May 9, 2012
Friday, May 11, 2012
Colonial Floor Coverings
May 9, 2012
Originally written for class at American Military University.
May 9, 2012
Americans were not a dumb people. They knew that if they covered their floors, it would help to keep them from damage. However, this was not the main purpose for covering the floors with pretty textiles. No, the real reason behind the decorations of the areas beneath their feet was simply to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible. They did it because it made the room more attractive.
Seeking attractiveness of one’s living space is certainly nothing new. Cave dwellers painted their walls, as early as 23,000 BCE. It would be very easy to connect the decoration of the walls to the decoration of the floor. Perhaps these earlier people used animal hides for their carpeting. Because the backs of tanned furs would have been easy to paint on, it could have been plausible that these Paleolithic men and women used them as a type of canvas, and then laid them on the ground as floor coverings.
As the above may seem far-fetched, the point of painting one’s floor has definitely occurred throughout history. The Egyptians had painted floors, as well as painted fresco floors as early as 1346 BCE. It was also something that was popular again in the 18th century, but was definitely considered a luxury. American’s sometimes painted designs on their floors and walls freehand. However blocking had been the preferred method to add painted decorations during the colonial period. Paint would not have been very much protection for the floorboards, so it would surely have been a mostly aesthetic principal.
Painted decorations were also used on a type of mat that covered the ground. These floorcloths were one of the most favored types of flooring for Colonial Americans. One of the main reasons for this popularity was that the creator could be an artist, or just a housewife with little painting skills. Whatever their profession, the designer would have created just as they did directly on the floorboards. They painted by freehand, block print, or they used a stencil. They were made of a sturdy canvas, paint, and varnish.
Colonial floorcloths were made as both small area rugs, and also large room size rugs. These cloths definitely did cover the floor, and did add at least minimal protection. But why would the person paint decorative motifs on the cloths? Why not just put it on the floor after varnishing? The reason was, of course, the decoration itself was important to the homeowner. And so, they were an inexpensive alternative to the oriental rugs that were so very expensive to the European, much less people further away in America. 
The homeowner did want to show off their expensive carpets if they did have any. Rugs from Persia had been the most sought after during the 18th century. One reason that they may have been so popular was because of the exclusivity of the item. Another reason could have been the quality of the threads. These were of wool or silk, or a combination of the two. Wool would have been a great choice because it resists dust mites. Because of its delicate nature, Silk would have been used for decorative purposes alone.
Other silk rugs were embroidered tapestries and punch rugs. American colonial tapestries were made by simple embroidery techniques. Embroidery of the 18th century had found its mark in flooring. Embroidered carpets used other types of floss as well, such as the more common wool floss. Two later versions found their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both of these carpets would have taken months or years to create. And because of their current condition, there could be no possible way that they would have been walked on multiple times. Again, these were truly works of art, and not a true means of protecting the floor.
Other artful floor coverings were the punched carpets. The maker would literally punch his, or more than likely her, thread through the canvas backing to the front, using a hollow needle. Fine wool threads were used for this type of covering. This type of craft was more similar to latch hook, than to embroidery. Even so, the designs were so intricate and detailed that they were referred to as the “thread painting[s]” underfoot.
Pictures underfoot culminated in the art form known as latch hook. Latch hook, or hooking, is an American original. Most probably, they were first created in Maine in the 18th century. It took off as Americans found it a fun and easy way to create pictures of flowers, animals, houses, barns, and geometric designs. An individual did not work these, usually. Women in bees, much like quilting bees, mostly worked them. It could take up to nine years to create a large rug. Certainly, the creator would have been more proud to display their art, than to cover up floorboards.
