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Surface Design Journal

Summer 1990



By Brigid Funicane

In the last decade there has been a renaissance of interest in floorcloths. These painted canvas rugs were in wide use during most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but fell out of fashion as power looms made woven rugs more accessible and affordable.

In early American homes, floors were first made of tamped Earth. Wooden floorboards came later and kept a house warmer. They also invited decoration by freehand painting and stenciling. Textiles were a precious commodity, and carpets were frequently used as table and furniture coverings. Floor coverings were introduced gradually, and were used at first only by the wealthy. As early as 1728, floorcloths were mentioned in household accounts. [Note 1] At first, floorcloths were imported from England, and a great deal of prestige was attached to them. American artisans, however, soon started to compete. [Note 2]

The floorcloth was initially viewed as an affordable alternative to the grander woven carpets of the wealthy, or as an appropriate imitation of marble, tile, and inlaid parquet„ but came to be valued for its own sake. In fact, "at least three presidents were among the prominent Americans who used floorcloths -- George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. President Jefferson had a plain green painted cloth in the south dining room of the White House. There is also evidence that floorcloths were sometimes given equal billing with rugs in their household position." [Note 3]  Canvas for painted rugs was available in diverse weights, and seamless rugs were the most desirable. Early in the nineteenth century, Scottish looms produced heavy canvas of hemp and flax eight yards in width. The shape, color, and design of the floorcloth were determined both by the tastes and pocketbook of the purchaser, and by the imagination and talent of the maker. Freehand painting was followed by stenciling and block printing as a means of decoration. If design assistance was needed, it could be found in English pattern books, including John Carwithan's influential text published in 1739. [Note 4]

Floor cloths were painted by enterprising housewives, house painters, and itinerant painters alike in both rural and urban areas. These painters were often masters of fancy or fantasy finishes, and decorated walls and furniture as well. Older floorcloths were repaired, repainted, and eventually cut down into smaller mats as they became worn; they were valued possessions. Additionally, as one writer put it,

"These carpets possess a decided advantage over all others, as they are more durable, and in warmer weather much more comfortable and easier to keep clean, and in hot climates the only kind that are not subject to injury from insects; in winter they may be covered with other carpeting without damage, and the room is kept warmer... " [Note 5]

By mid-nineteenth century, the availability of inexpensive rugs, woven on power looms, and the invention of linoleum and similar alternative flooring materials put an end to handcrafted floorcloths. They were mass-produced in factories through the end of the century, however, and, according to one scholar,

"... as late as 1909, when the emphasis was switching to linoleum and felt-based rugs, Sears, Roebuck and Company still offered two multicolored, geometrically patterned floor oilcloths. Still offered, too, were floor oilcloth stove squares or stove rugs, a patterned oilcloth rug, one and one half to two yards square, designed with a small-patterned geometric center and a 'Turkish' adaptation border." [Note 6]

The 1976 Bicentennial provided the impetus for a great deal of academic research conducted on early American life. Information on historical floorcloths, as a result, became more readily available. Renewed interest in authentic interiors among curators of museums and historic settlements spawned the establishment of a number of thriving artist-owned companies specializing in the reproduction of traditional floorcloths and floor coverings. Floorcloths soon started appearing in the pages of interior design magazines, but were primarily limited to stenciled or quilt-derived patterns and fantasy or faux finishes (marbling, sponging; ragging). The need for personal expression and the desire to affect or enhance an environment connect past and present floorcloth painters. The methods of making floorcloths have changed little with the passage of time. Today, artists have devised methods similar to those of early manufacturers, though water-based acrylics rather than oils are the pigments of choice now because of their easy application and quick drying time. Water-based varnishes are also an improvement upon oil-based shellacs and varnishes which "amber" the underlying colors and are prone to brittleness and cracking.

Patricia Dreher of San Francisco worked as a printmaker, textile and screen printing instructor, scenic artist at the San Francisco Opera, and painter before creating her first floorcloth in 1981. She quickly felt at home with the medium because of " . . . a love of pattern and repeat imagery, and the immediacy and directness of painting. I made a very large piece for my own home as an inexpensive answer to the rug problem." She continues, "Virginia Breier, my gallery dealer, came to the house and saw it, loved it, and commissioned me to do her kitchen for the new living quarters above her gallery. I did a whole installation, and she asked me to make some pieces to sell in the gallery as well. After that, it took off. I see my floorcloths as extensions of my painting and textile work. I view them as art, but also as functional, useful craft expression that serves to protect the floor as well as enhance its visual aspects." Dreher's floorcloth imagery evolves out of a personal inspiration and direction. (...)

Surface Design Journal  Summer 1990 p. 22               TOP   Return to Reviews Index

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