Wallpaper in the Gilded Age Part V: Commercial Context

We turn now to how wallpaper was sold in the late Gilded Age. Again, the World’s Fair of 1893 is a good jumping-off place. The central court of the Columbian Exposition conveyed formalism, symmetry, and a sense of grandeur. The expansive pools at the Fair were meant to symbolize 400 years of unbroken and supposedly laudatory progress.

1. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

The face of the White City was one thing, but the graphic style of the commercial interests of the day was another. An ad for the wallpaper monopoly (the National Wallpaper Company) from The Decorator and Furnisher was probably shooting for "grand." I believe they landed on "grandiose" instead.

2. An advertisement for the National Wallpaper Company. 

3. The pavilion of the National Wallpaper Company.
Whether grand or grandiose, the pride of a successful industry is captured in the image of the exuberant National Wallpaper pavilion at the Fair from the same magazine. It's only mildly surprising to learn that the exterior frieze, dado, pillars, and panel decorations lavished on the pavilion were made entirely of Lincrusta. We’ll talk more about Lincrusta below, but first, a few caveats about our sources. 

The Decorator and Furnisher magazine (1882-97) is a unique base for exploring the Ventfort Hall wallpapers. The publication’s style—ornate, rich, conservative—mirrors the style of Ventfort Hall itself. However, the editors and writers of The Decorator and Furnisher were never less than rhapsodic about the industry they covered. The result is a blurring (if not an erasing) of the line between advertising and editorial. The manufacturers were more straightforward in their advertising copy but this too was a hard sell. They were not selling to the general public. They were selling to the sellers of their products: the showrooms, distributors, and retail store owners in a vast and competitive marketplace.[1]

4. Garden Door ad, The Decorator and Furnisher. 

There was a division between popular taste, without which the mass-market wallpaper business could not have advanced, and the taste of the elite. Yet they were intimately related. The practices of Warren, Fuller & Company, a top New York firm, were perhaps typical. Most of their advertising copy and graphics (like the “Garden Door” ad) seem directed at the top 1% of customers like the Morgans, the proud owners of Ventfort Hall, and Rotch and Tilden, the Morgans’ architects. Yet their bread and butter was undoubtedly located elsewhere: in sales to the professional classes who needed to keep up appearances, and in yet more sales to the masses that decorated cheaply and often. Warren, Fuller & Co. admitted as much in the last sentence of an article: “Of course, we have white and brown blanks, and the cheap bronzes [gilts] that most houses make to suit the public demand.”[2] This might be the best place to discuss the genius of William Morris, whose designs managed to suit the demand of the 99% as well as the 1%.

It’s no exaggeration to say that William Morris created a popular wallpaper style in the late nineteenth century practically single-handedly. Somehow, his designs appealed to both sides of the natural/stylized divide. His design work most exploited the hand-drawn lines of the post-medieval period. These were vital, and even crude. Yet from them he crafted smooth repetitive ornament. His repeats filled the wall without imprisoning it. The more didactic qualities of Dr. Christopher Dresser’s designs offer an interesting contrast. Dresser’s “art botany” style was impressive, especially to design theorists, but it’s doubtful that his wallpapers sold anywhere near as well as Morris’s. Thanks to the wide-open wallpaper market, originals as well as copies of both men's designs were widely available. 

5. William Morris design for "Fruit" (1862).

6. William Morris design for "Vine" (1883).
7. Christopher Dresser wallpaper.

8. Christopher Dresser wallpaper.

In 1882 Harper's Bazar commented on how Morris’s papers fit the marketplace: "The rich flock papers, to be sure, the stamped leather papers, the linoleum stamped in low relief with fine designs, are another thing. But one can, with the exercise of taste and discretion, giving a little time to the choice, compass as fine effects from papers costing a tenth of the price of those. All of the imported papers are dear, and not all of them are beautiful. Those of Mr. Talbert's designings and of Walter Crane's are pretty sure to be fine, and we are prone to think nothing ever quite equals those that come to us in William Morris's name. A large book of William Morris's papers may be found in almost any paperhanging shop; as one turns them over, and thinks of the room at home, one is filled with longing for the dark or light jasmine, for the blue-green wreath, for the robin's-egg tile and diaper, for one and all, perhaps; and one is only reconciled to getting quite as good an effect, on the whole, from a paper costing little or nothing in comparison, when one finds that these lovely things are four dollars and a half a roll.”[3]

The comment about wallpaper costing "four dollars and a half a roll,” was meant to shock. The writer’s reference to wallpaper "costing a tenth of the price" is exactly right, for in 1882 a lot of decent wallpaper was selling for no more than forty-five cents a roll. The situation was probably not much different eleven years later, when Ventfort Hall was being furnished.

