Evolving from the humble baize or drugget "crumb cloth," laid around sideboards and dining tables to protect floors, floorcloth is basically a woven fabric, sized and treated with multiple coats of paint, and, when dry, a decorative design painted or printed on the surface. The process is a lengthy one, dictated by the necessary drying time and surface smoothing with pumice before the next layer of paint is applied. A detailed description of the entire process, from initial stretching of the fabric to final decoration, was written by George Dodd in 1845.1
Commercial floorcloth production began in Great Britain in the 18th century, with factories established at London and Bristol, and later, in Scotland. It was no coincidence that floorcloth factories were located in these port cities, for here were the great looms capable of producing sailcloth in widths up to eight yards.2 Sailcloth, woven of flax, seems to have been considered superior to hemp as a floorcloth base, although at least one maker used a combination of both fibers.
Published literature mentions the establishment of Nathan Smith at London circa 1763, John Hare & Co. founded at Bristol in 1782, and Michael Nairn & Co. in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 18473. However, there was obviously earlier manufacture, for painted floorcloths were imported from Bristol into South Carolina in 1753,4 and conceivably earlier into other parts of the American colonies, although many of the colonists made their own.5 In New Brunswick, on 25 August, 1827, Saint John merchant Henry Blakslee advertised, "different patterns and widths TABLE OIL CLOTH" in the New Brunswick Courier.
In May, 1830, J & H Kinnear, also of Saint John, advertised a variety of merchandise received from Bristol, including "A NUMBER of various patterns of OIL CLOTH for floors, passages, carriages, &c." and "patterns of painted Baize for covering Tables, Pianos, &c."
In December of the following year, Kinnear's advertisement in the Courier emphasized floorcloth and painted baize, informing their customers they had fifty new patterns, in all widths, and could obtain any desired size from Bristol.
Possibly there were earlier importations as yet undiscovered.
Floorcloth decoration progressed form hand painted and stencilled designs in geometric patterns to block printed patterns in the mid-1700s,6 but the designs continued to be imitative of marble and mosaic pavements.7
In 1763 Nathan Smith patented a process for creating floorcloth using a mixture of beeswax, resin, tar, Spanish brown and linseed oil, applied with a heavy, hot iron roller.8 Smith is credited with adapting the block printing process used in wallpaper production to floorcloth about 1755.9 His first, hand carved, printing block is illustrated at left. Advances in block printing technology in the mid-1800s10 allowed more ornate designs emulating woven carpets.
Webster11 noted, "the colours employed in good floorcloth are always white lead mixed with ochre, umbers and the usual earthy pigments, ground in linseed oil and mixed with a little turpentine." "Floor cloth is better for being kept for some considerable time before it is used, the paint getting harder, and it therefore is charged for partly according to its age." Similar material, probably of lighter weight, was apparently used for wall hangings.12
Quality floorcloths were attractive and durable floor coverings, and were easily cleaned due to their waterproof quality, but it was that quality that could cause problems. Water, from spills or careless scrubbing, that managed to get under the floorcloth, was trapped, causing rot in wood floors.13 Another problem was cracking,14 which doesn't appear to have been confined only to cloths of lesser quality. These problems were probably the primary reasons for creating floorcloths on a more open burlap weave base. Parks says, "By the late nineteenth century, burlap and hessian were the most common foundation fabrics."15
While the floorcloth discovered at Connell House was too worn and fragile to preserve it in its entirety, a small section was salvaged. The photograph above, part of that section, shows the repeating pattern and the burlap type weave of the fabric. The material has not been positively identified. It is estimated the floorcloth was installed in the West wing circa 1860 — not earlier than 1854 or 1855, and likely not much later than 1862.
The invention of linoleum, patented by Frederick Walton, London, England, in 1863, spelled the eventual demise of commercial floorcloth production.16 Sophie Sarin notes,17 "Very few examples survive, even in fragmentary form. This neglected object was the first, and by far the most important floor covering of the early modern interior, adopted by a large spectrum of the social classes. It has nevertheless been allowed to slip, more or less unnoticed, into oblivion,"
In the course of exploring the accumulated debris in the attic of Connell House, four more samples of floorcloth were recently discovered, two of them of quite size, and all of them showing signs of long, heavy wear. All four were on a similar burlap-type base. Perhaps they were manufactured at a date later than the West Wing specimen, for the decorative patterns of three of them resemble linoleum patterns.
The above photograph is a sample of the floorcloth that once adorned the second floor hallway, and possibly a runner of the same pattern graced the first floor entrance hall, perhaps lying between the stencilled decorations at each side. This floorcloth may have been installed not long after that in the West Wing dining room.
This floorcloth, which is patterned similar to early linoleum, had been installed in a small bedroom on the second floor. Whether the same material was used in the other bedrooms may never be known.
The original location of the above floorcloth is not known. One possibility may be the "new" kitchen that was once at the very back of the extended West Wing. That area has undergone so many transitions that only a brick chimney and the marks of a large sink and associated water pipes on one wall identify it as a kitchen area.
Finally (at least for the moment), the specimen shown above bore a tag, identifying it as having been in the hallway of the Cluff house at Upper Woodstock. Quite likely floorcloth covered the floors in many other homes in the area, and one can hope that at least fragments of these may still exist.
1. Dodd, George, British Manufactures, Series IV., London, 1845, Charles Knight & Co., pp. 115-144. (The same article appeared in The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1842, Charles Knight & Co., pp. 337-344.)
10. Parks, Bonnie Wehle, The History and Technology of Floorcloths, APT Bulletin, Vol. 21, No. 3/4, 1989, Association for Preservation Technology International, pp. 51-2. Bremner, David, The Industries of Scotland, Their Rise, Progress, and Present Condfition, Edinburgh, 1867, Adam and Charles Black, pp. 346-8.
17. Sarin, Sophie, Report for the University of Manchester Archaeology Department on Fragments of Floor Coverings Excavated at the Hagg Cottages, Alderley Edge, Cheshire 16 July - 10 September 2003, Sophie Sarin, 2004, p. 27.