Skip to main content

Decking Columbia’s Walls

July 2024
4min read

War, patriotism, nature, and changing taste— all have been mirrored in our wallpaper

When George Washington visited Boston in 1789, the new President received a tumultuous greeting. Among the bands of tradesmen who rallied to parade—all patriotically urging the spectators to buy American—was a contingent of local wallpaper printers, bearing a banner emblazoned with the exhortation: “May the fair daughters of Columbia deck them- 4 selves and their walls with J our own manufactures. ”


A year earlier New York’s paper stainers (as makers of paper hangings were then called) had participated in a ^ similar procession, celebrating the ratification of the Constitution. Their flag bore a picture of Washington and proclaimed: “Under this Constitution we hope to Flourish.” And, indeed, they seemed to be off to a good start in a craft known to have been practiced in America only since 1756. That year a Dubliner named John Hickey had advertised that in New York he “stamps or prints paper in the English manner and hangs it so as to harbour no worms. ” By 1800 about thirty paper stainers were at work in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Their desire to protect their fledgling industry against French and English competition was most eloquently voiced by Ebenezer Clough of Boston, whose every bill was adorned with patriotic images and sentiments. Beneath the wings of an eagle I grasping in his beak a banderole inscribed “Protection,” busy workmen stamp patterns with wooden blocks in Clough’s “Boston Paper Staining Factory.” Boldly underlining these illustrations are the words “Americans, encourage the manufactories of your Country, if you wish for its prosperity.”

Such appeals by paper stainers were part of the larger campaign of American manufacturing interests for high tariffs on a long list of foreign goods. They hoped that taxes on imports would render them too expensive to compete with domestic wares, but in the wallpaper trade, exquisitely printed English and French wallpapers lured many Americans away from the more mundane products of their fellow countrymen.


In the main, American paper stainers’ love of patriotic designs did not extend beyond their advertisements and billheads. For the wallpaper itself, they blatantly aspired to make cheap copies of the motifs and the styles and “to match color for color” the output of their European rivals. But there were revealing exceptions to this rule.

The death of George Washington in 1799, for example, moved Ebenezer Clough to substitute an American motif within a standard English wallpaper pattern known as “pillar and arch. ” Mementos of death were then almost universally fashionable—mourning jewelry, wreaths incorporating locks of the hair of the departed, prints showing their graves, needlework picturing tombs and weeping willows. And so the idea of permanently hanging the walls with regularly repeating images of Liberty and Justice weeping on either side of a funerary urn inscribed “Sacred to Washington” seemed perfectly normal. Clough advertised his somber decoration in the newspapers as: “An elegant Device in Paper Hangings, suitable for large rooms, especially for Halls, Stair-ways, Entries, &c,” and the survival of several examples first hung by grieving republicans about 1800 suggests that the pattern proved popular. Clough’s advertisements concluded with the inevitable appeal: “ N.B. As the above attempt to perpetuate the Memory of the Best of Men is the production of an American, both in draft and workmanship, it is hoped that all true-born Americans will so encourage the Manufactories of their Country, that Manufactories of all kinds may flourish, and importation stop.”


But importation of paper hangings never stopped, and the French quickly learned to cater to American pride in national accomplishments, sometimes with images of the country’s heroes, sometimes with commemorations of their deeds.

In addition, the French designed papers to appeal to a closely related American sentiment: pride in the land itself. Occasionally they printed symbolic personifications of “America,” figures representing the great continent, always shown—as on our cover—as an Indian maiden. But the French wallpapers that had the greatest impact on nineteenth-century taste—and doubtless some generative influence on painting in this country as well—were those that covered all the walls of a room, from chair rail to ceiling, with large-scale, nonrepeating views of American landmarks rendered in glowing colors and convincing perspective. About 1835 the factory of Jean Zuber in Alsace first block-printed its Vues de l’Amérique du Nord illustrating our cities—Boston and New York—and our natural wonders—Niagara Falls and the Natural Bridge of Virginia. Zuber introduced these panoramic views early in America’s greatest era of landscape painting, when native sons and immigrant artists alike were celebrating the awesome magnificence of God’s creation on this continent.


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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.