I asked another wallpaper researcher what he thought about wallpaper in the early 1890s: what, if anything, was distinctive about it? Bo Sullivan, owner of Arcalus Period Design, said he felt that by 1893 the overtly "artistic" experimentation of the Aesthetic/Moorish/Romanesque styles of the 1880s was giving way. Coming into prominence were the conventional scrolling delicacies of Empire, masculine medieval revival styles, and feminine florals.[4]  After looking at dozens of early-90s issues of The Decorator and Furnisher, I have to agree. The decoration of the drawing room below, though certainly heavy, is nevertheless an exercise in floral forms.

9. Drawing room, Bartholomae & Co.
These multi-part decorations were elaborate for good cause. Many homes below the upper-class level lacked dadoes, deep coves, and other ceiling ornaments. Multi-part paper decoration (notably, friezes and borders) embellished this starkness. 

The profusion of forms was impressive, but it masked a problem. The gradual mechanization of the wallpaper industry has already been mentioned. Wallpaper is perennially based on cheap and efficient replication. In the 1870s the wallpaper manufacturers found themselves in an enviable situation: mechanized cylindrical templates began turning in earnest at just about the time that cheap wood pulp became available. The only practical limitation to supply was demand, and the demand was huge.

One spokesman was supremely confident about meeting the demand. In language no less ornate than his products, he declared that “as the forces of nature are guided by creative power to produce the lilies of the field and the colorings of the sunset, so also the mechanical forces that blindly do our bidding are here harnessed to the production of beauty that will create an art environment, and an atmosphere of beauty for the nation at large.”[5] Despite this confidence rampant mechanization ultimately fell short. As production shifted from handicraft to machine-craft, voices were raised in protest. Handicraft was not so easily disposed of. By the 1890s consumers were demanding, and the manufacturers scrambling to provide, cheap wallpaper made by machine that nevertheless looked handmade and distinctive.

The manufacturers responded to these challenges by redoubling their efforts at mechanization and consolidation, and, with rhetoric. They went so far as to suggest that machine-craft was not only as good as handicraft—it was better! 

An editorial (p. 139, September, 1893) proclaimed that the National Wallpaper Company's pavilion at the White City was "devoted to the exalted mission of showing how manufactured art, with its centralized execution, can equal, if not indeed surpass the feebler execution of the individual hand. The work executed by the artist's hand may be valuable for its rarity, but machinery harnessed to art may elevate a whole continent of people to a higher plane of existence." These lofty sentiments beg questioning. 

Wallpaper was a success with all segments of the American public. But, the dubious suggestion that machine craft had outstripped the hand of man himself (and, by analogy in the previous quote, the hand of the Creator as well) could probably only have come from a manufacturer. Granted, consumers as well as producers reaped benefits from the “centralized execution” characteristic of the age of monopolies. Yet in the years around 1893, a time when a brutal depression was taking hold, artisans and laborers, particularly those thrown out of work, would hardly have agreed that machine dominance and manufactured art were elevating a continent of people to a higher plane.[6]

10. Samples of Lincrusta made by the Frederick Beck & Company factory in Stamford, Connecticut.

The embodiment of the conflict between machine-made and hand-made wallpaper may have been Lincrusta. Gilded Age luxury wares like Lincrusta looked hand-crafted on the wall, but these relief materials were cranked out by the mile. To be sure, many of them were colored to match their surroundings. But this work was generally done by local decorative painters. Lincrusta was often one of the more expensive wallcoverings in a house. In one instance (at Villa Louis, built 1885), the cost was around six dollars a roll. As we saw in Part I, the Lincrusta hung at Ventfort Hall seems to have been in the middle price range for Lincrusta patterns.

Anaglypta-types are also represented at Ventfort Hall. Practical Paperhanging by Arthur Seymour Jennings, published in 1892, contained a back-of-the-book ad in which Nevius and Haviland touted a brand new product—Anaglypta.

11. Practical Paperhanging and Anaglypta ad.

12. The "Columbia" roomset from “Indoors.”

Patriotism was another prominent theme in wallpaper around the time of the Fair. The Warren, Fuller & Company roomset shown above was featured in the pavilion of the National Wallpaper Company and provoked a comment in The Decorator and Furnisher: “it is something peculiarly appropriate to see the stars and stripes adapted to our decoration.” A stars and stripes shield was also prominently displayed in the frieze area of the Blue Room of 1894 (see Part IV, photo 15).

