Wallpaper has been decorating the walls of homes for over 500 years. But its history is far more complex and revolutionary than most people realise. This decorative covering has been intertwined with major societal shifts, technological innovations, and even pivotal political events over the centuries.

Join us on an intriguing voyage across time and cultures to discover the story of wallpaper and its design evolution from the 16th century to the digital age . Understanding this history provides insight into humanity’s technological ingenuity, artistic exuberance, and ever-changing consumption patterns and lifestyles .

Humble Beginnings in 16th Century Europe

In its early days, paper based wall-coverings were seen as a poor substitute for more ornamental textiles that adorned the walls of aristocratic homes. The first decorative wall coverings were monochrome block prints on paper, pasted onto walls as a cheaper alternative. These emerging “paper hangings” were mostly used in the living spaces of merchants and traders in the 16th century.

At the time, wallpaper was not yet manufactured in the rolls we know today. Loose sheets measuring around 20 x 30 inches would be joined together onsite. Patterns were also simpler given the limited technology. Mostly plain fields with horizontal or vertical stripes with some pictorial symbols like crowns or leaves.

However, the early 18th century saw French manufacturers take the lead in bringing colour, variety and vibrancy to wall décor. Advancements like multi-block and copper plate printing enabled detailed imagery. Scenes depicting Chinese landscapes, African animals, or Greek mythical figures became popular. Wallpaper was finally being recognised as a unique art form rather than just fake imitation of tapestries.

Over the next few hundred years, wallpaper gradually became more popular across Europe. Further techniques like woodblock printing, flocking patterns, and polychrome (multi-colour) designs developed. As mass production advanced, wallpaper became an affordable way to bring colour and vibrancy to everyday households.

By the mid 18th century, decorative wall covering was no longer consigned to formal rooms alone. It crept into more private and intimate spaces like bedrooms, nurseries, and dressing rooms. Wallpaper had truly gone from humble beginnings to essential decoration.

"Example of intricate hand carved woodblock design that would have been used for wallpaper manufacture in early 18th century"

The French Influence Through Taxation and Technology

The early 19th century was a time of major political and industrial upheavals, particularly in France. These changes dramatically impacted the burgeoning wallpaper industry.

The Jacquard Loom enabled the weaving of intricate floral motifs and lush patterns. This increased the variety in decorative designs inspired by luxurious fabrics. However, hefty excise taxes were also introduced on wallpapers at this time by Napoleon. To enforce taxation, manufacturers had to submit sample sheets to the excise office for identification and stamping. This cumbersome and expensive taxation led to illegal trading and forged wallpaper stamps.

Nevertheless, taxation did have some positive effects. It forced designers to focus more on the styling and ingenuity of their wallpapers rather than elaborate production methods alone. Experimentation with unusual colour schemes, novel motifs from Peranakan Batiks and Japanese paintings emerged. French taxation paved the way for even more experimentation and global inspiration.

By the late 1830s, the first steam-powered cylindrical wallpaper printing machines were being put to use in France. This cut production time drastically from hand-block printing. It also allowed for seamless patterns with their cylinders compared to papers having to be laboriously joined by hand.

These technological breakthroughs brought wall covering prices down significantly, finally making them affordable to the rising middle classes and not just aristocracy. New embossing techniques also enabled raised, textured finishes to mimic costly damasks and brocades on paper.

With increased reach across society, decorative papers were now an essential aspect of interior design in townhouses and urban apartments. By the late 1800s, French manufacturers dominated global wall covering production and taste from NYC to the UK.

"A powered printing press similar to this was used to mass produce intricate wall decor"

Forging Wallpaper was Punishable by Death

Forging wallpaper patterns or stamps became a punishable offence in 18th century France due to heavy taxation imposed on wallpaper manufacturers. In 1712, the French government introduced a heavy tax on locally produced decorative wall coverings. This was done to raise revenues but it made wallpapers very expensive. To enforce taxation, manufacturers had to submit wallpaper sample sheets to the excise office for identification stamps. However, cunning traders soon started forging the tax stamps to illegally sell wallpapers tax-free at lower prices. 

