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Zuber et Cie’s “Scenes of North America” design, one of the most famous examples of woodblock-print wallpaper.
Courtesy of Creative Commons

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Historic wallpapers: Why they're different, and why it matters

If these walls could talk...

A few weeks ago, the editor of Curbed Chicago showed us the listing for a Colonial Revival mansion that had just come on the market in Illinois. The thing we immediately noticed in the listing photos was the Zuber wallpaper in the entry.

What's Zuber wallpaper, the editor asked? It’s woodblock-printed paper, we explained, and is famous for its panoramic scenes, and has been produced in France for centuries. But, truth be told, we didn’t know much more about panoramic woodblock-printed wallpaper, which we always considered in conjunction with hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, popular for its delicate scenes of flora and fauna. Where did these panoramic designs come from—and is it appropriate or anachronistic to think of them in conjunction with Chinese paper offerings?

What we ended up—ahem—uncovering was far more than could fit into a single piece, so we’re turning our discoveries into a three-part wallpaper extravaganza. Today? We’re talking history.

Designs printed on paper first started as a cheaper substitute for the woven tapestries and embroidered wall-hangings of the 15th and 16th centuries, but the concept of modern wallpaper didn’t really emerge until a little over a century later. "Wallpaper wasn’t coming about until roughly 1650," says wallpaper historian Robert Kelly. "The real watershed moment in the history of wallpaper is when the English government imposed a wallpaper tax in 1712—that really showed how popular wallpaper had become."

At that time, the East India Company was regularly bringing back goods from China, one such import being hand-painted paper. "The ship owners took these hand-painted scenes, which were referred to a ‘Chinese pictures’ or ‘India pictures’ as secondary cargo," says Kelly. "They were not originally designed as wallpaper but rather as discrete rectangular genre scenes, which the English then assembled into large-scale wall installations."

Chinese wallpaper from the 1780s.
Courtesy of Creative Commons.

As demand grew in the mid-18th century, spurred even further by the superior quality of the paper itself (English paper sadly left a bit to be desired), the Chinese artisans began making dedicated wallpaper for this new consumer market in England. While examples of 18th-century Chinese scenic wallpaper are scarce in the states, many grand estates all over the UK have rooms covered in these papers.

Meanwhile, in France around 1800, an American polymath named Robert Fulton organized the first exhibition of a panoramic scene in Paris. "The scenes were painted in oil and installed in a circular room. You would buy a ticket to see them—it was really a form of city entertainment," says Kelly. It was almost like a very analog version of virtual reality.

Existing wallpaper companies like Zuber and Dufour, which were both established in 1797, latched onto the popularity of the panoramic scene and started to produce scenes that didn’t repeat until the last panel so they could be installed in a room and create a never-ending panoramic effect. Unlike the Chinese papers, which were hand painted, these patterns were created via woodblock print.

"We first brush the background color on by hand," says Steve Larson, co-owner of Adelphi Paper Hangings, which faithfully replicates historic woodblock-printed wallpapers. "The pigments are based on distemper paints, which is chalk-based paint. We then hang the paper up to dry and then the next day we begin to print."

Larson went on to explain that designs are printed with carved wooden blocks one color at a time, letting a day’s worth of drying time pass before adding a new color into the design. Depending on the complexity of the design, the number of colors used could range from less than ten to over a hundred. Up until the industrial revolution, when more mechanical printing processes were invented, woodblock-printed wallpaper made up the majority of the market.

The print Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique by Joseph Dufour.
Photo via Creative Commons.

The nature of the prints being produced from a woodblock rather than by hand allowed the wallpapers to be created in greater quantity, translating to a more affordable cost. "Back in the day, it wasn’t super expensive," says Kelly. "Not like today, when Zuber is exponentially more expensive than a more modest wallpaper."

In the States, these scenics, while not super popular, were still selling enough to give Zuber a good return on their investment. "They were popular from probably the 1820s up to 1850s and 60s," says Kelly. "At that point, you saw a lot of natural backgrounds like jungles and beautiful horizon scenes."

Funnily enough, as the Colonial revival set in at the turn of the 20th century, there was a renewed interest in panoramic wallpaper, because people falsely believed that these woodblock-printed scenes were historically accurate. That probably explains when and why the wallpaper was installed in the Illinois mansion that ignited this wallpaper inquiry.

"Right up through the 1930s, there was a big resurgence of scenic wallpaper," says Kelly. "You would get these socialites putting it up in their living rooms thinking ‘This is what was done in Colonial America,’ but it wasn’t. It really began in 1803."

While both striking forms of wall covering originating in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Chinese and woodblock-printed wallpapers emerged out of two different aesthetic traditions and techniques. While the painted Chinese designs connect to trade routes—and China's centuries-long history of painted screens and scrolls—woodblock prints descended from panoramic oil paintings used for city entertainment.

And what’s incredible is that you don’t need to go to a museum or a nationally owned historic house to interact with these pieces of history—you can still buy it brand-new or look for a house with a panoramic scene already installed. But what happens if you come across a house with heavily damaged scenic wallpaper? Check back next week when we’ll investigate a few incredible preservation techniques and stories.

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