Straying from the path: a book about wallpaper

The great thing about being a museum professional is that you never know when and where the skills you learn along your path will be needed in the future. This is a story about it.

A few months ago I discussed with Robert M. Kelly an article he was writing for a journal. Having dealt with museum texts a number of times before I was able to give some hints. I guess all of you who ever wrote or edited exhibitions and catalog texts know what it means to use the surgeon’s knife on filler words or the butcher’s ax on whole passages to make a text fit into the given word count…

When we were through, Bob asked me to help him on a book he was writing. A book about wallpaper. The early years of wallpaper.

I said: „Bob, I’m a collection manager, I don’t know anything about wallpaper and I’m no native speaker.“
Bob said: „Yeah, exactly what I’m looking for.“
Sometimes I’m glad that most conversations nowadays are via email, because if he had asked if it’s okay to ship the Mona Lisa via [insert favorite parcel service] I would have given him exactly the same facial expression.

Anyway, now, exactly 9 months after I started to read the first sentences of the manuscript the book is out and I’m proud as hell!

Backstory of Wallpaper book face

Why should I read a book about wallpaper, you ask?

Well, there are many good reasons: wallpaper is on the walls of historic houses and we have to care about it just the same as we care about the furniture, the carpets and the other artifacts. We might have wallpaper in our collections, as brand-new rolls that were never delivered and installed, as fragments being rescued from destroyed houses, as wallpaper pieces inventoried by mistake as lining paper (or vice versa) or as study collection for design questions. As always: the more you know about something, the easier it is to care for it.

But this is not a book about conservation or registration issues. It tells the social and economic story of how wallpaper was made in the early days, how it was sold and how it became popular on the walls in Europe and the North American colonies. And it’s a book about people.

We meet people who made, sold, bought and installed wallpaper. We meet Jean-Michel Papillon , who did the wonderfully detailed descriptions and drawings of the craft intended for Diderot’s Encyclopédie (some to be seen in the book) – but was forced into this trade by his father and turned his back on it as soon as he could. Thomas Coleman who began selling wallpaper in London and later moved over to the American colonies to do the same. Catharine Mac Cormick who was one of the few installers we know by name, representing the countless female and male paperhangers who didn’t leave a mark in the records.

Following the traces of people makes the book easy and fun to read. While it is a book about the history and technology of wallpaper, it is not a dry one. It’s a journey into the past.

Now, as I continue my journey on the path of a collection manager and museum professional, I am very curious when and where the skill of having helped a book about wallpaper to see the light of day will be needed in another project. In the meanwhile, I will have a picture of a wallpaper as a wallpaper on my screen….




The book is available in every bookstore:

Robert M. Kelly: The Backstory of Wallpaper. Paper-Hangings 1650-1750. Published by, hardcover, 190 pages.
ISBN-10: 0985656107
ISBN-13: 978-0985656102

You can take a look inside here:

This post is also available in Dutch, translated by Jiska Verbouw, in Zulu/Ndebele, translated by Phineas Chauke and in French, translated by Marine Martineau.


3 thoughts on “Straying from the path: a book about wallpaper”

  1. Congratulations Angela – you must feel pretty good ( and you should!). I’ve been to the Wall Paper Museum in Kassel. Who could resist! On the same day I visited the Museum of Sepulchral Culture. As a grad student I studied the history of papermaking and 16th C. German graphics. Does Durer’s wallpaper have a place in your book? (Just curious). It sounds like it was tremendously interesting. One of my clients published a book called “Wallpaper and the Artist: From Durer to Warhol” by Marlyn Oliver Hapgood. I wonder if you encountered it in your work on the Backstory book? I suspect not too much is written – but I may be wrong. Good to add to the literature.

    All in all, a very nice diversion for you. Cheers, Suzanne



    Congratulaciones, Angela. Debes sentirte muy bien (¡y deberías!). He estado en el Museo del Papel Tapiz en Kassel. ¡Quién podría resistirse! El mismo día visité el Museo de Cultura Sepulcral. Como estudiante graduada, estudié la historia de la fabricación del papel y la gráfica alemana del siglo 16. ¿Tiene lugar en tu libro algún tapiz de Durero? (solo por curiosidad). Eso suena tremendamente interesante. Uno de mis clientes publicó un libro titulado “El papel tapiz y el artista: de Durero a Warhol”, por Marlyn Oliver Hapgood. Me pregunto si diste en tu trabajo con el trasfondo histórico. Sospecho que no mucho ha sido escrito -pero puedo estar equivocada. Conviene agregarlo a la literatura.

    En general, una muy buena diversión para ti. Salud, Suzanne

    1. Thanks, Suzanne,

      actually, I was sniffing at the fresh book and turning the pages again and again for about 8 hours when the book arrived from the printer. One had to remind me that it’s dinner time… 🙂

      I know both museums in Kassel and they are great. Unfortunately, the Tapetenmuseum is closed at the moment. Can’t wait to see it re-opened in new rooms!

      Dürer is a little too early for the book. It starts at around 1650 when you find the first signs of wallpaper actually applied in the resources (trade cards, letters, bills…) and ends in 1750 when wallpaper was a well-accepted feature in households across Europe and the American Colonies.

      Thanks for the link. Definitely something I will place on my “to visit” list if I happen to come to your area.

      Best wishes



      Gracias, Suzane,

      de hecho, estuve olfateando el libro cuando llegó de la imprenta, pasando las páginas una y otra vez por cerca de 8 horas. Alguien tuvo que recordarme que ya era la hora de la cena… 🙂

      Conozco ambos museos en Kassel, y son grandiosos. Infortunadamente, el Tapetenmuseum está cerrado en este momento. ¡No puedo esperar para verlo re-abierto, con sus nuevas salas!

      Durero es un poco demasiado anterior para el libro. Éste comienza alrededor de 1650, cuando encuentras los primeros indicios de papel tapiz ya aplicado en variados recursos (tarjetas comerciales, cartas, billetes…) y finaliza en 1750, cuando el papel tapiz fue una característica bien aceptada en los hogares de toda Europa y en las colonias americanas.

      Gracias por el link. Definitivamente, es algo que pondré en mi lista de “por visitar” si se me ocurre ir a tu zona.

      Cordiales saludos,


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