The World’s Fair exhibits by members of the National Wallpaper Company were carefully laid out. The portieres decorating the doorways of H. Bartholomae & Co.'s space were made of “heavy satin Derby of a shrimp pink ground, with a special Empire design in ecru.”[7] The portieres and silks were made by the Lyons Silk and Tapestry Company of Paterson, New Jersey. The Lyons company had supplied the “old blue” silk damask wall fabric for the Yergason/Harrison Blue Room of 1892. 

Even the leading English manufacturer William Woollams and Co., which might have been expected to feature reform patterns at the Fair, showed instead “sixteenth century pattern of flocks on lacquered gold, and their Rosebury design of wall-paper in Cornelian flock which was a gigantic floral pattern of mammoth leaves, mingling with scrolls of leaves and flowers.”[8] Similar descriptions of patterns from Woollams in The Decorator and Furnisher invariably included the word “scroll.” 

Color commentary was a staple of The Decorator and Furnisher. Indeed, the manufacturers and their allies in the press got so worked up that they ran out of adjectives and began making them up, fulfilling a reviewer’s prediction: “an inspection of their sample books holds out a temptation for the enthusiastic critic to turn his words into pigments, and dazzle the reader with the radiance of description reflected from the colorings of the patterns exhibited.”[9]

The Decorator and Furnisher emphasized descriptors like “Rose pink, heliotrope, China blue and lemon yellow...Continental yellow, Waldorf green, tobacco brown, tapestry blue, golden green and flesh pink.”[10]  And like shrimp pink, not to be confused with rose pink or flesh pink. And like “Boston” yellow, or even “bright sappy green.” These were not Aesthetic Movement colors: not jewel tones, nor Tiffany's carefully blended colors. Instead, many of them were “old” colors, the colors of tapestry. 

13. “…the saddened colors of woven tapestry…” 

Reading this quote about Birge wallpapers (not fabrics) one can almost feel the deep grays, greens, and yellow-browns leaching down into the fibers of the paper. The term “saddened” is evocative, but it’s really a technical term for a “shade” as opposed to a “tint,” (i.e., black or gray added to a  color rather than white). This love of tinkering with colors was a sign of the times, and not far from a love of distressed color for its own sake.[11] Indeed, “old,” also became a descriptor: as already noted, the silk damask in the Blue Room was an "old blue", a faded grey/blue. “Old golds,” “old reds” and “old greens” are also encountered in late-nineteenth century trade magazines.

14. Florals, Alfred Peats catalog. 

Patterns like these in the Peats catalog were popular well into the 1900s, at about the time that the upper classes were abandoning ornament and moving toward classical simplicity.

Unfortunately, a lack of documentation (or perhaps only a lack of analysis and commentary) has left an impression that turn-of-the-century wallpaper was fairly uniform. On the contrary, even if there was continuity among best sellers, entire lines of new patterns were released by the major companies each year. Yet with the passage of time those differences are difficult to establish. 

In general, patterns after 1900 seem to have been more structured, more strongly defined by Empire/Rococo scrolls, and more often laid on blended grounds.[12] The looseness of Art Nouveau was apparent, but these do not appear to have been best sellers. The papers illustrated above may have cost fifty cents a roll. Gilt powders were often used on outlines, positive motifs, and backgrounds, and many wallpapers had strong colors. Yet, these strong color combinations could also shade off into pastel tones. Sales of saddened (neutralized) colors fell off somewhat but remained popular in the new century for ostensibly colonial patterns, especially large figures in entry hallways. Saddened colors were also used for “tapestry papers,”: robust vegetative growth in deep greens, yellows, and browns.  

One final thing to mention about price involves, again, a ten-fold difference, this time between the prices of the wholesale and retail trade. In a letter to his retail store customers in December 1897 concerning the spring trade, Albany wholesaler John Day offered "gilts" at astonishingly low prices—four to eleven cents per roll. 

15. Letter of John Day, close-up.

“Gilts” at this level were not custom creations but a class of goods. As with “leather papers,” a soft glow illuminated the patterns. But "gilts" as a class were unashamedly cheap. As the name implies, gilts were regular wallpaper jazzed up with bronze powders, many from German suppliers. Gaslight illuminated these sparkling wallpapers. They often cost ten to thirty cents a roll at retail.

16. Thibaut sample book cover. 

17. Thibaut “gilt” samples. 

John Day offered not only low initial prices, but an additional 10% off for quantity purchases, and 1% for cash. The result must have been tens of thousands of rolls changing hands for pennies a roll. This marketing letter helps to establish the downward trend of wallpaper prices for the lowest grades, a trend that would bottom out at a few pennies a roll—even at the consumer level. 

