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History of American Rugs
It was in a barren atmosphere of cold, famine and Indian arrows that America's earliest rugs were made. That they were escapist in some measure for their makers is apparent from the many records of rugmaking as recreation. But the recreative aspect was merely a small facet of an occupation that was motivated by necessity.
Primarily rugs were a utility for keeping draughts and chill off the floors and to give the early homes a less makeshift, less transient appearance. The crude homes of the settlers were hardly more than four walls and a roof with anything serving the essential purpose of bed, chair and table. Many of these people had left moderately comfortable furniture abroad but the crowded, hazardous boats in which they came had no surplus space for their possessions. The houses they erected in the wilderness had to be in acle habitable and the ruthless winds had to be kept away- from the damp, draughty floors.
In the first days those floors were only bare earth, which became actually boggy in wet weather. As soon as possible the men wooded them over, but while this helped the mud problem, it did not do much for the wind and cold. To provide a little warmth sand was strewn cm the floors, almost an inch deep, to seal the cracks. When the sand became dirty, it was tossed out and a new supply brought from the beach. Sometimes it was raked and brushed into a simple designsuch was the hunger for attractiveness despite the obvious futility of keeping it in order, for, of course, the first footprint ruined it. Conditions remained thus until about 1680.
Toward the close of the century there was a little more time to survey the home and add to its meager comfort. One of the ways this was accomplished was to use sailcloth in room size. The material was painted heavily on both sides, with about eight coats of filler, and laid upon the floor. The exposed upper surface was then painted in tile-like patterns of contrasting colors, looking, oddly enough, like our modern linoleum. These painted floor cloths were used chiefly in the better houses. Others used small pieces under tables and similar strategic spots. By 1720 this fashion was being imitated by the middle classes who had typical designs painted directly on the floor itself.
It was on floors like these-either painted floor cloth or painted floor that rugs, if, when and as available, were used. This accounts for the anachronistic presence of what seems to be marble or tiled floors in portraits painted before 1180. Before the American Revolution, woven floor coverings, aside from domestic rag carpets, were practically unknown in this country. Although a few "Scots" ("ingrain" carpets from Europe) had found their way into some private city houses, these were such a rarity that visitors who entered rooms where they were laid tiptoed around them in awe so as not to harm them.
Up to 1776 the floor covering in most general use throughout the colonies was the rag carpet, made with a stout flax or cotton warp supplied by farmhouse spinning wheels. The early settlers, particularlv in New England, had been accustomed to such occupations as spinning and weaving in their homeland, and as long as English ships brought over adequate supplies there had been no pressing need for such activity in the New NVorld. However, there were frequent interruptions of such communication, as when English ships bringing supplies to the colonies were captured by the French during the French and Indian wars, and on other occasions. At such times the want of clothing and textiles, especially in rigorous New England, caused much suffering and compelled the women of the colonies to use their ingenuity, their spinning wheels and all their resources to meet the continual emergencies.
The frontier women, never finished with work, called it recreation to go to spinning frolics, quilting parties and sewing bees. It was not unusual in colonial days to see a woman on a horse, with her spinning wheel rigged up behind her, setting off on a long ride through the wilderness for a few hours of gossip and work of this kind. It is against this background that the story of American rugs unfolds.