How covering our walls has evolved from paint to acrylic

Posted on Categories David Clouting
wall being covered

Nowadays we find a huge range of different wall coverings made out of various materials, each of which is popular for its own reasons. The public didn’t always have as much choice though, as a brief look at the history of wall coverings shows.

Paint is the oldest type of wall covering we know of, and there is evidence of humans decorating their living space with ‘paint’ as much as 40,000 years ago. Original paints were natural, made out of animal blood or soot for example. Although recipes have changed a lot since then, paint has remained a popular way for us to decorate our walls throughout history. Nowadays paints are less natural but at least things have improved since the late 1770s to the end of the nineteenth century when arsenic and lead were common ingredients in some paints!

Wall tapestries also became popular wall coverings. Examples of tapestries from the third century still exist, however it was during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that a thriving industry existed providing wall tapestries for castles which served as both decoration and insulation.

While pottery tiles have also been in existence since way back in history, it was only with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution that decorated wall tiles came into general use, with the mass production that then became possible making tiling more affordable and accessible.

Along came wallpaper

The wall covering most of us tend to think of first however is wallpaper and it is considered one of the quickest and easiest ways to change the way a room looks. It was originally known as ‘paper hangings’, with the term wallpaper only becoming a common term toward the second half of the nineteenth century.

Wallpaper itself has a very varied history. It wasn’t until around 1840 that it became commercially viable to print wallpaper for general use. Prior to this is was very difficult to make and also heavily taxed so only available to the wealthy.

Like paint, certain wallpapers contained toxic substances such as lead and arsenic. It was the lead that allowed for the brilliant colours that predominated at one time, however it often made people very sick and is thankfully no longer in use!

Wallpaper has a history of making walls look like something else, for example wood, stone or fabric. This is and was part of its appeal, however it also created a bit of a backlash amongst some, its ‘faux’ nature seen as less traditional and ‘honest’. Part of this was also snobbery however, as once wallpaper became available to the general public it was no longer as desirable to the wealthy. Even William Morris, one of the great designers of wallpapers, eschewed it in his own home at one point.

Wallpaper fashions have included some of the following:

  • Anaglypta – a sturdy embossed wall covering originally developed around 1887 and which was sometimes painted over.
  • Flocked wallpaper
  • Woodchip
  • Chinese wallpaper – this was produced in China purely for export and was at the height of its popularity during the second half of the eighteenth century
  • Panoramic wallpapers – these were French wallpapers from the beginning of the nineteenth century which were also known as scenic wallpapers as they were joined together to form one large scene rather than a repeating pattern. Some were in excess of thirty metres wide!

Nowadays of course there are many more options available in addition to these still popular choices, from acrylic wall panels to vinyl and glass and even wooden panelling, giving us the choice of hundreds of different looks. How we each choose to cover our walls says a lot about us and our tastes, and it’s great that we are now able to reflect our personalities so easily in our homes, whether we choose to stick to traditional wall coverings or opt for completely modern materials.


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