If you have ever wondered what it’s like to be a toy inside of Santa’s sack, this is the wallpaper for you. This close and colorful design was most likely printed in France, and might best be described as the wildest Christmas-morning dreams of a child in the 1870s. Jack-in-the-boxes, toy trains and badminton racquets are jumbled together with porcelain dolls, trumpets and paper fans. Candy canes, tiny trees and Christmas-crackers compete for attention with tin soldiers, trumpets and some rather creepy stuffed cats. A sheep shares space with a drum, and a hobby horse is nearly lost among the piles of tops, blocks, tinsel, sweets and countless other delightful little objects. A dark chocolate brown is used as the background, while the lighter brown ground color of the paper is allowed to show through the design as highlights amid the primary-colored trinkets.
Made before nursery wallpapers were a large trend, perhaps this paper would have been hung in a relevant business. Though its exact use remains a mystery, the taste for highly specific imagery on wallpaper can in part be chalked up to the Victorian enthusiasm for mechanized production. Wallpaper companies had been experimenting with machine-printing since the 1820s, and by the time this wallpaper was produced, machine-printing had been fully integrated into the manufacturing process. Companies embraced this faster, cheaper technology, and used it to produce an infinite variety of complex – some might say busy – patterns with very particular subject matter. This enthusiastic approach to over-ornamentation was not appreciated by all, and critics of the mid-nineteenth century bemoaned the tangled, un-edited nature of many designs, paving the way for the more restrained wallpapers of William Morris and other design-reformers. While I’d never speak ill of a classic Morris floral, on Christmas morning this terrific toy-themed wallpaper seems like just the thing.
Anna Rasche is a master’s student in the Parsons-Cooper Hewitt History of Design and Curatorial Studies program, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.