Floor rugs that certainly did protect the flooring for the Colonial Americans were the inexpensive rag rugs. There were two main types of rag rugs at this time, the braided rug and twining rug. Both of these used scrap or reused fabric. The braiding used three strips literally braided together, and then sewn in to a circle or oval. The twining used only two strips twisted together, and then sewn just as the braided rugs were. These were created in smaller rugs, and also huge room size rugs. This author registered a gigantic colonial braided rug that was 48’ x 26’. These rugs did protect the flooring more than any of the previous mentioned types, however they would have to be taken out and beat to be cleaned. It would have been excessively difficult to take the rug mentioned above out of the room, much less do it multiple times, hang it to beat it clean, and then replace it. It was certainly extremely cumbersome! Also, the colors in these rugs were so very bright and happy that they most certainly had been used more for their beauty than for utilitarian purposes.
Utilitarian rugs were certainly something that Americans used on the floors of their houses during the colonial period. However, most were not solely for that purpose. Carpets used precious materials such as silk that would not have held up to wear. Fine wool was used in rugs so that the pictures would be as detailed as a painting. Bright colors were used in overly large rag rugs. Protecting the floors by the use of rugs was only a minor point; the main reason that the colonial Americans used beautiful carpets was to enjoy their beauty.
“Brief History of Antique American Hooked Rugs, A.” Folk and Fiber: Folk Art & Rug
Hooking. 2011. http://www.amherst-antiques-folkart.com/RugHooking_History.htm. (accessed May 9, 2012).
“Carpet: Ann Moore.” 1808. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/
collections/search-the-collections/10013954 (accessed May 9, 2012).
Cooper, Dan. “Georgian Period Decorating.” Old-House Interiors, February 2012.
“Embroidered Carpet: Zeruah H. Guernsey Caswell.” 1832 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/10013954 (accessed May 9, 2012).
“It’s Art Underfoot”, House Beautiful, Spring 1992, 14.
Fred Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, Vol. 1, 13th ed. Boston:
Wadsorth Cengage Learning, 2009.
Kramer, Tracey. “The History of the Punch Needle.” August 8, 2010. Wryte Stuff .com n.d.
http://traceyk.wrytestuff.com/swa611689-The-History-Of-Punch-Needle-Punch-Needle-From-A-Historical-Perspective.htm. (accessed May 9, 2012).
Poore, Patricia et al. ed. “Wallpaper 101.” Old-House Interiors, February 2012, 27; Lynn
Elliott, “Custom Make a Floorcloth” Old-House Interiors, Summer 1995, 96.
Sloan, Fran. “A Short History of Area Rugs”. Ezine @rticles. N.d. http://ezinearticles.com
/?A-Short-History-of-Area-Rugs&id=2096628. (accessed May 9, 2012).
Speer-Sims, Taylor. “Fragment Fever.” (Research paper for class, American Military
“Braided Rag Rug”. Aurora Historical Society Collection. Aurora, Illinois.
 Fred Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, Vol. 1, 13th ed. (Boston:
Wadsorth Cengage Learning, 2009.), 2.
 Taylor Speer-Sims, “Fragment Fever.” (Research paper for class, American Military University, 2012).
 Dan Cooper, “Georgian Period Decorating.” Old-House Interiors, February 2012, 50.
 Patricia Poore, et al. ed. “Wallpaper 101.” Old-House Interiors, February 2012, 27; Lynn Elliott, “Custom Make a Floorcloth” Old-House Interiors, Summer 1995, 96.
 “It’s Art Underfoot”, House Beautiful, Spring 1992, 14.
 Fran Sloan, “A Short History of Area Rugs”. Ezine @rticles. N.d.
 “Embroidered Carpet: Zeruah H. Guernsey Caswell.” 1832 and “Carpet: Ann Moore.” 1808. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number 38.157, and 23.62.
 Tracey Kramer. “The History of the Punch Needle.” August 8, 2010. Wryte Stuff .com n.d.
 “A Brief History of Antique American Hooked Rugs.” Folk and Fiber: Folk Art & Rug Hooking. 2011.
 “Braided Rag Rug”. Aurora Historical Society Collection. Aurora, Illinois.
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