Decking Columbia’s Walls


Zuber’s views of America shared in the popularity of landscapes, and the factory kept the paper in print for years, repairing and replacing the printing blocks as they wore out. In 1852 Zuber offered for sale a close variant: “Views of the American War of Independence.” It was made up of printed backgrounds from the old Vues de l’Amérique du Nord with battling soldiers hand-painted over them.

Nineteenth-century American manufacturers fought back with patterns of their own: one commemorated the Mexican War; another featured charming small views of American cities. In 1854 the writer of advertising copy for a New York firm announced a forthcoming scenic in five verses of “Lines inscribed to Pratt, Hardenbergh and Co. on hearing that they had determined to manufacture Wall Paper illustrated with Scenes from American History and Landscape. ” (Unfortunately, no examples of the paper survive and so no one knows whether their plans ever actually materialized.)

Americans’ pride in the natural beauty of their land was rivaled,as the nineteenth century wore on by swelling pride in their technological prowess. Wallpaper manufacturers shared the era’s preoccupation with mechanization and steam power and by 1835 they were experimenting with printing machines. The products of those machines, and some of the machines themselves, were soon proudly exhibited in local and national fairs. New York’s Crystal Palace exhibition of 1853 was the earliest American fair to aspire to the status of an international exposition. Its magnificent glass-walled building, modeled on the Crystal Palace that had been built in London two years earlier, is shown here as it was commemorated by an American wallpaper manufacturer who printed its image on a window shade.

By the late nineteenth century, native wallpaper manufacturers had at least beaten out their European competitors for the bulk of the American trade. But expensive foreign papers never lost their cachet among the most style-conscious “fair daughters of Columbia,” and some of these designs have proved to have an amazingly durable appeal. In 1927, for instance, Zuber replaced the hand-painted figures in the “Views of the American War of Independence” series with carved blocks; that change aside, the French factory has been enjoying a steady flow of eager customers for the identical paper for the last hundred and thirty years.