A Brief History of Floor Coverings in the U.S.

From the Colonial era to the Civil War, floor coverings made of canvas were common in America.

floor coverings - floor cloth

Considering many floor coverings were made of old sail cloth, a compass motif was an apt design choice.

Photo by Giles Prett/Storey Books

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Floor cloths have been used in homes throughout the United States for hundreds of years. European settlers who came to America were intent on decorating their new dwellings to remind them of their homes across the ocean.

Because resources were limited, they used their ingenuity to make floor coverings when carpets were unavailable. Worn canvas sails from ships supplied them with material; hand-cut stencils and freehand painting provided pattern and color. The designs were sealed with varnish and became known as oyl clothes, or oil cloths. In 1796, records indicate, George Washington purchased a floor cloth for his Mount Vernon home.

Until the end of the 18th century, floor cloths for wealthy homes were generally ordered and shipped from England. But by the beginning of the 19th century, professional house and ship painters were creating them in the United States. The advent of linoleum in 1860 eventually led to the decreased use of floor cloths in America.