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.