May 162012
18th Century chintz wallpaper, courtesy of the V&A

I remember working in a Georgian office in Bristol where the wallpaper was looking tired and in need of being replaced. It was only when the decorator came in and put his scraper through the wall covering to the rough stone behind it that it was realized that the paper had been hung on canvas sheets, stretched taut over a wooden frame, and that the walls had never actually been plastered! I suspect this may have been a common way of squaring off and smoothing irregular walls and rough surfaces. For what is certain is that applying paper to walls was a very common fashion in the Eighteenth Century.

Quoting from

“Jean-Michel Papillon, a French engraver and considered the inventor of wallpaper, started making block designs in matching, continuous patterns in 1675, and wallpaper as we know it today was on its way. The oldest existing example of flocked wallpaper comes from Worcester and was created in approximately 1680.

The manufacturing methods developed by the English are significant, and the products from 18th century London workshops became all the rage. At first, fashion conscious Londoners ordered expensive hand painted papers that imitated architectural details or materials like marble and stucco, but eventually wallpapers won favour on their own merits. Borders resembling a tasseled braid or a swag of fabric were often added, and flocked papers that looked like cut velvet were immensely popular.

Wallpaper came to America in 1739, when Plunket Fleeson began printing wallpaper in Philadelphia.

In 1778, Louis XVI issued a decree that required the length of a wallpaper roll be about 34 feet. Frenchman, Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf invented the first machine for printing wallpaper in 1785. Frenchman, Nicholas Louis Robert invented a way to make an endless roll of wallpaper around the same time.”

This gives us a background for the diary entry for September 1768 (made by Richard Hall’s brother-in-law William Snooke) relating to the Manor House at Bourton on the Water.

Paid to Mr Stark for ten pieces of crimson flock at eight shillings a piece. or eight pence a yard (4 shillings abated on the whole) – Three pounds sixteen shillings. Bordering eleven shillings. Total: Four pounds seven shillings.”


Flock paper from c.1760

The paper was for hanging in ‘the Best Chamber’ and it is unclear whether the draping of the paper on the walls was connected with another item of expenditure for the same day (Saturday 1st September) “Paid for a box of tools One pound eleven shillings and sixpence”. Whatever it was, he needed more because in October he paid “half a crown more for tools” (i.e. another two shillings and sixpence). The total expenditure on flock paper, borders and tools therefore came to just under six pounds – not far short of four hundred pounds in modern terms.

 Flock paper, left, image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum, which has a fascinating article on early flocks at


Other expenditure that first week of September: “two shillings for half a hundred of crayfish, one and sixpence for a hare, four pence ha’penny for three quarters of a yard of black ribbon for my Wig, servants one shilling and mending the salt shovel sixpence.”

The butcher’s bill for dog meat had obviously been overlooked for some months because there is also an entry “Wm Hyett’s Bill for Flesh for the Dogs from June 22 Eleven shillings”

But there was enough in hand for the odd tipple – two gallons of Geneva (i.e. Gin) at nineteen shillings and One pound four shillings for an equivalent amount of “best coniac Brandy” meant a stockpile of four gallons of hard liquor to see out the winter ahead!

A typical still for making cognac in the 18th Century, picture courtesy of

  7 Responses to “From Eighteenth Century Wallpaper to the price of cognac…”


    A very interesting post. One often comes across the many-layers-over-stretched-hessian phenomenon in early 18th century buildings. When full-height panelling became unfashionable in the ca.1740s it was common to remove the panelling above the chair rail and replace it with a flushed-out surface in the form of hessian stretched over a timber frame. This was usually covered with lining paper and painted or hung with wallpaper. Over the years more layers of wallpaper / paint were added and the surface eventually becomes quite hard. It is only when trying to take a sample with a sharp blade that it becomes clear what lies underneath. When I sampled the 1720s house that Jimi Hendrix had lived in I found an example of this on the first floor.


      Thanks – interesting to have it confirmed by an expert! My offices were in Orchard Street Bristol, built around 1717.The “wall” was hard and taut as a drum (but of course sounded hollow when tapped). Being a Listed Building, I suspect I should have obtained Listed Building Consent to plaster the wall prior to repapering but if so I am afraid to say this formality was overlooked!The decorator was not amused since he was on a fixed price contract – and I rather took the view this was his area of expertise (decorating an old building), not mine! I suspect he never quoted again for a Georgian building without first tapping furiously all round the room!


    Love the blog. Carry On!


    Great post, very informative – I almost have to try to work this into a story. Anyone know when hanging paper on canvas coverings went out of fashion? [I’m thinking with new houses, when did they have to be built to not have this done….]


      I haven’t an answer to that. But it reminds me of the comment by a builder who was working on the premises, when treatment work against Death Watch Beetle was being carried out. He sagely remarked “There’s only one thing holding these old buildings together – and that is History”. How true!


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