In April, I waxed poetic about the sailcloth carpets I’d found in Dumbarton House and Carlyle House in the Washington, D.C., area. Frequent commenter QNPoohBear gave me some hints as to where to find more information, and now I admit I’m even more fascinated!
Floorcloths appear to have originated in France, perhaps descending from tapestries and other wall and floor coverings. Quite popular in England and America in the 1700s and early 1800s, they were generally made of woven linen canvas, at lengths of over 100 yards, cut down to the necessary size for a particular room. Through an elaborate stretching and sanding process, artists painted them with heavy paint that might include lead and then varnished them to protect the design. By the 1800s, entire factories were devoted to the process, as seen in this print from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The resulting cloths might be plain (Thomas Jefferson is said to have had a green one) or they might resemble black-and-white marble tiles, landscape backgrounds, or even fine carpet. Cubes and Greek key patterns were also popular, as was the compass pattern shown abovefrom Carlyle House. From what I’ve been reading, it appears they were most often used in areas where the wood floor needed to be protected, say from spills at the dining room table or in high-traffic areas like entry halls and stairways. My hypothesis going in to this research was that they were most likely used by middle class families as a less expensive floor covering, but it appears that they were used by the wealthy or famous as well, gracing such homes as the Presidential Mansion in America.
While the popularity of floor cloths waned with the invention of linoleum, a number of sites herald the reemergence of the art today for durable, relatively low-cost floor coverings. I ran across a number of sites that offered ones hand-made by artists or even advised you on how to make your own.
I'm game. In fact, I think it might be cool to see one painted to look like a book cover. Anyone else want one?