The first decorative wallpapers date back as far as 200 B.C., when the Chinese painted designs on rice paper panels. Around the eighth century A.D., word of wallpaper spread to Arabia and then north into Europe.
Wallpaper in a form we might recognize today was first created in 1481 for Louis XI of France. Jean Bourdichon received a payment of 24 livres for painting 50 rolls of paper showing angels on a blue ground.
Other wealthy Europeans commissioned artists to paint paper for their walls, but real wallpaper did not exist until the advent of the printing press. A guild of paperhangers was established in France in 1599, but they decorated only small sheets of paper.
Jean Papillon, a French engraver, started making wood block designs in matching, continuous patterns in 1675, and wallpaper as we know it was on the way.
By 1839, the British developed a four-color roller printing machine that was capable of printing 400 rolls of paper per day. The designs were hand-cut on cylinders. At first, fashion-conscious Londoners ordered papers that imitated architectural details or materials like marble and stucco, but eventually wallpapers won favor on their own merits. Borders resembling tasseled braid or fabric swags were often added, and flocked papers that looked like cut velvet were immensely popular.
The 1920s are regarded as the "golden age" of wallpaper, when about 400-million rolls were sold. After World War II, the industry boomed as the housing market expanded for returning war veterans and their new families. In subsequent decades, the industry developed fabric, metallic and vinyl papers. Technological advances led to the creation of prepasted, pretrimmed and strippable coverings and improved the stain resistance, washability and strength of papers.
Sources: Wallcoverings Association Web site, the Wallpaper Council.