A Small History of the Floor Cloth
By Virginia Tucker
The history of floor cloths is not an easy subject to research as there is not a great deal of actual evidence in existence, and the written word on them is scarce as well. When we now think of a floor cloth, as re-enactors we probably think it is something that only the wealthy could afford to put in their homes. With further research I found documentation that proved this was not necessarily correct.
In my pursuit of knowledge I found first that a gentleman by the name of John Carwitham had published a book called, “Various Kinds of Floor Decorations Represented both in Plano and Perspectivo. Being Useful Designs for Ornimenting the floors of Halls, Rooms, Summer Houses, etc or with Painted Floor Cloths” in 1739.
This work gave us pictures to use to visualize what they would look like once completed, but no information as to who would have used them. I recently came across an article written by Sophie Sarin, The Floor Cloth and Other Floor Coverings In the London Domestic Interior 1700-1800, in which she had utilized probate inventories from London to show the increase in the number of floor coverings and the type of floor coverings used during this time period.
It came as a great surprise to me to find that it was actually the middle class of London that made the floor cloth popular during the middle 18th century. I found that it was the middle class (or merchants) who used them first as they were less expensive than a wool rug. In her article Sarin writes that the first documentation of a floor cloth contained a black and white marble checkerboard style that was ordered for a Captain Hoskin’s apartment in Greenwich in 1710.
It is difficult to determine which floor covering was actually a floor cloth, as they were called by a number of different names. Most generally they were called a floor carpet or table carpet. In some cases the documentation will give hints as to whether it is made of wool, rush mat, leather, or canvas (also called Tar Paulen). Many of these inventories site the floor cloths as being used in the hall or stairway area.
Some were used in a dining area and kitchen area. This may be because it wasn’t until the mid 18th century that rooms were used for specific functions. You could have found that a bed was in the kitchen area along with some sitting chairs. We can suppose that as rooms became used for specific functions, what went into that room became attached to the function of the room. So, you may find floor coverings in areas where they most fit the function of the room or pleasure of the owner.
Within a few years the canvas floor cloth became even more popular among the middle class. Up until this time, floors were left bare and walls were covered; you now found a candle maker, a turner, and many of the lower class merchants putting floor cloths on their floors while leaving the walls bare. Many of the merchants who actually dealt in providing other merchandise to the public began to make and sell floor cloths in small quantities for use in the home.
Only in the later half of the 18th century did the wealthy begin to utilize this form of floor covering, and it is because of this reason that it was thought to be used only in upper class homes.
Photo of a Trade card from the mid 18th century for Abraham North, a Hatter, Turner and Floor cloth Manufacturer. If you look in the upper right hand corner you will find and example of a checkerboard floor cloth. This ad came from the Guildhall Library Trade card collection.
It may be noted that when viewing some of the paintings from the 18th and 19 century you may find a floor cloth covering the floor. As many of these painting were done in the homes of the wealthy it can be easily seen why it was thought that only the rich could afford to own a floor cloth.
With the growing popularity of canvas floor cloths inventories showed that up to 50% of the middle class had floor coverings of both canvas and wool.
It was at this time that manufacturing of merchandise evolved into a commodity that people could buy with some regularity. It was also found that not only were these floor cloths being sold with regularity in London but were traveling across the ocean to the colonies where they graced the homes of the middle and upper class citizenry. The growth would have been slower here but because ships regularly had to change out the old sales for new it could only stand to reason that they would start to be made in this country as well.
Canvas floor cloths maintained a level of popularity until the mid to late 19th century. At this time, the nation moved into the Industrial Age and machinery replaced artisans to create a multitude of items. The canvas floor cloth lost its hold on the public in 1860, when rubber manufacturer Fredrick Walton invented linoleum, the floor covering commonly used in Victorian homes. Three years later, Walton received an English patent for linoleum.
Today the floor cloth is making a come back as a substitute for rugs because they are easier to clean and work well in many of the same areas (kitchens, dining rooms and hallways) where they were used during the 18th and 19th centuries.