Life and Style: A Guide to Victorian Wallpaper

The middle classes, who had already begun to grow in the early nineteenth century, expanded even further in the Victorian era. This was something of a boom period and there was a lucky section of society who came to possess a buying power which would have been unimaginable within their family just a few generations earlier. So, what were they going to with all this money? Why, show it off, of course!

The home furnishings sector underwent a massive surge and one of the most popular products was wallpaper. Increased wealth, and improved technology, meant that more people were able to light their homes well enough for the first time that wallpaper was a good interior-design investment. There isn’t much point in buying wallpaper, after all, when the room is too dark to be able to see it. As well as increased spending power among the populace, wallpaper also became more widely available because mechanising the process brought down the cost. In the early nineteenth century, wallpaper had been the preserve of the wealthy few. Over the course of the Victorian period, it came to be within the means of relatively modest households.

Yet this also raises other important issues: taste and class. The issue of morals and manners is, naturally, intertwined with questions of identity, class and the display thereof. A nest of domesticity was the ideal, but with wallpaper becoming more and more widely available, it was important to choose the right sort of colour and the right sort of style. One did not want to look too much like an arriviste, or to appear too showy or gaudy.

The Victorian period was also deeply concerned with its morality (or again, at least, the display of it). And there is something of an artifice about wallpaper. It is a facade, a covering, something to hide something else behind. Writers of the time used it as a metaphor to display one thing, while concealing another, or to suggest such attributes about their characters.

Wallpaper in many ways reflected the domestic aspirations and ideals of the Victorians. A society that was born out of and shaped by industrialisation (and their reaction to it) sought refuge in the peace and tranquillity of the domestic sphere. Home was their safe haven. Perhaps that is also why one of the key designers of the period, William Morris, was part of the Arts and Crafts Movement and took his inspiration from, among other things, nature. Perhaps this is also why green was so popular in the Victorian colour scheme. However, this search for everyday domesticity, for peace and safety, was somewhat undermined. The proud Victorian’s new green wallpaper was as deadly as it was beautiful. The dye that made it was largely comprised of arsenic…

In short, the paper which so many Victorians pasted on their walls speaks of their hopes, their dreams, and the industrial world which was growing around them and which they were still coming to understand in terms of the science and dangers it posed. They used it to represent themselves, and the writers of the era then in turn used it to represent them in their work.

 

Bibliography

Lipscomb, Suzannah, ‘Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home’, History Extra, http://www.historyextra.com/blog/victorians/hidden-killers-victorian-home.

‘William Morris and Wallpaper Design’, Victoria and Albert Museum, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/w/william-morris-and-wallpaper-design/.

‘A Short History of Wallpaper’, Victoria and Albert Museum, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/short-introductory-history-of-wallpaper/.

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