As tax losses mounted, the French excise office imposed heavy penalties to crack down on wallpaper tax evasion. In 1741, they declared the forging of wallpaper stamps to be punishable by death through hanging or the galleys (harsh physical labor aboard a ship). Several cases came to light where illegal wholesale dealers of forged wallpaper were sentenced to death. This demonstrates how seriously the authorities considered wallpaper tax offences. However, the harsh penalties led to public backlash. In 1756, the excise office revoked capital punishment for wallpaper violations due to criticisms over the severe enforcement. Fines, confiscation of goods or imprisonment were used instead.

french galley, often used for punishing prisoners

"French galley ship circa 1700. People found guilty of forgery could be sent here to perform harsh physical labour"

William Morris and Interiors for the Artisan Class

No account of decorative wall covering history is complete without homage to iconic designer William Morris of the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris sought to unify form, decoration, and function in textiles and wall decor designs. His richly patterned, organic style was a rebellion against the over-extravagant Rococo trend.

Morris’ intricate floral patterns were inspired by wild English garden flowers and medieval tapestries. Drawn freehand, they emphasised asymmetrical balance and fluidity. He also ensured artisans were treated ethically at his workshops. Through the beauty of his artistic wallpapers, Morris promoted the importance of decoration, natural motifs, and socialism in response to industrialisation.

His legacy elevated wall decor to art that graced the homes of middle class intellectuals, progressive artists and designers. Morris proved that thoughtfulness paired with ecologically-safe dyes and materials could produce breathtaking results both ethically and aesthetically.

Portrait Photograph of William Morris

"Photograph of William Morris a British textile designer, poet, artist, writer, and socialist activist"

Chinese Wallpapers and Influence

China had a significant influence on European wall decor design and manufacturing starting from the 17th century onwards. Some of the key impacts were:

China Influence: 1600s-1700s

Chinese landscape paintings, porcelain motifs, and silk patterns inspired European chinoiserie designs featuring pagodas, flowers, birds, and oriental symbols. Chinese rice paper techniques were copied to produce lightweight wallpapers in Europe. Export of intricate Chinese wallpapers drove Europeans to improve local block-printing and flocking methods.

China Influence: 1800s

Chinese artisan papers using fibres like banana plant introduced unique textures in Europe. Chinese symbols and culture retained popularity - dragon and cherry blossom motifs featured across Victorian style papers.

China Influence: 1900s Onwards

After political issues disrupted trade in early 1900s, pan-Asian influences became prevalent. Japanese art and Batik methods from Southeast Asia inspired abstract designs and watercolour backgrounds. Modern designers still incorporate Chinese fans, lanterns, vases into contemporary Asian-fusion patterns.

So from the cosmopolitan chinoiserie style, to decorative motifs, to experimental paper-craft - Chinese wallpaper arts played a key role across centuries in developing European wallpaper design aesthetics and manufacture processes through cultural exchange. The essence of Chinese style continues to adapt across eras and maintain its exotic appeal even today!

Early Chinese wallpaper design

"Example of an early Chinese wallpaper design"

The Rise of Wallpaper in Victorian Homes

The Victorian era saw wall-coverings take on even more prominence, becoming an essential part of interior design schemes. Patterns and colours were designed to complement specific room functions in typical homes.

Frieze wallpaper filled the upper walls, dado wallpapers covered the lower regions, and display wallpapers were focal points around furniture. Hallways connected spaces with vibrant borders. Nurseries had cute animal scenes, like bunnies, bears and deer playing.

Coordinated wall-decoration played a key role across rooms for the first time. With colour-matching advancements across wallpaper runs, richly layered rooms could be designed. Tonal and textural contrasts between walls created depth and interest even in cramped Victorian terrace homes.

This period also saw specialised wallpaper types to fit all needs. From acoustic wall coverings made of compressed cork (to minimize reverberation), to sanitary & washable papers for hospitals, to embossed glossy vinyl, diversity abounded as homes became welcoming havens.

Staircases and hall archways were now elaborately framed by wallpaper-murals. Scenic vistas gave small spaces the illusion of expansive gardens and verandas previously seen only in estates. Affordability enabled average homeowners’ dreams to come alive.

