Wallpaper, once the favorite daughter of interior design, is now more like the ugly stepchild. The late 20th century took a toll on the decorating medium that has roots in the early 1700s, bringing far too much paisley and visions of mustard yellow to the dens and foyers of homes past. Sure, modern iterations of the form have attempted to bring wallpaper back into fashion. But for the most part, we paint and we stencil, so the practice of pasting paper onto our kitchen and dining room walls has appropriately faded into design history.
Thankfully, there's a museum that cares about the untended wall art of yesteryear.
"Whatever you have in your rooms think first of the walls for they are that which makes your house and home, and if you do not make some sacrifices in their favour you will find your chambers have a kind of makeshift, lodging-house look about them…" -William Morris (1834-1896)
Enter the Historic New England, an institution that sought to bring 4,200 pieces of vintage wallpaper to the internet, making a collection of works dating from the 1750s to the 1950s accessible to the public. Since 2002, the inception of the project, the wallpaper collection has grown to over 6,000 pieces, which conservators at the Historic New England are tasked with repairing, correcting and treating for posterity.
The online database makes available a collection that covers three centuries, including pieces imported to the United States in the early days to William Morris designs to the real deal -- retro vinyl masterpieces. Some are in near-perfect condition, others are fragments of the magnificent wall adornments they once were. Whether the bits of ephemera have been plucked from scrapbooks, borders, bandboxes, fire-boards or scenic panels, they make up a unique archive that just wants to do one thing: build a wallpaper history.
For the uninitiated, wall paper (or "painted paper") became popular in New England in the early 1700s, sold by stationers, book sellers and specific merchants who specialized in "imported luxury goods." It was expensive at the time, made from leather and silk, sometimes wool and velvet, but it was an affordable decor element in comparison to other types of manipulating interior design (e.g. hand-painting and masonry).
By the mid-18th century, the floral patterns we've come to love had already made their way into design canon. Think Brocades and chintzes. French wallpaper manufacturers made great strides with block printing in the 19th century, the English pushed roller printing and Japanese craftsmen worked with embossed leather. Fast forward to the mid 20th century, and consumers had patterns upon patterns of paper to choose from.
Historic New England brings wallpaper into the 21st century, as much as it can. “The [digital] collection is searchable by date, location, and manufacturer, and by keywords like color and type of pattern," cataloguer Peggy Wishart explained in a press statement. “You can zoom in to see every detail.”
Head over to the website to navigate the thousands of examples online, or you can check out a sneak peek of the collection below. Enjoy.