For many wallpaper consumers in the immigrant, rural, and working classes, the wallpaper market around 1900 must have seemed a golden age, a time when advanced mechanization, the flood of product, and falling prices had enabled nearly all to decorate their walls cheaply and often. This was, of course, the moment when the upper classes, at the urging of Wharton and others, were abandoning ship. 

The images and ad copy of The Decorator and Furnisher are still impressive. They present a range of upscale products, some of which found their way into Ventfort Hall. Yet the ultimate success of the manufacturers was built on different strategies: on maximizing profit by amassing capital, and on combining and rationalizing production. One result of the monopoly was that more people than ever before were the beneficiaries (as the manufacturers might put it) of over-production. Another result was that excess stock was dumped in Canada, much to the annoyance of Canadians. These trends changed when the Ring was busted up around 1900. 


[1] A more nuanced view of the late-nineteenth century market for wallpaper than attempted here would require study of the few publications that exist. Two of importance are the organ of the boss painter’s association (House Painting and Decorating, founded in Philadelphia in 1885), and the union publication (The Painters Magazine, from 1874). Also useful would be major newspaper stories and government documents. For example, congressional hearings of various dates about tariffs, interstate commerce, and the dissolution of the wallpaper monopoly around 1900.

[2] The Decorator and Furnisher, July, 1893, p. 146, “Warren, Fuller & Co.'s Exhibit.”

[3] Harper's Bazar, Vol. 15, No. 16, April 22, 1882. Morris went into the wallpaper field, at least in part, to make goods more affordable, but because of technical difficulties was soon contracting his work out to Jeffrey & Co., a long-established block printer. The irony of an avowed socialist producing high-cost consumer products was noted in the period.

[4] Bo Sullivan, email correspondence, September 24, 2014.

[5] The Decorator and Furnisher, December, 1893, p. 100 in a staff article on “Mural Decoration.”

[6] The depression beginning in 1893 is widely regarded as second only to the Great Depression of the 1930s in its severity. Most sources cite a financial panic in 1893, followed by a severe downturn in the economy that did not abate until 1897. Increased mechanization had been a spur to the economy in the 1870s and 80s, but was by the same token a major factor in the downturn. Fifty railroad lines failed, according to www.encyclopedia.com. 
Economic studies have found that a major cause of the depression was underconsumption: “…the economy was producing goods and services at a higher rate than society was consuming and the resulting inventory accumulation led firms to reduce employment and cut back production.” In contrast to earlier periods in American history, “…few families were self-sufficient, most relied on selling their output or labor in the market…”  This explains the devastation wrought by high unemployment rates. These exceeded 10% for 4 or 5 consecutive years, and rose as high as 20% in major cities, at a time when the US population was about 100 million. Quotes in this paragraph are from the web site of the Economic History Association: https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-depression-of-1893/

[7] The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 22, No., 4, July, 1893, p. 142; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.

[8] The Decorator and Furnisher, December, 1893, p. 105.

[9] The Decorator and Furnisher, December, 1893, p. 100, in a staff article titled “Mural Decoration.”

[10] The Decorator and Furnisher, December, 1893, p. 104, in a review of Birge wallpapers.

[11] The Inland Printer: A Technical Journal Devoted to the Art of Printing, Vol. 26, Maclean-Hunter Publishing Corporation, 1901, p. 89: “So far we have dealt with pure colors only, i. e., colors neither diluted with white nor saddened or subdued with gray…we can produce tertiary colors by adding a suitable proportion of neutral gray to a primary color.”

[12] I am indebted to Bo Sullivan of Arcalus Design for these observations.

caption credits:

2. The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 22, No., 4, July, 1893, p. 139; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
3. The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 22, No., 4, July, 1893, p. 140; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
4. The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 23, No. 3, December, 1893, p. 106; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
5. William Morris wallpaper: “Fruit,” E.299-2009. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum.
6. William Morris wallpaper: “Vine,” E.1074-1988. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum.
7. Christopher Dresser wallpaper: photography copyright Matt Flynn.(http://design.designmuseum.org/design)
8. Christopher Dresser wallpaper: photography copyright The National Archives, UK. (http://design.designmuseum.org/design)
9. The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 23, No. 5, February, 1894, p. 186; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
10. Beck catalog, courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
11. A. S. Jennings, Practical Paperhanging, public domain.
12. The image is from “Indoors,” p. 26, courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
13. The Decorator and Furnisher, Vol. 23, No. 3, December, 1893, p. 104; courtesy Bolling & Company Archive.
14. Peats catalog, © WallpaperScholar.Com.
15. John Day letter, © WallpaperScholar.Com.
16. Thibaut Sample Book, private collection, courtesy Steve Johnson.
17. Thibaut Sample Book, private collection, courtesy Steve Johnson.

How To Buy "Backstory"