Williams Morris  hand-drawn Floral wallpaper design

"Example of an intricate Williams Morris floral wallpaper design"

Wallpaper Flocks

Flocked wallpapers encapsulate a pivotal shift in interior decorative history - making lavish textures affordable to the masses. This plush finish is achieved by dusting short fibers onto wallpaper coated with an adhesive size. However the backstory of how this lavish decor became popularised is equally fascinating.

Flocking methods have existed for centuries to create richly embroidered fabrics since ancient Egypt, however its's difficult to pinpoint the exact time flock wallpaper was invented and popularised in Europe. Evidence seems to suggest around the mid to late 17th century when they begun to appear on advertisements and trade cards. This launched the era of flock decorative wall-coverings.

By 1750, over 20 specialist flock producers operated in France as aristocracy and emerging bourgeois class coveted the luxurious finish. Flocked trims were also created by dusting fibres through pierced patterns. Custom copper-plates even allowed imitating exotic Chinoiserie motifs like dragons, pagodas and flowers in embossed outlines over the soft flocked grounds.

The early 1800s saw English manufacturers dominate. They supplied the enormous demand as heavily layered ornamental interiors became beloved during Victorian times. Using early synthetic dyes, richly coloured and patterned flocks designed by Augustus Welby Pugin and William Morris took over English country houses and stately London townhouses.

From sensuous florals, to neoclassical wreaths for hallway murals, no surface was left untouched by the plush perfection of velvet on the very walls themselves! Manufacturing also improved through acid etching of copper roller plates allowing sharper pattern detail. By mid 1900s, technologies like lithographic printing and electrostatic flocking automated production.

And so flocked wallpapers remain as a testament to centuries of creative ingenuity focused on bringing a delightful touch of aristocratic luxury into everyday homes. Their continued popularity today is a nod to the universal human desire for tactile beauty balanced by technical progress!

Example of flock wallpaper being made in the 1960's, this technique has changed very little over the centuries. Skip to (2.00min) to see how skilled workers added flock to intricate designs using a simple but effective process.

New Inspirations and Post-War Challenges

The early 20th century was coloured by the linear geometry and sleek finishes of Art Deco. Wallpaper designs shifted focus from ornate decors towards complementing minimalist form and function.

However, world wars and economic depression brought tremendous changes that impacted the wallpaper industry. Raw material shortages, disrupted trade routes, and decreased demand due to austerity needs posed challenges.

By the post-war ‘50s and ‘60s decades, informal and minimalist lifestyles became popular. Traditions seemed stale, including long-lasting wall decorations. Decorative paper again fell out of favour as most interiors moved towards functional simplicity with plain painted or papered walls.


"1960's wallpaper design, a definitive change in wallpaper decor compared to previous decades"

Resurgence Through Technology and Changing Attitudes

The 1970s and ‘80s saw wallpaper tagged as old-fashioned and uninspired. Concerns were also raised regarding the sustainability and health safety of new synthetic wallpapers.

However the 1990s and early 2000s saw wallpaper boldly re-emerge with renewed vigour. Partly fuelled by a rejection of soulless minimalism, people sought personalisation and creative liberation in their modern living spaces.

Advancements like digital printing also made customised wall art accessible to everyday clients. Photographs, artwork, or even old family letters could be reprinted onto removable peel-and-stick wallpapers. Wall murals offered new forms of self-expression with original motifs.

New niche boutique wall-covering brands also entered the industry focusing on environmental causes or avant-garde designs. These catered to exclusive resorts, urban pied-a-terres (small living unit) and luxury retail spaces versus traditional residences.

Modern Wallpaper Printer made by Hewlett Packard
image from Hewlett Packard

"A modern printing machine used for making wallpaper"

Personalisation Leads The Future

Today, wall-decor has secured itself as an essential design element across styles ranging from modern geometric spaces too cozy Victorian motifs. The industry is innovating rapidly with new materials like plant fibres, removable stick-on papers, and peel-and-replace options. Wall art has expanded from decorating walls alone to embellishing furniture, cupboards, and even appliance surfaces.

Technology has enabled made-to-order installations at reasonable costs. With augmented reality, virtual rendering, projection mapping and specialised adhesive options, wallpapers can satisfy virtually every personalised creative dream across residential and commercial settings!

