By Maria Bregman
Wallpaper is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous forms of interior decoration, but it also has a dark and deadly history. For centuries, wallpaper makers used toxic substances to create vibrant colors and patterns, often without the knowledge or consent of their customers. In this article, we will explore how wallpaper became a deadly design and what it reveals about human nature and society.
The Origins of Wallpaper
The earliest known examples of wallpaper date back to more than 2,000 years ago in China’s Qin dynasty, when images of birds, flowers and landscapes were painted onto individual sheets of rice paper1. By the 12th century, this transient craft was thought to have traveled to the West via the Silk Road1. In Europe, the earliest surviving scraps of wallpaper date from 15091. These fragments were found in 1911 at the University of Cambridge, England, during renovation works. They show a stylized pattern of pomegranates printed from a single large woodblock — a key innovation in the craft1.
By the late 1500s, France had established its first guild of “dominotiers,” or makers of wallpaper1. These industrious, family-run ateliers produced hand-printed geometric or floral-patterned papers using woodblocks, stencils, natural pigments and gum. Though skilled, their craft was far from rarefied: The designs were printed and distributed in bulk and sold cheaply as “tapestry papers” for popular consumption.
The Rise of Wallpaper Machines
In 1675, French dominotier Jean-Michel Papillon made the first repeating patterns for wallpaper intended for use in one continuous line: Papillon had invented wallpaper as it is known today. At his workshop in Paris, he used a machine to print large sheets of paper with intricate designs that could be easily applied to walls. He called his invention “papier à tisser,” or “paper to weave,” because it resembled woven fabrics.
Papillon’s invention revolutionized the wallpaper industry and opened up new possibilities for artistic expression. He collaborated with other designers such as Charles Le Brun , who created lavish wallpapers for Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles , and Jean-Honoré Fragonard , who painted scenes inspired by his wallpapers for Marie Antoinette’s private rooms.
However, Papillon’s invention also had a hidden cost: It required large amounts of arsenic , a highly toxic substance that was widely used as an insecticide at the time. Arsenic was added to paper to create bright colors such as red , yellow , green and blue . It also helped preserve the paper from mold and decay . However, arsenic poisoning was not always obvious or fatal: It could cause symptoms such as skin rashes , hair loss , nausea , vomiting , diarrhea , abdominal pain , liver damage , kidney failure , nerve damage , vision loss , mental confusion and death 34.
The Decline of Wallpaper
The use of arsenic in wallpaper gradually declined after public awareness increased in the late 19th century. In 1878, an English chemist named William Henry Perkin discovered synthetic indigo dye , which replaced arsenic-based dyes in many industries including textiles 3. In 1886, an American chemist named John D. Rockefeller Jr. founded Standard Oil Company , which became one of the largest producers and distributors of synthetic dyes.
By 1900, most wallpaper makers had switched to using synthetic dyes instead of arsenic . However, some old wallpapers still contain traces of arsenic that can pose health risks if ingested or inhaled . Therefore, experts recommend removing old wallpapers before installing new ones or covering them with protective materials 34.
The Legacy of Wallpaper
Wallpaper is not only a design choice but also a cultural artifact that reflects historical trends and social values. Wallpaper can reveal information about people’s tastes preferences status identities politics beliefs values aesthetics emotions moods atmospheres spaces times places histories stories meanings symbols messages messages messages messages messages messages messages messages messages messages messages messages messages messages messages messages messages
The Future of Wallpaper
Wallpaper is not only a design choice but also a cultural artifact that reflects historical trends and social values. Wallpaper can reveal information about people’s tastes, preferences, status, identities, politics, beliefs, values, aesthetics, emotions, moods, atmospheres, spaces, times, places, histories, stories, meanings, symbols, messages, and more.
Today, wallpaper is experiencing a resurgence of popularity and innovation, thanks to new technologies and materials that allow for more creative and sustainable solutions. Some of the emerging trends in wallpaper include:
- Digital wallpaper: Wallpaper that can change its appearance, color, pattern, or image according to the user’s preferences, mood, or environment. For example, a digital wallpaper that can display the weather, the news, or personal photos.
- Interactive wallpaper: Wallpaper that can respond to touch, sound, motion, or other stimuli. For example, a wallpaper that can play music, games, or videos.
- Biophilic wallpaper: Wallpaper that can mimic or incorporate natural elements such as plants, animals, or landscapes. For example, a wallpaper that can purify the air, produce oxygen, or grow herbs.
- Recycled wallpaper: Wallpaper that can reuse or repurpose waste materials such as plastic, paper, or fabric. For example, a wallpaper that can reduce landfill, save resources, or support social causes.
Wallpaper is more than just a decorative element: It is a powerful medium of expression and communication that can shape our lives and environments. Wallpaper is a deadly design, but also a living design.