Centuries of Walking on Art
“From French Painted Canvases to American Floorcloths”
It is the nature of human beings to embellish their surroundings with the materials they have available to them. The impulse to create and decorate is very strong and has been evident since the first traces of humankind. Cave dwellers painted on cave walls. Egyptians painted on sand walls and pyramids. To bring beauty into their dwellings, some Native Americans painted their animal-hide tents.
Since ancient times, people have covered the floors of their dwellings with floor coverings. Oriental rugs from around 500 B.C. have been discovered in Middle Eastern burial places. Twenty two thousand carpets covered the floor of the palace of Baghdad of Islamic leader Harun al-Rashid in the 700s. However, rugs were not commonly used, even by the wealthy, until the 1700s.
Painted canvases are thought to have originated in France in the 1400s in the form of tapestries, wall hangings and table runners, often embellished with Christian themes and patterns. From these beginnings, it wasn’t long before the English and Americans adopted the art form and extended its application to rolled canvases as floor coverings.
Up until the 1700s, both in England and America, flooring generally consisted of unfinished wood or earth, tamped hard by walking. Since most Americans were poor, and very few could afford woven floor coverings (carpeting) from England or France, or more expensive flooring, such as parquet, marble, brick, stone or ceramic tile, they decorated their floors with rushes (stiff marsh plants), ferns, straw or sand (usually in a herringbone pattern) – materials which also acted as insulation.
Throughout early colonial America, women made small hooked, braided, rag, patchwork, crocheted, knitted, embroidered and crossstitched rugs, using home-dyed fabrics, in primitive geometric, mosaic, pictorial and floral patterns. Some Americans, particularly New Englanders, painted their pine floors with a combination of lead, pigments and linseed oil, generally in a freehand pattern, often with quite creative results.
Painted flooring preceded rolled canvases on the floor, which were rarely available to anyone but the wealthy until the early 1800s. The use of rolled canvases was both decorative and utilitarian. Affluent Americans life George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Peter Faneuil (an American merchant) are known to have imported their rolled canvases from England. The value of these floorcloths is attested to by their inclusion in estate inventories and public auctions.
George Washington’s handwritten documents confirm that he bought a floorcloth for his estate, Mount Vernon, from Roberts and Company for $14.28 (a considerable sum at the time). Thomas Jefferson bought green floorcloths from England, one for the small south dining room of the White House, at a cost of $3 per square yard, and another for the Great Hall entrance. Jefferson also used floorcloths in his Monticello home. And an inventory listing at the time John Adams departed the White House contained a notation for one floorcloth.
Jeanne Gearin, a floorcloth historian and artist from Falmouth, Mass., stated in her booklet, Historical Floorcloths: “In 1827, Samuel Perkins and Son of Boston, Mass., advertised for sale a large and elegant assortment of painted floorcloths, without seams, some in imitation of Brussels’ carpet, from $1.37 1/2 to $2.25 per square yard.”
About this time, rolled canvases came to be known as floorcloths, although many were called oilcloths (oylcloths). Oilcloth is still the common term used in England. There are many theories for why rolled canvases were called oilcloths. One reason is that oil-based paints and linseed oil — which took months to dry — were commonly used on the canvases.
Many of the early rolled canvases were a solid color, usually green. If there was a design, it was generally “repetitive geometric,” often the basic 1′ by 1′ alternating black and white squares, or other combination of colors, known as a diamond pattern, which was meant to imitate expensive marble. Some patterns imitated tile or Turkish carpets, and others had borders or allover figure designs. Nonetheless, the majority of these floorcloths were created by using stencils — or theorems as they were then called — in a manner similar to wall stenciling. Some were also decorated by block printing.
Polly Forcier, of Princeton, Mass., has written several booklets about stencils and the early stencilers of New England. Her company MB Historic Decor, is devoted exclusively to recording, reproducing and selling “period” stencils for use in new work and in restorations. As Forcier wrote, “In 1800, homeowners welcomed the brightness of stencils in houses that were short on sun and interior light. Today we enjoy them because they allow us to express our own creativity as we recreate the decorations of an earlier era.”
