A floorcloth is a hand-painted piece of canvas. The canvas of a floorcloth is the same canvas used on the sail of a sailboat. Floorcloths are used as alternatives to a bare floor or to enhance the decor of a room – on a rug, tile or wood floor. My first attempt at making one was in 1991. It was a success and has been used for years as a floor covering under my dining room table. The 8 feet x 11 feet cloth is designed with alternating twelve inch squares of marblized green and white, with an eight inch painted border with decorative leaves. People have often mistaken it for a tiled area and are surprised to know that it is not part of the hardwood.
Floorcloths, which have most recently had an increase in popularity, have been thought to be a more modern form of art. I was surprised to find that they date back as far as the 1700s. They were first used to keep down the dirt on a floor. The cloths, which were first made popular in England, gained their popularity here after the American Revolution. In the 1800s it was not a specialized art, and from its beginning, was practiced by enterprising home-owners as well as professionals. “As the century progressed, demand for household goods grew and was fed by technological advances in textile and mass production; floorcloth production moved from the workshop to the factory.” (The Complete Book of Floorcloths, Cooper & Hersey, 1997.) For more than a century, floorcloths played an important economical role in the United States and Britain, but in the second half of the 19th century, people began to opt for area rugs. After the first quarter of the 20th century, until more recently there was very little mention of the painted canvas. Homeowners had begun to choose floor coverings in linoleum, tile and wood.
My interest in floorcloths had come about after moving to Martha’s Vineyard in 1992. As I walked through a furniture Floorcloth store I noticed one under a table, 10 feet x 12 feet, with a hefty price tag of $4000. My interest increased and after reading more about the art in “Boston Globe Magazine,” I called the artist they had featured and decided to take a class that she was offering. I loved it, and the finished product was so rewarding that I felt that I had found a lifelong hobby. The time and effort it took to make my first cloth has been well worth it. They are extremely durable and easy to maintain.
It was very difficult finding reference material about floorcloths, but the new book I did find, called The Complete Book of Floorcloths, is wonderful. Listed inside were historical properties throughout the world that displayed original or reproduction floorcloths in their collections. The Essex Institute in Salem, MA and Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA both have fine collections.
Floorcloths have their technical roots in stenciled or block-printed cloth, game boards, playing cards, religious prints, and table covers of the 1400s, but until the 1700s, textiles were considered too precious to be used on floors. (Cooper K. Floorcloth & Hersey J. p.11 1997.) As early as 1767, merchant’s advertisements heralded the arrival of British Ships bearing floorcloths – “a few neat London painted floorcloths, just imported on the ship Mary ……” (South Carolina Gazette & Country Journal, Charleston, July 7, 1767.) In 1872, the first mail order catalogue, Montgomery Ward, offered floorcloths of all sizes.
From an oriental rug look to a faux tile effect, the possibilities for designs on the cloths are endless, and painting the canvas is a creative persons dream. Free hand design of the 1700s were assisted by stenciling, block painting, stamping and line painting. Flowers and animals also became popular. Today’s designs vary in color, design and use from creative color blocking to murals. Floorcloths, wall hangings, and placements are some of the ways you may see the cloths utilized.
I have taken numerous classes on preparation and making of a floorcloths. Floorcloth I learned newer techniques and some easier application processes. I also had made a mistake in storing the canvas that I used for my “tree of life” cloth. Floorcloths should always be rolled, never folded, for transportation and storage purposes, as the canvas is of a hefty weight and it may hold creases even if it is ironed out.
Floorcloths are extremely popular today, and I believe, will grow to be even more interesting to homeowners and retailers. Their durability and easy care make them even better for walking on than rugs, as dirt just wipes clean easily.