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My recent battle with a wallpaper border in my dining room got me to wonder: Who came up with the bright idea to decorate walls by pasting paper on them?

Certainly not my eighth-century Frankish and Saxon characters. Aristocrats decorated their walls with murals over plaster or tapestries over stone, the latter of which would help block the drafts. Peasant made do with wattle-and-daub structures.

The problem with tapestries: they were expensive. When monarchs moved from one residence to another, tapestries were important enough to be included in the carts that also carried the furniture, jewels, library, and weapons.

The credit (or blame) for wallpaper dates to 15th century France. By that time, paper making enjoyed a resurgence, and paper had supplanted parchment as material for books. The material also offered a less expensive alternative for décor.

In 1481, Louis XI commissioned Jean Bourdichon to paint 50 rolls of paper with angels, which were then mounted on panels and carted around from castle to castle. However, affixing the paper to the walls was not that far away. Around 1509, it decorated the room of the master’s lodge at Christ’s College in Cambridge, England.

Tapestries cost more, but at least they were portable and could even by given away if the new owner didn’t like them. No one had spend hours shredding, spraying, and scraping trying to get rid of them.

Sources

Ancient Inventions by Peter J. James, Nick Thorpe, I. J. Thorpe

The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts, Volume 2, edited by Gordon Campbell

Rag Paper Manufacture in the United States, 1801-1900, by A.J. Valente

“Artichoke” wallpaper,designed by John henry Dearle for Morris & Co. Printed design pre-1900 (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

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