Wallpaper in the Gilded Age, Part II: Historical Context

1893 was eventful. 

On January 15 the Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble, a pillar of the Lenox colony, died in London; on May 1, the fairgrounds of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago opened; and in June, George and Sarah Morgan were getting settled in their new home: Ventfort Hall in Lenox. 

In 1893, much of the nation was mired in an economic depression. Yet, this seems to have had little effect on the “cottagers,” the elite group who could afford vacation homes in multiple locations. Fine new estates (Erskine Park, Belvoir Terrace, Wheatleigh, Wyndhurst, Shadow Brook, and Lakeside) were completed in Lenox and Stockbridge (a neighboring town) without pause during the 1890-1895 stretch. So too was Ventfort Hall. No doubt as Ventfort Hall was being finished, many cottagers in Berkshire County were planning trips to the Columbian Fair.

1. The Court of Honor at the Columbian Exposition.

It's estimated that 27 million people saw the “White City” before it closed on October 31 at a time when the population of the U. S. was around 100 million. In 1893, monopolies were in favor; some resulted in great fortunes, and some of these fortunes enabled great building projects. Monopolies also figure in the wallpaper story; the major firms consolidated into the National Wallpaper Company in 1892, creating near-total market control until 1900.[1] 

Wallpaper was hugely prolific in the nineteenth century. While it's impossible to give a full account here, a sketch can begin with the statistics gathered for a World's Fair—not the one in Chicago in 1893, but the one in London in 1851. Before considering those statistics, it's useful to recall that practically all colonial wallpaper had been British, and that French goods were preferred after the Revolution. This change was accelerated not only for nationalistic reasons, but because French manufacturers in the early nineteenth century were the undisputed design leaders. But the British did not take this lying down, and by 1850 a great reform movement in wallpaper design was underway.

Reformed or not, British wallpaper was popular in America at the time of the Great Exhibition. So was French wallpaper. However, the most popular wallpaper in the U. S. by 1850, roll for roll, was almost certainly domestic, and we know this because of the statistics which were collected for the Great Exhibition. A comparison of those statistics with generally accepted population figures for the era is revealing. 

By 1850, a US industry which had barely existed at the time of the Revolution was second only to Britain in per capita production of wallpaper. The British were producing twelve square feet per capita to the nine square feet of the U. S. and the six square feet of the French. Equally important was the emergence of printing machines. Great Exhibition figures show that France had 12 machines and Britain 20, at a time when the U.S. had 40. It is therefore not surprising that by 1893, 43 years later, the continuing proliferation of equipment along with rising standards of living had resulted in staggering increases in wallpaper consumption.[2]  The critical hike in the U. S. seems to have occurred soon after mechanization began. Industry estimates suggest that by 1860 wallpaper use in the U. S. had increased six-fold over 1850. Consumption continued to climb throughout the late nineteenth century and seems not to have abated until 1930.

2. Commemorative wallpaper of the Great Exhibition, 1851.

What of the history of styles? We've already touched on design reform in Britain. Let's look at an unreformed wallpaper. The commemorative wallpaper above depicts the Great Exhibition of 1851. With its stairways-going-nowhere and incongruous blend of the iconic Crystal Palace, French-inspired landscape scenery, and wooden framework, it effortlessly qualifies as an example of bad taste according to reform sensibilities. The reform movement for household furnishings led by A. W. Pugin, Charles Eastlake, and Owen Jones was a curious blend of aestheticism, nationalism, and moralism. Consumers were instructed that bad design was not only bad in itself: it must never be allowed into the home where it could influence young minds. No doubt this watercolor sketch for a wallpaper design by Owen Jones was thought by reformers to be far less damaging to young minds than the Great Exhibition wallpaper.[3] 

3. "Moresque" design by Owen Jones; 1858.

The reformers held that representing natural forms on wallpaper was dishonest, and that throwing in three-dimensional architectural motifs was even worse. The reformers felt that ornamented walls should remain wall-like—flat. Stylized wallpaper flowers passed muster, because they were abstracted. At the other end of the scale were naturalistic florals, which became popular in France as early as the 1790s. Twist-knots in frames were an early variant. Many French companies continued to offer naturalistic flowers in a variety of forms throughout the nineteenth century. These found wide acceptance in the American market. 

By 1893, an American preference for naturalism plus some elements of reform had developed into a style. We might call it the post-reform floral. The color and variety of floral composition appeared within a framework. The grid structure was readily apparent and so too were alternating repeats in alternating rows. A 1905 American wallpaper design textbook explained how to transform a lush French block print design of over 30 colors into an American cylinder print design of about 10 colors. And it did so with no sense of shame.[4]

The wallpaper at Ventfort Hall would probably have won approval from the reformers. Much of it was high-minded as well as high in cost. Yet the practicality of the service stairwell papers and the varnished tile paper seems to head off in a slightly different direction. Above all, the wallpapers were elaborate in design. And in 1893 this elaboration was needed in order to fit into and stand up to their surroundings.

4. American cylinder rollers as shown on pg. 3 of ICS textbook. 


[1] Among important companies, only Birge (in Buffalo) and Campbell (in Brooklyn) were holdouts.

[2] This superabundance helps to explain why the walls of newly-built Ventfort Hall in 1893 displayed at least twelve wallpaper patterns and probably many more. Nor was this an unusual amount of wallpaper for large homes of this era. 

[3] The wallpaper designs above are from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum: the watercolor design by Owen Jones is from 1858: 'Wallpaper sample, called "Moresque", designed for John Trumble & Co.' The commemorative wallpaper for the Great Exhibition was probably produced by Heywood, Higginbottom & Smith. It was one of several chosen by Henry Cole in 1853 to illustrate "False Principles of Design" at the Museum of Ornamental Art, Marlborough House, London. Specifically, the design was said to illustrate False Principle Number 28: false perspective.

[4] International Correspondence School Reference Library: “Section 10: Wallpaper Designing”, Scranton, 1905, p. 37.

caption credits:

1. The Court of Honor from The Official Views of the World's Columbian Exposition, C. D. Arnold and H. D. Higinbotham, 1893; this public domain image from the Project Gutenberg Ebook has been posted on Wikipedia.

2. Great Exhibition commemorative paper, c. 1851. V & A museum no. E.158-1934.

3. "Moresque", designed for John Trumble & Co. by Owen Jones. V & A museum no. 8341:50.

4. American cylinder rollers as shown on pg. 3 of "Wallpaper Designing," I. C. S. Reference Library.

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