Thanks to the separation of workplace and home, British middle-class houses in the early 19th century had, for the first time, sufficient space to dedicate rooms, and even whole floors, to the accommodation of children and their carers – the nursemaid (later nanny) and the governess.
This development was encouraged by writers on architecture, house decoration, and household management. J. C. Loudon, in The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion (1838), 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 – although it seems to have taken some time for nursery wallpapers to become commonplace. In 1881, the British architect Colonel Robert William 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".
Many of the earliest wallpaper designs 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. A widely held view at this time was that children were uniquely sensitive to their environment and must therefore be surrounded by things which were beautiful, 'honest' and inspiring – the production of wallpapers which made this task easier was sound business sense.
Colonel R. W. Edis in The Decoration and Furniture of Town Houses (1881) promotes the idea that children's wallpaper should also serve to educate both in terms of informing and offering moral exemplars: "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. 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".
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 David Walker's print The Months (1893), a wallpaper derived from the hugely popular illustrations by Kate Greenaway, embody the distinctly feminine virtues expected of the middle-class female child.
Lady Barker in The Bedroom and Boudoir (1878), suggests 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 William Defoe's literary hero Robinson Crusoe 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 behaviour appropriate to their class and gender. As Samuel Smiles wrote, 'The nation comes from the nursery.'
An educational approach to furnishing a child's surroundings continued in Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman's influential book The Decoration of Houses, first published in 1897. They 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. Some were also 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 (1845 – 1915), a prolific artist and book illustrator. 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).
Walter Crane's wallpapers were bought by discerning customers concerned for their children's pleasure and comfort. In 1874, Samuel and Olivia Clemens built a new house in Hartford, Connecticut, United States, and a few years later, having more money, they decorated the nursery with Crane's wallpaper 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'.
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'. 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 wallpapers, 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 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.
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'. Children and teenagers have continued this DIY tradition, personalising their rooms by pasting up newspaper and magazine cuttings illustrating their hobbies, passions and 'crushes'.
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 resided 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 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, to the lively depiction of the new Disney cartoon character Mickey Mouse. 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, is decorated with a scaled-down replica of a frieze of ducks and chickens illustrated by the designer Cecil Aldin (1870 – 1935).
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.
Children of all ages are now a specific market targeted by the merchandising operation that inevitably accompanies the launch of films, the promotion of pop groups, and football teams. What remains common to all of these designs – for children from the 1850s to now – is that they are all pictorial, with motifs repeated with little or no attempt at integration into a conventional pattern.