What Is Wallpaper?

Wallpaper is the name given to stocks, bonds, and other securities that have become worthless. This colloquialism saw its beginnings when stocks and bonds existed as printed, physical certificates rather than digital identifying information stored on a brokerage's server.

The name stuck, however, and denotes when a stock or bond certificate (or another exercisable right to securities such as stock options) no longer has value due to a variety of reasons, most commonly, bankruptcy.

Key Takeaways

  • The colloquialism, wallpaper, refers to stocks, bonds, and other securities that have lost all market value.
  • The term wallpaper was in vogue when stocks and bonds existed as printed, physical certificates.
  • During times of economic downturn, like the Great Depression, useless stock certificates were used as insulation or as actual wallpaper.

Understanding Wallpaper

The term "wallpaper" implies that because the certificates are worthless, they may as well wallpaper your house with them. This was an actual practice during the Great Depression that followed the Stock Market Crash of 1929. In that era, physical paper certificates represented actual ownership of shares of a company.

When the stock market crashed on Black Thursday (Oct. 25, 1929), $30 billion was quickly lost. That amount was twice the U.S. national debt at the time. Some 20,000 companies went bankrupt, which left many investors with a lot of worthless paper.

Those lucky enough to avoid homelessness used the now-worthless stock certificates to paper their walls, an old technique used to plug drafts before insulation was widely available or used. Others may have sardonically pasted the worthless certificates to their walls as decoration.

Now, wallpaper is used to describe any security that has lost all value, even if there is no longer a practical use for it.

Don't throw out your old stock certificates because they may end up being valuable.

Modern-Day Examples of Wallpaper

Some modern-day examples of wallpaper include a variety of companies that went bust during the dotcom bubble burst of March 2000 to October 2002, and the Great Recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Some examples include online retailers Pets.com and Webvan during when the dotcom bubble burst and Lehman Brothers during the Great Recession.

Collectible Wallpaper

Old securities certificates have found a new life: as a collectible. Collectors may pay thousands of dollars for examples that are examples of quality artwork, popular images, have the signatures or images of famous individuals, or were issued by popular or notable corporations or governments.

Some popular examples are exceedingly rare, such as a Confederate States of America $1,000 bond and an 1887 stock certificate from Chadborn & Coldwell Manufacturing Co. (later Toro Co.) featuring a vignette of a boy mowing a lawn. Each is valued at about $2,500.

The practice of collecting out-of-date or worthless "wallpaper" stock and bond certificates is called scripophily.

Special Considerations

Individuals who hold old stock certificates bearing the names of long-gone companies should not assume they are worthless, however.

Decades of mergers, acquisitions, name-changes, and stock splits do not mean a stock is worthless. It could mean that a stock is worth far more than one expects depending on the situation. If it isn't worth cash as an actual stock, a collector may pay good money for it, too.