The Politics of Paper-Hangings

Not long ago, I read a Regency novel with an interesting author’s note. I have always enjoyed author’s notes in historical novels ever since I read my first in a novel by Barbara Cartland, many years ago. This particular author’s note stated that the Industrial Revolution had brought low-cost consumer goods to English markets by mechanizing the production of many products during the Regency, including wallpaper. Which is almost true, but not quite.

Therefore, I decided it was time for another article in my series on paper-hangings. This time, I will outline some of the more onerous laws and political situations which plagued the English paper-hanging industry during the Regency. And so, the politics of paper-hangings …

The manufacture of paper-hangings carried a heavy burden of taxation from the reign of Queen Anne at the beginning of the eighteenth century right through the end of the reign of the erstwhile Prince Regent, George IV. Paper had been taxed in England since 1694. But in 1712, an additional tax was imposed on paper-hangings. At that time, paper-hangings were made by gluing several sheets of paper end to end to create a roll, or what was known then as a "piece." Under the 1712 law, paper-stainers, those who made paper-hangings, were required to pay a second tax on any paper they used in the making of paper-hangings. This tax had to be paid by the sheet, and proof of payment of this tax was by a government taxation stamp applied to the back of each sheet. These stamps were similar to those employed by British officials in the colonies under the hated Stamp Act, which ignited the American Revolution. The primary result of the 1712 tax was to keep the cost of English-made paper-hangings high.

But the 1712 tax law had a second, unexpected result. The paper-hanging tax stamp was applied to the paper sheets at the manufactory, just prior to commencement of the process of gluing them together into rolls, or "pieces," and preparing the surface to receive the design and color. Paper-hangings could be purchased from a stationer in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but so could the untreated paper which was used to make them. Those of lesser means purchased the untreated paper, thus paying only a single tax, then took the paper home and pasted it to their walls. Once they had covered the walls with these cut paper sheets, they treated the wall very much as a paper-stainer would when making paper-hangings. The paper was coated with gesso, a ground color was painted on and then it might be decorated with wood block printing, stenciled, hand painted, or the plain colored walls were used as a base for a print room. This process would be much more labor-intensive for the consumer, but much less costly, as they would not have to pay the second paper-hanging tax on all those sheets of paper. Even more affluent homeowners might employ this tactic, if they were commissioning an artist to hand-paint the paper-hangings for a special room.

Regarding the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the manufacture of paper-hangings, it is true that in France, in 1799, Louis-Nicolas Robert, a former soldier and engineer, invented a machine by which paper could be made in continuous rolls. Robert’s employer eventually pressured him into selling him the patent for the machine, which he, in turn, sold to a British inventor from a family of paper-makers, Henry Fourdrinier. Henry and his brother, Sealy, re-worked and improved Robert’s design, creating the Fourdrinier machine, which was patented in 1806. The brothers had a very hard time protecting their patent, and many of their machines were in use in England and across Europe by the middle of the Regency. One of the trades which desperately wanted to adapt this machine to their manufacturing process was the paper-stainers. But they could not do so, not because it was not technically possible, but because the British government would not allow it. The 1712 tax law required that each sheet of paper to be used in the manufacture of paper-hangings be taxed, and stamped accordingly. Therefore, the British Excise office prohibited paper-stainers from using continuous rolls of paper because of the loss of revenue they anticipated from such an innovation. It was for that reason that, although it was technically possible to make paper-hangings in continuous rolls even before the beginning of the Regency, all paper-hangings made in England during that decade, and right through the reign of George IV, were made of cut sheets of paper glued together. Paper-stainers were not allowed to make paper-hangings with continuous roll paper until 1830, after the paper tax was finally repealed.

Even though the British government was essentially double-taxing the paper-staining industry for over a century, they did make some effort to protect this industry from foreign competition. There was a high duty levied on all paper-hangings imported from abroad. These foreign papers were coming primarily from two sources, China and France. Even though the taste for imported Chinese paper-hangings had begun to wane by the beginning of the Regency, the Prince Regent himself was extraordinarily fond of these papers and used them in several rooms in both Carlton House and the Pavilion at Brighton. Prinny’s lavish use of these expensive papers was one of the reasons he was so heavily in debt, and though one doubts he would have had any qualms about circumventing the import duty, there is no evidence that he did so. Though in light of his truly massive debt, that must have been little consolation to the British treasury.

There were, however, many who saw it as an exhilarating challenge to bring foreign goods into England without paying those pesky import duties. In addition, during the Napoleonic wars, all imports from France were prohibited. There is no doubt that French brandy and French silks made up the greater part of the cargoes of these "free-traders." But some of them also did a small, yet lucrative business in the importation of French paper-hangings, in particular the French scenic papers, which were in fashion right though the Regency period. Napoleon’s government felt that paper-hangings were a democratic form of domestic decoration and therefore, encouraged its production in several ways, including no taxation. For that reason, French papers were of very high quality, but much less expensive than English papers. Since the French paper-stainers exported these scenic papers to many countries abroad, they were quite meticulous in the packaging of these expensive papers. Each piece, or roll, was carefully enclosed in foil made of tin, and each set was then sealed inside a water-tight barrel. Thus, whether these sets of papers were carried by legitimate merchant ships to ports in North America, or clandestinely transported into quiet coves on the coast of England by the dark of night, they were well-packed to safely make their journey over water.

In 1825, the ban on French paper-hangings was finally lifted, but they still carried an extremely high import duty. The tax on paper was repealed in 1830, not only reducing the cost of English paper-hangings, but also finally allowing them to be made on continuous rolls of paper. But all of that happened after the Regency was over. During years that the Prince of Wales was Regent, paper-hangings in England were all hand-made using cut sheets of paper glued together into rolls. They were taxed twice, thus significantly increasing their cost. French papers were banned outright, so that those living in England who wanted them had to resort to smuggling to satisfy their decorating desires. Although the Industrial Revolution did make it possible to print low-cost paper-hangings during the era of the Regency, the process was never put into practice because it was forbidden by the British Excise Office. So, as I noted above, that author’s note about the effects of the Industrial Revolution making low-cost paper-hangings available to the masses was almost true.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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