with specially developed inks. Such papers were no longer limited to kitchens and bathrooms but were promoted for use throughout the house.