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A Brief History of Floorcloths

Floorcloths are a part of our American heritage.  Floorcloths have also been called painted canvas, oil cloths and floor canvases.

It is known that at least three of our Presidents have had floorcloths by the inventories kept on their estates.  George Washington’s was purchased from Roberts and Company in 1796 at a cost of $14.82.   Thomas Jefferson had at least two, one in a small dining room and one the great hall of the Presidential Mansion. They had been imported from England, at the cost $3 sq/yd, and were probably painted plain green.  It is also known that he had one or more painted canvases at Monticelo.  When John Adams’ term as President was completed, a White House inventory listed a floorcloth in his possession as well.

Floorcloths were produced by several groups.  They were first created and imported from England by the factory of Smith and Baber of London prior to 1754.  Several companies in Boston, Philadelphia and New York were producing them here in the United States.

Itinerant stencilers created functional works of art for wealthy individuals, painting either solid colors, or fancy cloths with borders.

Private home owners made their own floorcloths, often with disastrous results.  Chemical issues (still encountered today) such as improper paint bonding and inadequate drying times caused cracking.  During this time, paints were mixed with linseed oil, often with lead added to the mixture to speed drying times.  If too much lead was added to the mixture, cracking occurred. 

Methods of stenciling on the cloths were very similar to those used on walls.  European and American stencilers also used some stamping methods, giving them several different available techniques.

Earliest documentation shows us that floorcloths were first produced en masse in England, and were used as a way to insulate the floors against cold, windy winters.  They were also used in the summer when the heavy wool rugs were taken up for cleaning to protect the floor underneath from wear and tear.