Oil Clothes as they were commonly called, went by many names: Floor cloths, floor canvases, painted canvas, painted carpet, wax cloths, grease cloths, druggets or crumbcloths, summer floor mat and assorted combinations of the above. Today referred to as Floorcloths, only remnants of these cloths remain in historical collections including Colonial Williamsburg Museums. They can also be seen in numerous paintings throughout the 1700 and 1800's; as well as such books like that published by John Carwitham, a London engraver in 1739, showing: Various Kinds of Floor Decoration Represented in Both Plano and Perspective. (See Fig. 1)
The time-consuming craft was handmade by artisans in Europe as early as the 15th century by applying and sanding (with pumice) layers of gesso, oil paints, and varnish (as a sealer) to the top and bottom of stretched canvas. The earliest cloths ranged from a solid plain color to faux finishes of stone, marble, tile and fine or exotic woods in geometric designs. Floorcloths are considered one of the earliest forms of floor coverings, widely used throughout homes in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. As American colonies became settled they sought some of the same furnishings. Initially, floorcloths were imported from England as we relied on them for goods, but were also created from worn sailcloth from ships. The spark of the American Revolution gave strength to their ever increasing popularity due to their durability, ease of cleaning, aesthetic appeal and were not subject to injury from insects. In addition, they aided in climate control of a room by blocking out cold drafts through floorboards in winter and were cool to your feet during summer, plus they did not mildew. They were in every area of a home; entryways, hallways, under dining room tables, bedrooms, kitchens and powder rooms.
Floorcloths could be found in such homes as George Washington's Mt. Vernon, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and John Adams had one listed in inventory when he resided in the White House. As technology increased so did the means of creating floorcloths, from freehand painting to stenciling, block printed patterns and stamping. It eventually was the Industrial Revolution and Sir Fredrick Walton, in 1863, with his invention of linoleum that replaced floorcloths.
Today with the rebirth of historic restoration and personalized interior decorating, floorcloths once again are making a come back. Not only do they protect the surface they cover; they can bring a handcrafted work of art to your home and can be sized to fit your space. Although their method of construction has changed little over time, the designs are nonetheless an endless array of possibilities that can stand up to years of wear.