I am delighted to host this post from Zoë Hendon, Head of Museum Collections, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture.
Britain produced around 100 million rolls of wallpaper per year by the 1930s. Wallpaper was affordable commodity with prices ranging from a few pence per roll to several shillings, to suit the customer’s pocket.
An example of a cheap machine printed wallpaper from 1927, featuring an Oriental landscape with bridges, temples and trees, on a black gr
Papering over the cracks
Until the end of the twentieth century even the poorest people generally had papered walls. Having wallpaper was a mark of respectability, and it helped to make a house feel like ‘home’. It was also a practical choice: it was cheaper to re-paper the walls than to paint them, and paper covered up the cracks in plaster. Re-papering also had to be re-done regularly to make a home feel clean, because it became soiled by soot from coal fires and from gas lamps.
A house in Leytonstone, East London, photographed in 1910. This reception room had light coloured wallpapers, perhaps because the installation of electric lighting meant it was easier to keep clean.(Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Badda1290)
Putting up new wallpaper was therefore a relatively easy and cheap way of making a room seem clean and new. It also had the advantage that even if you hated it, it wasn’t permanent: it could be replaced within a year or two, unlike more expensive purchases such as furniture.
A family in Penge, South London, chose a wallpaper with a Dick Turpin theme in the 1950s, because it was in the sale. They didn’t like the effect, and were able to re-paper again about a year later.
Wallpaper and poor-standard housing
In the early twentieth century critics of wallpaper saw it as covering something up and therefore ‘sham’; lacking in integrity, and a sign of moral decline. But neatly applied, clean wallpaper can be seen as evidence that a house is in good repair. Dirty or ripped wallpaper, damp patches, stains or mold might be indicators of greater structural problems or general lack of maintenance, as in this photograph of a slum dwelling in Hull, around 1928.
For health inspectors, definitions of what constituted ‘unfit for human habitation’ did not specifically include wallpaper. But the condition or presence of wallpaper is implicit in descriptions of defective, damp or perished wall plaster, bulging and damp ceilings or dirty walls. In photographs of ‘slum’ interiors the damaged state of the paper was often read as a sign of the impoverished status of the inhabitants and the lack of care extended to them by the landlord for their surroundings.
Find out more
The Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture has thousands of examples of wallpapers from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth centuries. Have a look at our wallpaper pages on our website or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. You might also be interested in my book, Wallpaper, published by Shire (2018).
Dr Zoë Hendon
Head of Collections & Associate Professor, SFHEA
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (MoDA)
Images Courtesy of Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University