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The Floor Beneath Our Feet

A History of Floorcloths

by Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder

Jarea Art Studio

Floorcloths appear to have originated in France in the early 1400's - a direct spin off from table runners, painted wall hangings and tapestries.

The British took this art form and started the idea of painted canvas for the floor. Geometric patterns featuring diamonds, cubes, squares and checkers were hand painted, often by the lady of the house. In the early days, this was a way to imitate the fine flooring found in fashionable homes (without the financial burden). These cloths, often referred to as "crumb cloths" because of their use under dining room tables, were also used in parlors and hallways. They had the additional bonus of making the floors warmer in the winter.

For several hundred years these cloths were made and used in homes both small and grand. While in office, Thomas Jefferson had a dining room in the Whitehouse, with a "canvas floor cloth, painted green".

Though only small pieces of original floorcloths (or oilcloths as they were called in England) exist today, there is ample evidence of their existence in all kinds of paintings and it is easy to see how striking the various colors and patterns were in the early rooms.

The floorcloth appeared very early on in the United States. Various Boston area newspapers in early 1720 advertised a large assortment of styles and colors of painted carpeting as "Floor Cloths available for your enjoyment."

Until the invention of linoleum, these floor cloths were very popular throughout North America and many different designs showed up on the floors of peoples houses. Painted either free hand or using stencils, their wearable and washable finish made them a desirable addition to the home. Sails from ships were recycled as floor cloths and painted in bold traditional designs. The arrival of linoleum flooring in the US slowed the interest in hand made floorcloths and by the early 1920s they were virtually gone.

The encouragement of artisans to create one of a kind items caused a resurgence in the making of floorcloths in 1960 and once again the art form appeared, this time with a difference.Breaking with the traditional conservative motifs and patterns, folk artists began using bolder colors and familiar forms from their surroundings.

Today, the desire to preserve and restore so many of the great homes, has helped to keep this art form alive.

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Text © Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder; Photos Reprinted with Permission

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