Wallpapers and textiles always have been closely related, with fashionable designs for one sparking creative adaptations in the other. Imported papers and textiles were rare in North America before the mid-1700s. Consider that even a fashionable chap like the first President of the United States chose paint over wallpaper for many of the public rooms at Mount Vernon, reserving papers for bedrooms, still in his favorite Prussian blue.
When, after the Revolution, tariffs and other restrictions that had slowed the importation of both English and French wallpapers disappeared, wallpapers were quickly embraced by a color-hungry populace. Those early imported papers would look odd to us today: they were sold in hand-decorated rolls composed of squares that had been glued together, rather than printed. Early advertisements promoted wallpapers as a cheaper and better alternative to whitewashed plaster, but wallpapers did not truly become inexpensive until late in the 19th century, with machine printing.
Almost all early papers were block printed, a process similar to that used in woodblock printing. Patterns are carved in relief on a series of wood blocks, one for each color. Blocks are placed in the bed of a small press and coated with paint. The press then transfers the image to a roll of paper. Some block-printed wallpapers can be made with a single block; others require dozens or even hundreds of blocks.
Popular block-printed wallpapers in the late 1700s and early 1800s included floral chintzes, toiles, flocked damasks, papers with architectural motifs, arabesques, and complex striped patterns.
The brightly colored florals of chintz and the monochromatic pastoral scenery of toiles were borrowed directly from fabrics: chintz from India, toile from France. Thin-line designs printed on an off-white ground in a single tint, toiles where wildly popular in the last decades of the 18th century. A favorite of the Colonial Revival a century later, toiles in blue, black, brown, dark red, or green still make a striking design statement today.
Damasks have a rich, subtle figural quality, originally created by the laborious process of adhering dyed and chopped fabric to the paper after an initial printing. A less expensive technique known as “imitation damask” gave the look without the labor by printing the pattern in a deeper color on top of a lighter shade of the same hue. (Today the same effect is achieved digitally.)
In the 1790s, panaromas—mural paintings displayed in round rooms constructed especially for the purpose—created a demand for scenic wallpapers. Subjects ranged from murals recently uncovered in ancient Pompeii to Chinese landscapes, flora, and fauna.
In the early 1800s many sophisticated papers based on French designs emerged, among them arabesque patterns. The term refers to the placement of naturalistic figures or vignettes in an alternating or bilateral format. The figures are well spaced, but with a tension that creates balance as well as a sense of volume. Color selection may be especially dramatic in arabesque patterns; one stunning document example features greens and black against a vivid coral ground.
Trompe l’oeil patterns of ashlar (cut-stone) block designs were especially popular in foyers and entries in the Federal period, where presumably they suggested the durabilty of a medieval castle keep.
Papers with alternating rows of stripes and vines, or alternating stripes and floral patterns, may seem busy to modern eyes, but they were quite popular at the turn of the 19th century. Each of the repeating rows incorporated a surprisingly intricate design: tiny stylized pineapples, wheat sheaves, hop vines, or less identifiable botanicals alternated with subtly coordinating stripes or a floral design of a different pattern. These complex patterns were usually rendered in light or dark colors on a ground of the opposite intensity.
If most of these patterns seem familiar, that’s because papers from the late 1700s and early 1800s borrowed heavily from earlier motifs. Stripes, for example, go back to the 18th-century regime of Louis XV, when colored ribbons and swags ran riot over the walls at Versailles, often in combination with bows, knots, and small floral bouquets. Chinese symbols are of course far older: the Chinese bird-and-flower motif, for instance, goes back nearly 1,000 years to the Sung dynasty.
Fast-forward to the early 20th century, when flourishing magazines like House Beautiful published the latest machine-printed wallpaper designs, many of them directly linked to the colonial past. Highlights from a roundup in 1920 included a Chinese tapestry print with a romanticized bridge over a pond; an English chintz of blossoming roses and vines on a white ground; and a paper with detached roses floating on a grey-and-white striped ground. The only motif missing is a toile.
Deceptively simple patterns like medallions or daisies were often economically created in the block-print era using a technique called slip printing. Unlike most papers, which required a separate carved block for each color, slip printing creates a shadow effect by using only a single printing block. On a paper like Adelphi’s ‘Strawberry Hill Floret’, for instance, the single block at first prints the darker color to create a shadow that will appear behind the flower. The registration of the block is then shifted slightly and the flower is overprinted in white against the dark shadow line, lending depth.
American Stenciled Wallpaper
A form of repeated decoration created by applying paint through a cutout pattern, stencils are relatively simple to apply, and became an indigenous art form in 18th- and early 19th-century America. Varied in style, shape, and source, historical stencil patterns borrow from contemporaneous wallpaper patterns, classical motifs, and folk art, all of it cross-pollinated with forms from nature.
Historical motifs are legion, from roses, and baskets of flowers to botanicals with stylized leaves, vines, and the weeping willow. High-style stenciling lifted neoclassical elements: Swags, bellflowers, urns, reeding and fluting, shields, and fans were all popular, as were patriotic motifs such as fields of stars and the eagle. Note that stencils for walls and furniture created by non-English ethnicities in America often go by other names; the intricate floral patterns known as rosemaling in the Scandinavian countries, for example, can also be adapted for stencils.