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 as digital identifying information stored on a brokerage's server. The name stuck, however, and denotes when a stock or bond certificate (or other exercisable right to securities such as stock options) no longer has value due to a variety of reasons, most commonly, bankruptcy.
Breaking Down Wallpaper
The term "wallpaper" implies that because the certificates are worthless, 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 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 be able 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. 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 the dotcom burst and Lehman Brothers during the Great Recession.
Wallpaper as a Collectible
Old securities certificates have found a new life: as a collectible. The practice of collecting stock and bond certificates is called scripophily, and such collectors can 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 especially 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.
Wallpaper: When Old Certificates Are Still Valuable
Individuals who hold old stock certificates bearing the names of long-gone companies should not assume they are worthless, however. Decades of mergers, acquisition, name-changes and stock splits do not mean a stock is worthless. In fact, it could mean that a stock is worth far more than one expects.