Guide to 20th-Century Wallpaper

Your guide to exploring 20th-century wallpaper for your old house.

Colonial-style wallpaper lights up a stairwell in a summer house in Maine. (Photo: Brian Vanden Brink)

Consult the big tomes on historic wallpapers all you want, says Stuart Stark. When it comes to wallcoverings for 20th-century houses, histories give only a tantalizing glimpse of the papers that were truly popular. “Those books are filters for high style,” says Stark, co-owner of Charles Rupert Designs, a purveyor of reproduction wallpapers in Victoria, British Columbia. “They don’t tell you what 99 percent of the population was buying.”

Considering that the average homeowner ordered his or her papers from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog for much of the 20th century, Stark has a point. Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr. may have dissed wallpaper in The Decoration of Houses (1897), but 20th-century homeowners were eager to perk up Victorian-gloomy or blank-as-a-slate walls with fresh new wallcoverings—especially since an entire room could be papered for pennies.

Never before had fashions in wallpaper been in a position to change so quickly. “Up to about 1908, the general public was still buying what you’d call Victorian wallpapers,” says Stark, who owns scores of catalogs from the first half of the 20th century. “Then there was a sea change. The catalogs go from Victorian to Arts & Crafts in literally one or two years.”

More was afoot than the shift from Victorian cabbage roses to Arts & Crafts friezes, though. Where Victorians had eclectic tastes, 20th-century moderns looked to a new kind of tastemaker for selective advice: the interior decorator. Despite their disinclination for wallpapers, Wharton and Codman set the stage for lighter colors to emerge, calling for interiors with “plenty of white paint, a pale wallpaper with bow knots, and fragile chairs dipped in liquid gilding, covered with a flowered silk and cotton material.”

Left to right: ‘Springtime,’ a 1920s floral chintz; ‘Regency Stripe,’ a 1940s striped paper; ‘Mica Stripe,’ suitable for homes through the 1920s, complemented by the die-cut ‘Roslyn’ border. All from Charles Rupert Designs. (Photo: Rob Huntley/Lightstream)

This last comment was an allusion to chintz, the multi-colored floral cloth popularized in the first decades of the 20th century by America’s Princess of Chintz, Elsie de Wolfe. In England, chintz fabrics and wallpapers had never gone completely out of style, and when trendsetters like de Wolfe rediscovered it, wallpaper manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic revived their old pattern books.

Chintz was not the only blast from the past to go mainstream. The turn of the 20th century was a period of intense interest in the colonial past, and papers from the 18th- and early-19th centuries were widely copied and reproduced. Never mind that wallpaper was relatively rare in colonial dwellings. Americans wanted to romanticize their Colonial and Tudor Revival-style nests, and tapestries, scenics, Chinoiserie, shimmering stripes, and papers festooned with trellises, ribbons, and roses were one way to do it. A group of papers showcased in a 1920 issue of House Beautiful hits most of the highlights; just visualize the descriptions.

  • A paper with bunches of blue, rose, and lavender flowers descending on linear vines on a warm ivory ground.
  • A Chinese tapestry print featuring densely packed rustic scenery (vignettes include a woman under a bamboo umbrella and a romanticized bridge over a pond) in rose, green, heliotrope, and blue on a black background.
  • An English chintz of blossoming roses and vines on a white ground.
  • A “Chinese Chippendale” paper, with brilliantly colored, stylized trees and peacocks, and line drawings of pagodas and rocks in the background.
  • A paper with detached roses floating on a grey-and-white striped ground.

The 1760 house in Colonial, but the paper shown here would be just as comfortable in a Colonial Revival setting—especially set off by glossy white trimwork. (Photo: Brian Vanden Brink)

Papers like these remained popular, in one form or another, throughout much of the 20th century. Perhaps that’s because they make use of much older motifs. Stripes, for instance, recall the 18th-century reign of Louis XV, when ribbons of color ran riot over the walls, often in combination with knots and bows, as well as small bouquets of flowers. The symbols in Chinese papers are even older; the bird-and-flower motif, for example, dates back to the Sung period (960-1280). It’s a good guess that these “Chinese-y” motifs were reinterpreted more than once before they appeared in mass-market papers of the 1920s.

In any case, did it really matter that the paper was machine made rather than block printed? “Decorative success does not depend primarily on the means of production but on the quality of the design,” wrote Phyllis Ackerman in her 1923 book, Wallpaper, Its History, Design, and Use. “The successful use of wallpaper as a decoration is itself an art.”

Left to right: An abstract ‘Thread’ design from the 1930s, where the fine lines merge optically to create a subtle color; in ‘Deco Bird’ (1930s), stylized bird shapes form a trellis pattern. Both from Charles Rupert Designs. (Photo: Rob Huntley/Lightstream)

Many of the finishes on these “artful” papers were meant to enhance their ties to the distant past. Some tapestry papers, for instance, were overprinted with light or dark lines to mimic the texture of woven fabric, Stark says. Striped papers were often coated with mica, a highly reflective treatment that made the paper shimmer. A complimentary ’20s treatment for a luminous mica-on-white striped paper might be a floral border, die-cut on both edges to follow the shapes in the leaves and flowers.

Although friezes had gone out of fashion for formal rooms by the ’20s, they lived on in nurseries. Many decorative borders were adapted from illustrations in children’s books by artists such as Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway. By the 1930s, colors began to drab down. Pastels grew even paler. The first two-dimensional papers appeared—deceptively simple, linear patterns that were almost abstract. Take, for instance, a plaid pattern composed of ultra-thin lines in closely related colors. When the paper is hung on the wall, the lines merge optically to create the impression of a single color.

In a bedroom under the eaves at Beauport, Charles Sleepers’ eclectic-fantasy-on-a-colonial-theme house in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a Chinoise tapestry paper hovers over the spool bed. (Photo: David Bohl/Historic New England)

There was even less color in the early 1940s, as chemicals and dyes went to the war effort. At war’s end, however, the romantic pastels and florals popularized in the ’20s re-emerged. Spriggled with flowers, polka dots, or bunches of roses, papers were obviously pretty. Perhaps the quintessential ’40s Colonial Revival-style paper was a Wedgwood blue or green sprigged with white flowers.

In the 1940s and ’50s, vignette papers appeared for the first time. Scenes of islands and lakes float on an off-white background; kitchens with miniature shelves and tiny teacups hover in mid-air. Vignette papers were especially popular for children’s rooms. “In Canada, we had some great ones with Mounties, igloos, and dog sleds,” Stark recalls with a laugh.

Then there are the Victorian holdovers. When Stark stumbled over some papers with amorphous, cloudy shapes sprinkled with mica in his ’40s catalogs, he didn’t recognize them at first. “They were ceiling papers,” he says. “It astonished me to find that they came so far forward. So when you find one of these shiny papers left in a closet, hold onto it. You may have a period piece as old as 1908—or something from the 1940s.”

Tags: Interiors Mary Ellen Polson OHJ January/February 2000 Old-House Journal wallpaper

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