When you unlock your phone you’re immediately met with an image. It’s one you chose, one that says something about you or reminds you of something you like—a wallpaper. Mine is a fox, jumping into some snow.
Everybody knows that the term wallpaper was originally used for actual paper that went on walls. And although decorative wallpaper has gone out of style today, there was a time when elaborately papered walls were a sign of success and opulence. We put things on the walls to tell people who we are. But our physical space for that is shrinking. We still have walls, but the wallpaper we think about most is getting smaller and smaller with our devices. Here is a brief history of the incredible, shrinking wallpaper.
It has always been important to people with walls to decorate them. Cave people painted on their stone surroundings, the Egyptians created murals, the Greeks covered their homes in mosaics. In the Middle Ages, the rich hung tapestries on their walls, and in fact the very earliest wallpapers were mostly huge paper prints hung or glued to the wall. The most famous of these early “wallpapers” was the nearly 10 foot tall print Triumphal Arch, commissioned by the Roman Emperor Maximilian I.
As block printing improved and production of wallpaper took off, a few countries took the lead in wallpaper production like England and France. In the 1840s, when paper could be produced in rolls rather than single sheets, the industry took off. Wallpaper now became less of an elite product, it was something that regular people could used to make their homes and shops seem a bit fancier than they were. And because of that, the rich were suddenly turning their nose at the stuff. In a piece titled 'A Short History of Wallpaper' from Victoria and Albert Museum, they go over the early critique of the medium:
This widespread and continuing ambivalence towards wallpaper can, to a large extent, be attributed to wallpaper’s essentially imitative character. It is almost always designed to look like something else – tapestry, velvet, chintz, silk drapery, linen, wood, masonry, a mural. For much of its history wallpaper has appeared (at least at first sight) to be something other than merely printed paper, and as an affordable substitute for more costly materials it has never quite thrown off the taint that comes from being a cheap imitation.
And yet, wallpaper marched on, not just in rooms, but into our technological lives as well. The 1910 book The Decorative Use of Wallpapers, by E. Owen Clark, highlighted by BibliOdyssey, explores the “artistic and intelligent use of wallpaper.”
Today, wallpaper requires a modifier—you could just as easily be talking about a room as a computer or phone. This transition, of course, happened slowly.
In the early days of personal computers, devices came with background images (usually a screen of black and white checkers), but no way to change them. In 1985, the X Windows system allowed users to set any solid color or binary images as their backgrounds, and in 1989 a handful of software programs allowed users to customize their computers.
But it wasn’t until 1990 that the term “wallpaper” migrated from walls to computers. Windows 3.0 came with seven patterns pre-loaded, but anybody could load in their own 8-bit-color image. The IBM OS/2 system, released the same year, offered similar options.
In the 2000’s, there were the iconic backgrounds. Bliss, the wallpaper that came preloaded with Windows XP depicting a rolling meadow hill and blue sky streaked with whispy clouds, is said to be the most-viewed photograph in the entire world.
Today, there are thousands of websites for wallpapers, and we use them just as our predecessors used paper glued to walls: to express something about ourselves and our standing in the world. The medium is smaller—rather than a whole room or house, we have just a screen. But on it we put wallpapers that say “this is my family,” or “this is my favorite band,” or simply “this is a photo I think it cool and pretty.” Wallpapers let people take a mass produced thing and turn it into their own, much like bumper stickers let drivers turn cars into rolling profiles.
And so too with the iPhone, though our canvas has shrank again and changed in size. No longer could landscape images reign in the wallpaper world: Phones required a portrait. But the premise remains.
This week, Apple announced the Apple Watch, with a focus on the personal. But the square footage offered on an Apple Watch is again, a downgrade when it comes to space. The Apple Watch’s screen is 42 mm at the largest.
Art historians note that studying the history of physical wallpaper is hard, because it’s fragile and ephemeral. Removing it from the walls can destroy it, and many simply chose to paper over the last paper. And in some ways that’s true of our digital wallpapers too. Do you remember your first computer wallpaper? Could you even find that image if you wanted to?
But the differences here are also important. Wallpapers on walls said something about you to your guests, the people you invited into your home. Wallpapers on computers do some of the same—your computer screen is easily visible to those around you, and its background is something they might note and file away in the cabinet of pieces of information that they have about you. But wallpapers on your phone and your Apple Watch are about you talking to yourself. You can’t even access your phone’s wallpaper without a password. The Apple Watch only activates when you raise your arm it to look at it.
And in the future the wallpaper might be even more secretive: layers on your Google Glass you can only see while wearing it. Instead of trying to convince others you’re cool or rich or have good taste in music, wallpapers are now about you talking to yourself. And maybe you want to convince yourself of those things, but as wallpapers shrink and disappear behind lock screens, it’s increasingly a conversation we're having with ourselves.
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