A number of the stencil patterns in the late 1700s became symbolic in design, such as the swag and pendant, called the liberty bell, a patriotic emblem of post?Revolutionary America. In the 19th century, geometric patterns were still popular, as were quilt patterns and florals set into diamond shaped or square grids.
Forcier has written about the work of two itinerant painters: Moses Eaton, one of the best documented stencilers of New England, and his son, Moses Eaton, Jr. However, factories also created early American floorcloths, as well as itinerant house and ship painters who traveled around the country freehand painting and stenciling designs, some which imitated those from England. Because of their economic value, many floorcloths were repainted as they became worn or faded, which they usually did.
The folk artists who first created American floorcloths were generally not trained as fine artists. They created their floorcloths out of necessity, decorating them to express their own individuality and style. As a folk art form, the original floorcloth artists concentrated on emphasizing color and simplicity of line. They used simple, bold forms, with much repetition and texture. These folk artists had many of the same problems with their floorcloths as we have today: cracking, compatibility of materials, insufficient drying time, durability and frayed edges.
By 1840, with the advent of the American Industrial Revolution, early American stenciling became prise, as “real” wallpaper was more readily available, although other types of wall stenciling were done during the Victorian era. American floorcloths, which became immensely popular after an American tariff act in 1816 imposed a 30 percent duty on imported “painted floor cloths,” gave way in the 1860s to the more durable and less expensive linoleum, which was manufactured with infinite printed or inlaid patterns.
Despite almost 100 years of popularity as an art form, floorcloths were not revived again until the 1950s, when decorators, in their quest for authenticity in restoration, fostered a movement toward handmade crafts, including stenciling and floorcloths.
Traditional methods, materials and designs are still used today. However, in breaking with conservative colonial American motifs and patterns, many floorcloth artists today have absorbed and reconfigured the traditional painted canvases and have gone their own way in creating contemporary works of art. They create floorcloths and wallcloths that make a strong decorating statement and represent a major color and design influence in a room.
Originally the most popular places for floorcloths were entry halls or vestibules, parlors, dining rooms and stairs. Some of the less elaborately decorated floorcloths were laid wall to wall with a rug placed over them. Some floorcloths, called druggets (or also aptly known as crumbcloths), were laid over expensive flooring, particularly in dining rooms, to protect the floor from spills.
In contrast, today’s floorcloths often are designed as a focal point, taking the place of an area rug. They are, once again, popular for use in an entry hall and in a dining area, and a great many are used in front of the kitchen sink. The qualities which originally made them popular are the same today. They are made of readily available heavy cotton, and are easy to maintain. What has changed dramatically, however, is the choice of materials.
Well-made floorcloths used to be made by applying four to seven coats of oil-based paint to both sides of a canvas, often a single piece of seamless canvas, sailcloth, or other solid cloth. Some people who could not afford the canvas to make a floorcloth even made them from a printed felt paper, which had the consistency of heavy-weight cardboard. These were known as the “poor man’s floorcloth” or “poor people’s rugs.” Today, we have a wide variety of non?toxic materials to employ. We have fast-drying varnishes, and infinite varieties of colors and styles from which to choose.
Straying from traditional solid colors, geometries and florals, today’s floorcloth artists also can use their painting to convey ideas. My floorcloth (and wallcloth) designs are whimsically organic, in keeping with my view of what I would like the world around me to be. Using vivid colors, I embrace nature, with abstract and organic forms. Like those pictorial artists before me, I create a narrative. Mine tells of the abundance of life on Earth and the interdependency of all living creatures.
But unlike those artists before me, I (along with all floorcloth artists today) have a unique design which has a great deal of meaning in my world view. But as I sit in my booth at art fairs, or listen to the audience at a gallery opening, it seems as if everyone has made, plans to make, or knows someone who has made or intends to make a floorcloth. That’s one of the dilemmas of marketing floorcloths as floorcloths. And that is why I often feel compelled to merchandise my floorcloths as wallcloths.
Finding a niche in the marketplace is difficult with a product most people believe they can produce on their own. It will take time for the “art” in floorcloths to be considered as such by jurors or in a class with framed, two-dimensional art, and for the general public to accept the concept of walking on art.
Text from an article in the October 1997 Crafts Report
by Natalie Browne-Gutnik