In the mid-1930s, a woman named Dorothy Waterhouse was scraping wallpaper from the interior of an old Cape Cod house when she developed an unusual obsession. “Suddenly I spotted beneath the drab looking top layers some beautiful colors,” she later told a newspaper. She soon opened her own wallpaper business, and throughout the rest of her life, she would take many trips into the countryside to expose and preserve the wonders hidden in other people’s walls.
Waterhouse isn’t alone in her fixation. Wallpaper has been the subject of exhibitions at institutions like New York’s International Print Center and Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery, and artists like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst have even created their own designs. It surfaces throughout literature, too — in books like Crime and Punishment and short stories like The Yellow Wallpaper.
Now all of us who share Waterhouse’s fascination with wallpaper can explore her 1,400-item-strong collection online. After her death, the archive was donated to Historic New England, which recently finished digitizing it along with 4,800 other wallpaper samples. “The collection is searchable by date, location, and manufacturer, and by keywords like color and type of pattern,” cataloguer Peggy Wishart said in a press release. “You can zoom in to see every detail.”
The archive tells the regional history of wallpaper from the early 18th century, when it was still a luxury import, through after the American Revolution, when manufacturers like Ebenezer Clough, Moses Grant, and Zechariah Mills began woodblock printing their own. By the late 19th century, one advertisement claimed that the “decorative possibilities of the new WALL PAPERs are almost boundless.”