Even niche requests like glow-in-the-dark wallpaper, automated light-responsive wall art, acoustically-tuned papers, and sensors to control room temperature or mood lighting are now within reach.

The history of wallpaper reveals the story of humanity’s artistic expression through decorative wall coverings. It encompasses both traditional handcrafted practices and futuristic digital technologies. In whatever innovative form it takes next, wallpaper is likely to continue reflecting lifestyle changes creatively!


The history of wallpaper is one filled with intriguing stories interwoven into major cultural shifts across societies. It has progressed hand-in-hand with advancements in technology and manufacturing processes. Wall coverings have also been representative of changing aesthetic tastes from elaborate ornamentation to minimalism and back again in cyclical nature.

Today, decorative wall coverings continue to adapt with the times, catering to modern desires for environmentalism, customisation, and innovative functionality through smart capabilities. After over 500 years decorating our living spaces while reflecting the ethos of various eras, this ever-evolving design element is sure to live on as an integral part of how we express our personalities through interior styling.

The rich past combined with an exciting future makes wallpaper’s evolutionary journey far more fascinating than simply decorative covering. It is set to remain an essential aspect of interior spaces as its possibilities keep growing into the 21st century and beyond!


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What's the backstory on wallpaper? When did people start hanging paper on walls anyway?

Wallpaper has quite a long history! The first known wallpaper can be traced back to 200 BC in ancient China where rice paper was used as decoration. But wallpaper as we recognise it became popular in Europe during the 18th century as a more affordable alternative to textile wall hangings of the rich.

How has wallpaper design reflected what was going on in society and culture over time?

Great question! Wallpaper design serves as a visual timeline reflecting influential artistic styles through the ages. You can see the elaborate curled motifs of 18th century Rococo, William Morris’s intricate organic patterns inspired by Medieval tapestries, 20th century modernist designs mirroring sleek minimalism - wallpaper vividly captures cultural trends!

What are some of the key aspects that comprise the wallpaper industry?

The wallpaper ecosystem encompasses the manufacturers producing designs across different materials like flock, grasscloth or textiles, the pastes and glues used for application, the printing methods, the designers and so much more!

What are some big moments or innovations that changed the wallpaper game?

A huge turning point was the invention of the wallpaper printing machine in 1785. This allowed mass production and made prices affordable enough for ordinary people. Also, in the 17th century wallpaper became a status symbol and decorative fixture in sophisticated European homes, losing its reputation as a cheap imitation!

Why is wallpaper such an amazing record of creativity over human history?

Unlike paint or tiles, wallpaper samples physically encapsulate various styles mirroring their artistic and cultural zeitgeists. As you trace styles from imitations of marble and landscapes from the Romantics era, Art Deco geometry, funky 70’s psychedelia - wallpaper allows you to visually traverse through the human creative spirit!

How did manufacturing capabilities progress over time? What could be done better?

Manufacturing saw innovations from steam-powered printing, to flocking enhancements allowing velvety finishes, to flexible durable vinyls, to eco-friendly digital printing of today. More consistency in quality and thoughtful designs sympathetic to spaces are still needed in the industry. But the progress is definitely laudable!

What were the notable advancements in wallpaper manufacturing?

Printing Technology

Hand-printing methods limited early wallpaper production capacity and design complexity. But the first wallpaper printing machine patented in 1839 allowed mass production through steam-powered cylindrical rollers. This was a real gamechanger!

Pre-pasted Papers

Having to paste wallpapers manually onsite was messy and time-consuming. The development of pre-pasted wallpapers with adhesive already applied revolutionised installation ease and efficiency.

Custom Designs

Digital printing innovations now allow customised photos, artwork or graphics to be reprinted as wallpaper. This makes personalisation accessible to everyone versus just choosing from catalog patterns.

Smart Wallpapers

Walls are now interactive environments with technologies like adjustable light-responsive wall art, climate-control papers, acoustic wallpapers and more. The possibilities are truly exciting!

Eco-conscious Materials

Early wallpapers were resource-intensive and used toxic chemicals. But present options like plant-based fibres, non-VOC inks, non-toxic pastes, fully compostable papers make sustainability achievable.

March 28, 2024 — Ben Hughes