Wallpaper isn’t as widely used as it used to be, and building standards have improved, fashions have changed, and paint has become more popular for walls.

The Chinese are said to have invented wallpaper, using rice paper on walls as far back as the Qin dynasty, and wallpaper itself was supposedly invented by a court official named Tsai Lun in 105 B.C. and was a mixture of mulberry bark, bamboo fibres, linen and hemp.

Wallpaper made its way over to Europe in the 15th century with prints or designs made with woodblocks and coloured by hand. These were popular as a cheap alternative to tapestries, and concealed cracks and improved insulation in much the same way. Often their designs resembled expensive materials such as leather, brocade or wood, with flock wallpaper making an appearance in the early 1600s. Paper was initially pinned to the walls by copper tacks, a system that continued well into the 18th century. Borders were introduced in the late 1700s to alter a room’s visual proportions, and it became popular to divide walls using dado rails (from floor to chair height), and friezes (a horizontal band at the ceiling).

In 1675, a Frenchman and engraver named Jean-Michel Papillon made the first repeating designs that matched on both sides. It not only repeated, but also was continuous from one sheet to the next, and he is credited as being the inventor of wallpaper as it is known today. The introduction of seamed wallpaper in huge, 12-yard rolls meant that manufacturers could move from simple repeated designs into vast panoramas, often depicting mythological or historical events such as the destruction of Pompeii, or scenes of faraway lands. They were considered to be educational tools for the ignorant masses, and in wealthy homes, panoramic wallpapers supposedly reflected their owners’ educated status.

Now the sinister bit

Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented the first arsenic green pigment in 1775. The brightness and stability of Scheele’s green—along with different variations such as emerald and Vienna green—made them instant successes. Chemists and paint makers introduced arsenic to other colours as well, such as canary yellow, to create vibrant new hues. In 1889, a designer named Walter Crane created a wallpaper called The Peacock Garden, which contained arsenic-based Scheele’s green, and research into Crane’s work and arsenic-based pigments revealed some interesting insights. In 1875 Crane created wallpaper designs for Jeffrey & Co., one of the leading wallpaper printers in England. The company, along with other companies, utilised arsenic-based colours for their products in the early to mid-19th century. However, by the time of The Peacock Garden’s printing in 1889, the general public knew of arsenic’s dangers and sought safer alternatives.

Unfortunately, the walls were not the only place arsenic lurked in Victorian homes. In 19th-century England people considered small doses of arsenic safe and used it for wildly diverse products, from face powder to rat poison. It was added into food, textiles, medicine, and other common goods, so its use in wallpaper was not considered unusual. Interestingly, Edinburgh’s Mary King Close, now an underground tourist attraction buried beneath the famous Royal Mile, was sealed off from the world in 1630. After the plague passed through Edinburgh, Mary King’s Close and other streets in the local area began to decay, transforming into dilapidated, overcrowded places, but it still has rooms with arsenic on the walls that you are not permitted to visit to this day.

Despite its vivid and eye-catching nature, doctors eventually discovered that arsenical wallpaper could kill. The ink often flaked off the paper and was inhaled by those nearby, while moisture, abrasion, or heat caused the release of toxic vapours. Increasing reports of mysterious illnesses and deaths of small children or even entire families gained attention in the mid-19th century, but it wasn’t until the late 1860s that doctors connected those maladies with the presence of luminous green paper on the walls.

Public awareness about the dangers of Scheele's green paint, especially for children, made people seek safer wallpaper options – but thankfully wallpapers’ demise today isn’t so tragic!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan