Wallpapers in Historic Preservation
NPS Logo



Through the 18th and 19th centuries particular attention should be paid to the styles in wallpaper borders. Borders were not originally used for decoration alone, nor were they a refinement used only by the stylish. They commonly served the function of simplifying the paperhanger's job by concealing and fastening the cut ends of pieces of wallpaper. They could also serve to hide any tacks used, or to fill the gaps if a paper were trimmed too skimpily.

In the late 18th century, narrow 2-inch borders were often used to outline interruptions in a wall: windows, doors, fireplaces, cabinets, pilasters; slightly wider borders, 4 to 5 inches, were used in combination with the narrower ones, usually on the horizontal at the cornice and chair-rail level (figures 12 and 16). This practice was continued past the turn of the century (figure 22). In the early 19th century, the French produced, and Americans used an abundance of 15 to 30-inch-wide friezes at the tops of walls and dados below chair rail level in combination with narrow and wide borders along the vertical edges of walls (figure 21).

By mid-century, the use of borders diminished slightly: they grew narrower, and were for the most part confined to the tops of walls. But in the 1850's and 1860's a French fashion for dividing the wall into vertical panels, formed by border papers or by wallpaper "pilasters," again focused fashionable attention on wallpaper borders (figure 27). These panel decorations, many of which included elaborate dados imitating architectural panelling and carving, were known as "fresco decorations," and required clever hanging to be fitted on a wall.

With the English patterns of the 1870's and 1880's came the preference for dividing the wall into three clearly differentiated horizontal sections: frieze at top, fill below that, and dado below chair rail (figure 31). These areas of different patterning were marked off by border patterns. The scheme was often carried up stairways in dados and friezes printed with diagonally oriented patterns.

Figure 31: "A Characteristic Treatment in Moderate Priced Papers," this illustration from Carpentry and Building for December 1880 shows the favorite scheme of the day for dividing walls into three horizontal sections: freeze at top, fill below, and dado below chair rail, all marked off by borders. (Courtesy of the Avery Library, Columbia University, New York)

In the 1890's, friezes became even wider, dominating the whole wallpaper scheme (figure 33 and 33A). A great favorite of the first quarter of this century was the "Crown Hanging" in which vertically oriented designs, usually flowers, rose in widely spaced stripes up the wall to join a dominant design that ran horizontally across the top of the wall.

Figure 33 and 33A: A wide wallpaper frieze dominates the walls of this room illustrated in the January 1904 issue of The Wallpaper News and Interior Decorator. The frieze illustrated is shown below as a sample of actual wallpaper in the Cooper-Hewitt collection. It is the 22-1/2 inches wide "May Tree Frieze" by Walter Crane (1845-1915), designed in 1896, and printed in shades of tan, blue, green, and yellow. Crane, an illustrator, had a strong influence on his contemporaries, and the abstracted landscape, flattened by the strong outlines is typical of turn of the century stylization. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)


Wallpapers were frequently used on ceilings. Paper designs imitating plasterwork medallions were common during the early 19th century. But some more ambitious designs imitated large ceiling paintings of gods and goddesses in the cloudy heavens. Borders were frequently used around the edges of ceilings, and papers imitating architectural ornaments of coffered ceilings have been found in this country. Overall patterning was increasingly used on late 19th- and early 20th-century ceilings. Many ceilings of the 1880's were elaborately segmented by wallpaper borders into many areas of different patterning (figure 32).

Figure 32: Elaborate wallpaper decorations for ceilings, incorporating borders, centers, and fill patterns were illustrated in the December 1880 issue of Carpentry and Building. Paper decorations had been used for ceilings all through the 19th century. Medallions imitating plasterwork or providing floral embellishment for the point from which a lamp or chandelier was hung were particularly popular. In the mid-1870's, decorators and manufacturers began to popularize elaborate schemes for ceilings which captured middle class taste during the 1880's. (Courtesy of the Avery Library, Columbia University, New York)

Figure 34: An Art Nouveau design of about 1905 by an American designer, Albert Ainsworth, of Hackensack, New Jersey relies heavily on English models. It was printed in green and mustard colors on a grainy yellowish "ingrain" or "oatmeal" paper. The pattern was used in a Brooklyn house. (Courtesy of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York)

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 26-Apr-2007