I find it interesting that the novel Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe in 1719, while not originally intended for a child audience, became the subject of one of the earliest children’s wallpapers. Early children’s wallpapers were designed to be educational and not to amuse. While this book was a novel about travel and adventure and would certainly have appealed to the imaginations of children, it also delivers a strong message of faith. This is the aspect of the novel that would have appealed to manufacturers and parents. Papers designed to amuse and entertain did not appear until the early 20th century. Manufacturers had been searching for a washable wallpaper for many years and they finally succeeded in the early 1870s. At that time, a British company developed the intaglio technique for printing wallpapers, or machine-printing with engraved copper rollers using oil pigments. This produced a very smooth surface that could be wiped clean. Intaglio prints can be discerned by the stippled format of the printing. This technique also allows the color to shade from light to dark, which is not possible with other forms of printing. Early intaglio wallpapers were only available in a monochrome color, while papers printed in multiple colors using this technique became available in 1884. The advent of washable wallpapers greatly advanced this niche market, and the popularity of children’s wallpaper quickly grew. While varnished papers were also available, the intaglio prints were the premium method of producing washable papers until 1934. Early children’s papers were gender neutral as they were designed to go into the nursery which could house both boys and girls. Papers didn’t start becoming gender specific until the 1940s.
Wallpaper: Robinson Crusoe. Produced in England, ca. 1875. Gift of Frances Irene Clark.