Wallpapers in Historic Preservation
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In determining the age of wallpaper, the most reliable clues are the signs of the technology used to make it. Distinguishing handmade paper from machine-made, and traditional block printing from machine printing can help determine the date a paper was made. Information about the age of a wallpaper can, in some cases, help to establish the date of a wall or of architectural changes within a building.


Wallpaper manufactured before ca. 1835 consisted of small sheets of paper, pasted together to form the length long enough to extend from floor to ceiling. The special class of paper known as "hanging paper" was described in the 18th century as "made from the coarsest and cheapest rags and woolen stuff." It was rarely bleached white, but by modern standards it was of high quality and strong. The size of handmade paper was limited by the size of the mold. The mold was made up of two parts, a deckle and a frame, and was limited to a size that could be easily handled (figure 1).

Figure 1: Making Paper—An English engraving printed for F.C. and J. Rivington in 1821 shows a papermaker plunging his mold into a vat filled with pulp made from old rags, water and other ingredients. He is about to scoop a small quantity of pulp and water onto the wire surface of the bottom half of the mold known as the "frame." The "deckle" or top half of the mold will then hold the pulp mixture in place while the water drains out and the pulp has dried. The product will then be further dried, pressed, and flattened in the press seen at the left, and finished as paper. In this process, the mold could be no larger than the papermaker could handle and that, in turn, restricted the finished size of a sheet of paper. (Author's Collection)

The individual sheet that made up a "piece" or a roll of wallpaper were not uniform in size, but usually were smaller than 22 by 32 inches. Early in the 18th century, most paper "stainers" printed sheets which were then pasted individually to a wall. But by mid-century, the sheets were usually pasted together to form rolls before any coloring was applied. The standard length of a "piece" of joined wallpaper, formed from the individual sheets, was established by English excise officials at 12 yards and most were 23 inches wide.

Horizontal seams in a length of wallpaper are good evidence of handmade paper (as described above) and likely suggests that it predates ca. 1835. Such seams are the first item to look for, and this can be done by shining a strong beam of light, held close to the wall, horizontally across the surface. Under this raking light almost any irregularity on the wall should become apparent in the resulting shadows. Indications of seams between the sheets and between the lengths of wallpaper could appear, even under a coat of paint. However, if subsequent layers of paper have been applied over a handmade paper, evidence of seams could be hidden by the smoother surfaces.

If an edge of the paper can be uncovered, evidence of the handmade process might be indicated by the slightly ruffled or "deckle edge" caused by the uneven drainage of the water from the top half of the mold (called the deckle). Although for stationery and other fine papers, deckle edges are sometimes imitated on machinemade products, there is no evidence that this was ever done on hanging papers.

If only small fragments of paper are found, examination under magnification will distinguish between the multidirectional patterns of the fibers characteristic of the handmade process, or the regular vertical alignment of machine-made paper. The paper should also be examined over a strong light for the imprint of the wires that made up the surface of the frame on which the pulp was pressed under the deckle to form the sheet. Other characteristics of handmade paper which might appear include watermarks, sometimes visible in areas where opaque coloring has not been thickly applied to the paper, and tax stamps. A royal insignia would indicate that the paper had been printed in England previous to the repeal of the tax laws there in 1832 (figure 13).

Figure 2: Stenciling with Block Printing—An early 18th-century French pattern printed in black with stenciled washes of red, green, yellow and blue, is shown here in a piece 14 inches wide and 20-3/4 inches high. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)
Figure 2A: Detail of early 18th-century French wallpaper shown in 2, which shows the thin-bodied, poorly registered stenciled coloring. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)


Machines for producing "endless" paper were the important innovation of the early 19th century that made possible the industrialization of wallpaper making. Developments in England included the Fourdrinier machine of 1799 that used a cylinder to form paper. In 1817, the first machine-made paper was produced in America by Thomas Gilpin in Delaware. Though wallpaper manufacturers would have been the logical early users of the new endless paper, they do not seem to have adopted it in France until 1820, in England until 1830, and in this country not generally until 1835. The widths of machine-made paper varied from country to country. By the 1850's the standard width of French paper was 18 inches, of English paper 21 inches (20 inches when hung) and of American paper 20 inches. Despite standardization, papers from all these have been found in widths varying from 18 to 40 inches.

Early handmade papers were composed of textile fibers and were generally heavier and more durable than later machine-made papers. The introduction of wood pulp for making paper was first commercially successful in England in the 1850's, and was introduced to America in 1855. By the 1880's, the bulk of commercial hanging paper stock had been greatly cheapened by the introduction of wood pulp, straw, and other less expensive ingredients. Such paper is now characteristically brittle, and browned from the acids present in the wood pulp. Superficial examination usually serves to distinguish cheap, machine-made papers from the handmade, that is; machine-made paper will tear in a neat line and the browning and brittleness are often all too apparent. But further microscopic examination may be required to determine if a fragment of higher quality paper with a high rag content is machine-made or hand-made.


A few wallpapers, generally the more expensive ones, including Chinese papers, have been hand painted through all of wallpaper history (figure 17). The brush strokes were executed in water base colors. Stylistic analysis, rather than a knowledge of technology, will be of the greatest help in dating painted papers. Chemical analysis of the pigments used in the paints might serve to pinpoint datable pigments (some of which are discussed in the following section on block printing).

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Last Updated: 26-Apr-2007