Archive for June, 2014

Floorcloths in America

floorcloth in Kemper parlor2

Floorcloths are one of the earliest forms of floorcoverings, attaining great popularity in England in the 1700’s. Floorcloths, such as Heritage Village has in the Kemper and Elk Lick homes, are made of hemp, linen or cotton treated with an evaporating oil and paint to make them waterproof. Early records of the use of floorcloths in America include the probate inventories taken after the deaths of William Burnet (1688-1729) governor of Massachusetts, and Robert “King” Carter of Virginia (1663-1732). United States Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams also owned floorcloths. Most of these early floorcloths were produced in England, as manufacture in America did not become common until about 1815.

The practical advantages of a floorcloth were many: it was washable, waterproof, insulating, and durable. As a result, floorcloths were usually placed in hallways, parlors and dining rooms. The floorcloth can be viewed as both functional and beautiful, as it was decorated to resemble fine flooring of tiles, marble, and all kinds of carpeting. By the late 18th century, there was a wide range of colors and patterns for oilcloths, which included stencils, freehand painting and printing.  Common patterns included simple diamond or square patterns and the more complex patterns derived from Persian or Turkish carpets.

The designs of 18th and early 19th century floorcloths are preserved in the portraits painted during that time. Probate inventories and advertisements also tell us that these floor coverings were widely used in all regions of the country. The advertisements of painters who could produce floorcloths are abundant in American newspapers from the last quarter of the 18th century until about 1850, by which time they began to be called “oilcloths.”

The floor oilcloth was the forerunner of linoleum, which came into popularity in the 1870’s. By 1900, linoleum had taken of over the market of oilcloths, although as late as 1909, the Sears, Roebuck and Company still offered two multi colored, geometric patterned oilcloths for sale.  Floorcloths, oilcloths, and linoleums can be viewed, as other American Decorative Arts, as a reflection upon the patterns of the industrial growth and culture of America.


“‘Tis unnecessary to say one word about the convenience to families of these cloths; they have become an almost indispensable article in the list of domestic paraphernalia.”

City Gazette and Daily Advertiser
Charleston, SC
June 13, 1809


“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




Caskey Winkler, Gail and Roger W. Moss, Victorian Interior Decoration: American Interiors 1830-1900 (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1986), 26-28.

Seale, William, Recreating the Historic House Interior (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1979), 77-78.

Von Rosenstiel, Helene, American Rugs and Carpets: From the Seventeenth Century to Modern Times (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1978), 51-73.