Wallpaper originated in the latter part of the fifteenth century as a relatively inexpensive substitute for densely woven, richly embroidered tapestries.
Bearing stenciled, hand-painted, or printed designs, it developed shortly after the rise of paper mills in Europe. The earliest preserved examples date from the year 1509. Because the Chinese had developed paper making centuries earlier, it was long assumed that wallpaper was an Oriental invention, but its actual birthplace was France. Heavy tapestries had been popular since Roman times, not merely as decorative hangings but also because full-length wall coverings, in vast castles and stately homes, effectively minimized draughts. They were so costly that even the most profligate monarchs trundled entire sets on their seasonal migration from castle to castle.
Less expensive substitutes were tried; the most popular was embossed and gilded leather, introduced in the eleventh century by the Arabs. But thick decorative paper, pasted to a wall, was even less costly, and as good an insulator from the cold. As modern-day wallpaper is printed to imitate certain surfaces, so early wallpaper, by the late sixteenth century, represented more expensive wall finishings.
A British advertisement of the period conveys an idea of the simulated surfaces available: “We selleth all sorts of Paper Hangings for Rooms…Flock Work, Wainscot, Marble, Damask, etc.” In fact, early wallpaper was admired precisely because it authentically yet inexpensively simulated the appearance of more costly materials. Flocking (seemingly mandatory in Indian restaraunts), a process in which powdered wool or metal was scattered over a predesigned and gummed paper, achieved great popularity in the next century. Examples are extant from as early as 1680. Prized at the same time was the distinctly different painted Chinese wallpaper, called “India paper.” It bore images of birds and flowers against brightly coloured backgrounds. The paper was valued for its absence of repetitive design: every vertical strip of wallpaper plastered about a room was unique, creating a dizzying effect.
In the seventeenth century, French supremacy in wallpaper execution was nearing its apex, with exquisite designs of country landscapes and classical architectural forms, employing columns and friezes. Ironically, what began as inexpensive ersatz tapestry became in a short time a costly art form.