Wallpaper has been used for the decoration of interiors in the West at least since the late fifteenth century. At first, wallpaper was hand-painted or -printed in a transfer process involving multiple carved woodblocks and colored ink. Time-consuming and costly to produce, these early wallpapers were reserved for the elite classes. With advances in papermaking and the invention of steam-powered, mechanical printing in the nineteenth century, wallpaper became an accessible consumer product, one of the early fruits of the Industrial Revolution, for the new middle class.
Beginning in the 1870s in England and then the United States, walls were often decorated with elaborate wallpaper schemes that included several coordinated patterns: a dado, to cover the area of the wall just below the midpoint or chair rail; the large fill area above; and, finally, a narrow frieze or border paper at the top (see illustration). Sometimes paper also covered ceilings, which might have been compartmentalized into borders, often with elaborate corner blocks; a fill area; and a central medallion.
The popularity of wallpaper has waxed and waned since its high point in the nineteenth century. Wallpaper by its nature is ephemeral and is usually replaced to reflect changing tastes in interior decoration. Each age has to decide if patterned walls are stylish or not. As Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), the famous Anglo-Irish writer and wit, reportedly said on his deathbed in a second-class French hotel: “Either the wallpaper has to go or I.”
The wallpaper fragments displayed here individually and those on the Travis Wallpaper and Border Exhibitor are in the Japanese style and exemplify the interest in Asian design in the late 1870s and 1880s in the United States during the Aesthetic Movement period. Machine-printed on long rolls, the paper would have been cut into lengths, trimmed on the sides, glued on the back, and fitted on interior walls and ceilings to create a continuous pattern. One fragment here was intended as a fill for large wall areas; another is either a dado or frieze paper and was hung horizontally; and a third is a corner block and border from an extensive ceiling scheme.