A Brief History of Floorcloths

“These carpets possess a decided advantage over all others, as they are more durable, and in warm 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 …”

New Hampshire Gazette

April 8, 1828

 


During John Wickham’s lifetime (1763-1839), a floorcloth was a term that referred to a traditional rug or fitted carpet substitute made from treated or untreated wool, linen, or cotton. Floorcloths went by numerous names including painted, printed, stamped, or common carpet, oil floor cloth, wax cloth, fancy-pattern cloth and various combinations of the above. Originally made of canvas, linseed oil, whiting and pigments, a painted floorcloth was water and insect resistant as well as more easily cleaned than the more familiar Wilton, Axminster or Turkish rug or carpet.

Floorcloths – one of the earliest forms of modern floorcovering – were readily found in many eighteenth century gentry-level homes in Great Britain and North America. They were first imported to the British colonies and, following the American Revolution, some enterprising American firms went on to manufacture examples based on the British imports.

JWH Entry

Pictured above is the previous floorcloth that was located in the 1812 John Wickham House.

The Golden Age of the American floorcloth ran from the end of the eighteenth century until the American Civil War era when the Englishman Sir Frederick Walton(1834-1928) invented a less-expensive, mass-produced alternative — linoleum.

Examples of period floorcloths are surprisingly quite rare as they were literally worn to pieces. The fragment of the John Wickham floorcloth is one of the most important surviving elements of the early domestic life of our house museum and was uncovered “in situ” during the 1990’s restoration of the museum.  From this surviving fragment, we were able to determine the full pattern, original colors, as well as the texture and finish.  This information informed the design by Nancy E. Beck for the 2015 replica floorcloth that is being made here in her Richmond studio space.  When completed, the replica will be installed in the “Anteroom and Hall” of the 1812 John Wickham House returning an important piece of the puzzle to our house museum interpretation for our visitors.

floorcloth 2

Picture above is a fragment of the original floor cloth from the 1812 John Wickham House

David Voelkel

The Elise H. Wright Curator of the General Collections & Director of Collections  

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