Which is not to say that there were not many walls in many buildings throughout the Regency which were not covered with decorative paper. But not one scrap of that paper was called "wallpaper" during the Regency for the simple reason that the word "wallpaper" did not come into use until 1827, long after the Regent had become King George IV.
What were these papers called, who made them, how were they made, how were they used and where were they sold?
During the Regency, and for more than two centuries before, the ornamental papers which people put on their walls were called paper-hangings. This seemed perfectly natural and quite logical to them, as these hangings of paper replaced other hangings with which people had covered their walls as far back as the Middle Ages. Without central heating, stone walls, in particular, were very cold. Covering them with textiles helped to reduce drafts in the cold weather, and added color to an otherwise often drab room. Tapestries were the preferred wall-covering for the most affluent through the seventeenth century. By the mid- to late eighteenth century, silk damasks had supplanted tapestries as the most fashionable wall-coverings for the well-to-do. However, those who truly wished to flaunt their wealth would cover the walls of a room or two with leather, either finely tooled, gilt, or both.
The first paper-hangings were made in the early sixteenth century, but they were very small, individual sheets of paper. Well into the seventeenth century, these ornamental papers were made in single sheets. Most were decorated to look like textile hangings, but could be made for much less than the cost of textiles. These small sheets were pasted onto the walls one piece at a time. People of modest means would use these papers in their best rooms, while the wealthy most often used them for closets or servants’ rooms. At the end of the seventeenth century, the single sheets began to be pasted together to form a roll, called a piece. Each piece could then be decorated along its entire length with a continuous pattern.
At first, paper-hangings were made by the same craftsmen who printed books, broadsides and newspapers. But as paper-hangings became more popular, and especially after they were made in rolls, a new group of craftsmen sprang up, the paper-stainers. Eventually, the paper-stainers in London established their own guild or professional organization. The paper-stainer’s manufactory would have several long narrow tables, upon each of which a piece could be rolled out to its full length while it was decorated. Regardless of the technique used to decorate the paper, the first step was to apply the ground. First the piece was coated with a thin layer of size. During the early nineteenth century the size most commonly used on papers was called Flanders glue. (Made from the parings of animal hides, it was more effective as a size than an adhesive. Paper-stainers prefered it because it dried smooth and did not flake over time. Nor would it affect the color laid down over it.) Once the size coating had dried, the ground color of distemper paint was brushed on by a workman who wielded two very broad brushes, working as quickly as he could, so as to ensure the full length of the piece got a smooth, even coat of color. The piece was again allowed to dry, and then it was ready to be decorated.
Most paper-hangings were printed with wood blocks using distemper paints. The wood blocks were made of three or four layers of wood, each laid cross-grain to the one above it to prevent the finished block from warping with use. The first layer or two would be poplar or pine, and the final layer would be a very fine-grained wood suitable for carving, usually sycamore, pear or apple wood. It was into this layer that the design for the paper-hanging would be cut by the block-maker. A separate block would have to be cut for each color for each section of the design. The paper-stainer would carefully print one color for each section of the design along the full length of the piece, and that would be allowed to dry. The next set of wood-blocks for the next color would then be printed, and so on, until the full complement of colors for the complete design had been laid down, from the base color to the final highlights.
Another popular type of paper-hangings were those with a flocked design. Each piece received size and ground color in the same way as the papers block-printed with paints. But for these papers, the wood-blocks were used to print an adhesive onto the paper in the pattern of the design, and while it was still tacky, finely powdered and colored fibers were sifted over the piece. Wool was the most common fiber used for flocking in the eighteenth century, but by the Regency both cotton and silk fibers were sometimes used. The flocked piece was allowed to dry, then the excess flock was brushed off, to be used again for the next piece. For the more expensive papers, each piece was flocked more than once to build up a thick raised surface which stood out in relief above the ground color. Most of these flocked papers were designed to look like expensive textile wall-hangings, typically silk damasks.
In addition to the block-printed painted and flocked papers, there were also the imported Chinese papers and their domestic imitations, French scenic papers, stenciled papers and print rooms, a uniquely English and American concept, all of which I will detail in future articles. The imported Chinese papers and the French scenic papers were probably the most expensive, followed by the flocked papers and were usually hung in the best rooms of a house. The painted papers ranged in price from very expensive to relatively inexpensive, depending upon the complexity of the design, the number of colors used and the quality of the paint and paper used. The higher quality painted papers might also be used in the better rooms of a house, the inexpensive papers were used for papering closets, dressing rooms and servants’ quarters. But paper-hangings during the Regency were not used solely on walls. Paper-hangings were pasted onto the panels of folding screens to create decorative room dividers. Remnants of paper-hangings were used to cover books, from personal diaries and journals to estate ledgers and account books. Larger remnants were used to line the insides of trunks or to cover either bandboxes or hat boxes.
By the years of the Regency, there were several sources for paper-hangings. The very wealthy might get their paper-hangings through their architect or interior designer. In some cases, sets of paper-hangings might be custom-designed for a specific room or for an entire house. Slightly less affluent customers might acquire their paper-hangings from their upholder, especially in London and other large cities. These firms tended to function as interior decorators, and often also as rental agents for town houses. A client who wished to rent a house in town might contract with the upholder to find them a house for the season and also to decorate and furnish it before they took up residence.
A number of the larger paper-stainers had showrooms, called ware-rooms or ware-houses, as part of their premises. Those customers who could not afford to employ architects or upholders could purchase their paper-hangings directly from the paper-stainer’s ware-room. Many architects, interior designers and upholders also purchased paper-hangings for their clients from these very same ware-rooms. Most paper-stainers also employed one or more teams of paper-hangers, who were available to hang the papers purchased by the firm’s customers. However, some customers might choose to have the hanging of their papers managed by their upholder or builder, or they might have it done by their own household servants.
Those who lived in small towns or villages would get their paper-hangings through the sources from which everyone had acquired them in the years before the Regency, the local stationer or book seller. These merchants could not afford to stock a large selection of papers, so they would have a book of samples from which the customer could make their choice. The merchant would then order the chosen paper-hangings from the paper-stainers with whom he was affiliated. Papers from London were considered the most fashionable, but that also meant they were the most expensive. Less affluent customers might choose to buy lest costly paper-hangings from a paper-stainer not based in the Metropolis, sacrificing fashion on the altar of finance. Some of these customers might contract with a local workman to hang their papers. Others might find that cost beyond their means and would choose to hang their papers themselves. An example of this activity is seen in one of the watercolors in Diana Sperling’s sketchbook, reproduced in the book Mrs. Hurst Dancing. Diana, her mother, sisters and the family maid are all engaged in re-papering their sitting room. A most amusing scene!
The history of wallpaper, even confined to the decade of the Regency, is a rich and fascinating subject. Over the coming months I will post articles on the precious imported Chinese papers, the stunning French scenic papers, the wood-block printed papers and that uniquely English concept, the print room. I will also write about the politics of paper-hangings, as well as other curious aspects of Regency paper-hangings.