Floorcloths have provided beauty and durability underfoot for 400 years. We don’t know exactly when people first laid heavy fabric over their wooden or stone floors, but by the end of the Renaissance, floorcloths were valued for their practical appeal.
Through the centuries, the essence of the floorcloth has remained the same. Cloth sturdy enough to withstand the tread of shoes and boots – typically the same canvas as was used for sails – was placed over areas of heavy foot traffic. Eventually, people applied layers of oil paint over the cloth to protect it, and soon were embellishing these canvas rugs with colorful stenciled or freehand designs.
During the 1700s, attractively painted floorcloths were found in homes in Europe and America, as seen in paintings and woodcuts of the period. They were known back then as canvas carpets, rolled canvases, crumb cloths, canvas rugs, or wax cloths, though in England they often were called “oylcloths” because of the heavy linseed oil and oil-based paints applied to make the canvas more durable.
Floorcloths continued to gain popularity in the 1800s in homes from the simple to the ornate. Scotland and England both had a number of floorcloth factories and used woodblock printing as the primary method of applying decoration which often imitated other sorts of flooring like marble, straw matting, ceramic tile and oriental carpets. The US imported floorcloths from Europe and began setting up factories in the US in the mid 1800s but large scale manufacturing was thwarted by the advent of Linoleum, patented in 1864. Linoleum was cheaper to produce and a more rugged product - it began to eclipse floorcloths in popularity.
For all its appeal, linoleum remained a standardized product. A number of homeowners through the Victorian and Arts & Crafts eras continued to appreciate the artistic freedom floorcloths offered in design, color, and proportion. Interest in floorcloths was again renewed during the mid 20th century with the Colonial Revival movement’s focus on historic homes, followed by the trend in handcrafted items. These modern floorcloths are known for improved durability, an infinite selection of colors, and their unique designs.
Today, well-made, beautifully painted floorcloths are in homes both historic and contemporary, as well as offices and commercial buildings – anywhere where people seek a combination of art and craft to create a practical, durable and charming floor covering.
(Floorcloth History Image is an 1801 watercolor by American artist William Wilkie titled “Nathan Hawley and Family.” Courtesy Albany Institute of History & Art. 1951.58)