Wallpaper as a Record of Social History
Wallcoverings, historical and contemporary, speak volumes about the times in which they’re made.
Surfaces of all kinds are top of mind these days, so we decided to look at all aspects of them, in these articles, from A to Z. Thinking of surfaces less as a product category and more as a framework, we use them as a lens for understanding the designed environment. Surfaces are sites of materials innovation, outlets for technology and science, and embodiments of standards around health and sustainability, as well as a medium for artists and researchers to explore political questions.
Walls can talk. And domestic wallpaper, through its methods of construction, ingredients, and patterns, offers a special record of social history. One 19th-century example, from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, depicts the allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress and features an innovative surface made in response to that century’s cholera outbreaks: As wallpaper manufacturers switched from printing with water-soluble pigment to oils, this emerged as one of the first “washable” versions. In another instance, historians have discovered a high volume of vivid green florals printed in the same era. Those examples reveal Victorians’ obsession with that color and one source for the period’s numerous poisonings from arsenic, the wallpaper’s key ingredient. A survey of today’s wallcoverings similarly maps our advances in technology and our love for this timeless craft.
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