For as long as people have had walls, we’ve had the impulse to decorate them, particularly with images that tell others something about us—our taste, our place in the world, our collective and personal stories. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the image we see on our computer screens and smartphones is called “wallpaper”—a highly personal reflection of style and identity so revered that more than a handful of major media outlets have written about how to pick the perfect image. (The prevailing wisdom: No selfies.)
Here, we trace wallpaper’s history from its ancient forebearers (wall paintings and frescoes) to its place in pop culture’s daily vernacular.
About 3,000 BC: The ancient Egyptians understood the power of an image on a wall: Paintings of epic battles on palace walls told stories of great cultural significance, and images of the afterlife on tomb walls were intended to give help and comfort to the deceased.
About 1500 BC: Though the earliest frescoes are about 30,000 years old (found in the Chauvet Cave in France), this era marks the start of painting on plaster, which gives artists more flexibility in where they paint.
200 BC: The Chinese glued decorated rice paper to the walls, thus establishing the first example of wallpaper. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), block printing first appeared in China.
Early Middle Ages: Well-heeled Europeans covered their walls with rich woven tapestries (weft-faced textiles woven by hand on a loom). Tapestries were decorative and pragmatic, as the fabric mitigated the effects of the cold. By the 16th century, wall coverings included sumptuous fabrics such as velvet, brocades, and embossed leather.
Early 16th century: Paper printers got clever and tapped into the lower classes’ desire for a low-cost alternative to textiles and begin printing patterns on paper to adorn walls.
1509: The earliest known example of wallpaper in Europe is a woodcut pomegranate design (likely inspired by Italian decorative arts) attributed to Hugo Goes, a York printer. The fragment was discovered in 1911 at Christ’s College in Cambridge.
1599: A paperhangers’ guild began in Paris, and France and England became hotbeds of wallpaper design and production through the next century.
Early 17th century: The Chinese began creating “chinoiseries”—rice paper panels with images inspired by nature—and exporting them to Europe. For their part, European wallpaper designers imitated the sought-after designs, but the originals remained more desirable.
1712: The English government, inspired by wallpaper’s popularity, introduced a tax (one pence per square yard) on paper that was “painted, printed or stained to serve as hangings.” If the paper was exported, however, the merchant could reclaim the tax on the surface decoration—thus providing extra incentive to export wallpaper to the American Colonists.
18th century: The English produced papers that would appeal to the mass market, while the French cultivated more refined papers and prints and fostered the growth of an industry of wallpaper designers.
1789: During the French Revolution, an angry mob attacked the factory of Paris-based designer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, who was the premier manufacturer of wallpaper for the aristocracy. He fled to England, but design aficionados won over the Revolutionaries, who agreed to let them reopen the factory and print papers in patriotic red, white, and blue. (Thus proving that not even a revolution can stop the people’s appetite for beautiful wallpaper.)
1789: Meanwhile, leaders of the fledgling United States of America aimed to help its wallpaper industry grow, passing a 7.5-percent duty on imported wallpaper. Perhaps it worked: American wallpaper manufacturers flourished.
1806: Just when the wallpaper industry appeared invincible, England’s Parliament decreed that falsification of wallpaper stamps—applied to the backs of the papers by duty officers to ensure proper payment of taxes—was an act punishable by death.
1840: Producing paper in rolls, not simply single sheets, made wallpaper more accessible to lower classes—a shift that alarmed their wealthier counterparts. Once a luxury, wallpaper became a staple in all kinds of households.
Late 19th century: Industrialization led to massive expansion of the wallpaper industry, which was driven by demand from a growing middle class in the U.S. and western Europe.
WWII: The War Production Board classified wallpaper as a “non-essential commodity.” Manufacturers were forced to reduce the number of styles, patterns, and sample books they produced. After the war ended, however, wallpaper was one of the hottest buys among a robust and growing middle class.
1947: Vinyl wallpaper made its debut. Enough said.
1980s: Patterns in bright colors and dense florals in pastel hues dominated the wallpaper scene.
Early 21st century: After general ambivalence toward wallpapers, perhaps born of the 1990s’ love of all things neutral, wallpaper came raging back into the design scene, driven in part by the fashion world’s renewed love of prints and color.
Today: Digital imaging makes possible more designs than traditional screen or block printing methods ever allowed. Papers range in styles from uber-traditional to radically contemporary and even mimic the look of myriad surfaces, including marbled Venetian paper, snakeskin, or malachite.
And of course, if papering walls feels like too significant a design commitment, our handheld devices allow each of us to reflect our style in the ultimate in custom wallpaper: an image of our own choosing. Long live decorated walls of all kinds.