The Oritani frieze is one of a number of wallpapers in the Cooper-Hewitt collection that contain a printed inscription in the selvedge that reads: “Antiseptic Pat’d 8-9-04”. This was a patent filed by the William Campbell Wall Paper Company in 1904 that was said to prevent the absorption of germs into the wallpaper’s pigment. This patent notification appeared mostly on children’s wallpapers but the process was also used on papers for more general use. Prior to this patent, if a person in your home had a contagious disease, when they recovered, or not, the homeowner was advised to strip off the wallpaper, sanitize the walls, and then reinstall new wallpaper. This was due to the fact that wallpapers could not be cleaned as they were printed with water soluble pigments. The first truly washable wallpaper was not developed until 1934.

The late nineteenth century saw a great rise in sanitary concerns and wallpapers seemed to bear the brunt of this concern due to the fact they could not be cleaned. To help curb this proposed threat to public health, many cities as well as states adopted ordinances prohibiting the use of more than a single layer of wallpaper on the wall at a given time. Before a new paper could be installed, the old paper needed to be scraped off the wall. This became a major issue for the tenement houses in large cities. This practice later became a detriment to historians and homeowners who logically thought the paper installed closest to the wall was the original.

Fortunately, around this time several washable wallcovering options were developed. The first was Lincrusta-Walton, developed in 1877 by the man who invented linoleum. This was a linseed oil-based solid material with a relief surface. It could be left natural, painted and or gilded, and was a beautiful and durable product. Sanitas was another washable product introduced in 1903. This was an oil-impregnated fabric with a paper backing that could be hung like ordinary wallpaper. Sanitas retained the texture of the fabric which was a much desired effect at this time.

Due to the tremendous size and resolve of the wallcovering manufacturers at the turn of the twentieth century, as problems and obstacles arose, new solutions were developed which offered the homeowner a greater variety of wallcoverings to satisfy their individual needs.

2 thoughts on “Clean and Beautiful: Sanitary Wallpapers

I bought at a auction a paper picture ,wallpaper which show Native Americans sitting around , 2 of whom are smoking pipes and generally having a Pow Pow with Tee Pees in the background. It states on the bottom Ericson E. Weiss Desgr. In the middle of the bottom is number 088. Off to the left of the number 88 are dots of the colors in the painting.
At the top it states Antispetic-Pat’D 8-9-0-4. Then in the middle it says Wm. Campbell. Wall -Paper Co. As on the bottom it again shows dots of the colors used in the painting. The paper appears to be very old and dry. I am thinking of framing it but would like to know more about it first. I have checked on the computer but can find no photos of this. Do you have any information on this particular picture, wallpaper? Sincerely, Cherri Keller

Dear Cherri, I am very familiar with the wallpaper company and antiseptic patent date you mention. The antiseptic refers to an ingredient, I think boron, that was added to the pigments to prevent them from absorbing germs. Prior to this patent, if someone with a contagious disease stayed in your home you were advised to strip off the wallpaper after the illness as the paper itself could not be cleaned. The patent was received in 1904 though I’m not sure how long they printed this information on the wallpaper. I think it is safe to assume this paper was produced between 1904-1910. I checked through a binder of ads from this period and could not find this particular image. The William Campbell company was located in Hackensack, New Jersey. These papers were printed by machine so would have been affordable, designed for boy’s rooms or dens and libraries. I am assuming this is a wide border as I have not seen this antiseptic notation on wallpaper. Hope this helps.

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