Occasionally, as we sort, process, and photograph newly acquired collections of vintage wallpaper, we’ll run across a pattern with a printing defect. We recently posted this pattern on Facebook after we found it among the hundreds of other beautiful wallpaper rolls from Tennessee:
Originally intended to have a sage background, you can see that the printing machine must have run out of green dye, leaving the plain tan paper in its stead. Even though this wallpaper cannot be hung on the wall, it does draw our attention to the printing process, an aspect of the wallpaper that often is forgotten or underappreciated with a well-printed paper.
So how was vintage wallpaper manufactured after all?
In the mid 1800’s, technological breakthroughs in mechanized printing allowed wallpaper to be made more widely available to the general public. These methods of printing wallpaper continued to be used for decades while also being honed and perfected to provide beautiful wallpaper to a larger group of people.
The life of a roll of wallpaper began in the design room. A team of designers would sketch out ideas for a wallpaper pattern before tightening up the details and drawing the pattern onto a wooden roller. Once the design had been transferred to a test roller, flexible brass tape was bent and tapped into the lines of the design, tracing the entire wallpaper pattern. The designers then pressed pieces of felt into the interior space of the brass outline to replicate a finished carved roller. The felt was then painted by hand, and the temporary replica was rolled out onto sheets of paper to test the design.
Once the pattern was finalized, pattern makers carved the design on the actual wooden rollers that would be used for printing. Both the designers and pattern makers engaged high levels of skill in mathematics and geometry in order to create a design that would not only fit around the circumference of the roller but also repeat seamlessly and maintain visual balance when applied to the paper.
The inactive wallpaper rollers were stored in a large room with hundreds of other rollers.
Next, paint was mixed. It had to be attentively cared for in order to ensure uniform pigment and a pleasing color palette.
A large roll of paper was positioned near a wheel-like printing machine. This large roll of unfinished paper would produce between 200 and 300 full double rolls of wallpaper. The paper fed into the printing wheel where up to 12 colors were applied via the carved wooden rollers. A separate roller for each color of paint was required. The paper traveled through the wheel only once, but received all of the separate colors in one pass. Once the paint was applied, the paper moved over steam pipes where it dried. Finally the paper was cut and rolled into regular double rolls.
The wallpaper process did change during the 20th century, and during the 1950’s the former wheel-like printing machine gave way to a quicker flatbed roller method. Yet, for the most part, the general process of printing wallpaper remained the same for the all decades from which our vintage wallpaper collection derives.
Here's another little wallpaper mishap...and the way it was meant to look.
When we run across little printing defects on a roll of vintage wallpaper, we’re reminded of the amazing printing process that created the beautiful papers we know and love. These little errors bring the relatively hidden process back up to the surface, which in turn encourages a deeper respect for the hard work and precise art form the was manufacturing wallpaper.