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Buying And Collecting Hooked Rugs
Long after the Civil War, hooked rugs were the principal floor coverings, especially in rural areas. A trousseau was felt to be incomplete that did not have enough hooked rugs for the new home, and they were commonly made by friends or relatives as a wedding present that was sure to please.
The making of hooked rugs continued until near the end of the Victorian era, but it lost popularity and some of the charm as blatant color and careless workmanship became the rule rather than the exception. Harsher and gaudier colors came into use and these raw colors and effects put hooked rugs into disrepute. In the 1880s women began to lose interest in them, and even the good ones fell from glory. Rugs which had once been treasured possessions were transferred from places of honor before the haircloth sofa and the square piano in the parlor to humble spots in the kitchen in front of the cast-iron sink or the woodpile in the yard or the henhouse. Good or bad, they were treated with amazing contempt. They were even left out of doors exposed to the weather! And it is because some householders did not even bother to throw them away that we have been able to reclaim some of them as collector's items.
On the whole, our native accomplishment in the decorative arts has been appreciated only in late years. Until very recently even museums neglected its representation almost entirely. In a rather casual and desultory way the American Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 and the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York in I 1909 called attention to the excellent quality and character of the furniture and to the fine examples of other minor arts which our forefathers and their families had wrought. But the fine collections of these began only slowly to be made. And as recently as 1912 Mr. Wallace Nutting had oriental rugs and not hooked rugs on the floors of his famous Colonial mansions, which were furnished totally in period. However, this gap in the knowledge of our leading decorators was destined soon to be filled quite unexpectedly.
When Mr. James M. Shoemaker, the famous rug connoisseur, saw a throw over a battered sea chest a good many years ago he was immediately intrigued by it. It was a rug which had been made by a sailor in the idle hours of a long voyage. Measuring 1 foot two inches by 1 foot 8 inches, the heart in one corner, the anchor in another and a star in the center were all symbolic of the maker's thoughts and aspirations. The colors are red, lavender, sapphire-blue and tan.
This rug touched off Mr. Shoemaker's imagination. He saw not only the design, but immediately realized that the many people who used, enjoyed or collected early American furniture would find just the supplement they needed in antique American rugs.
Thus he traveled about in New England, inquiring casually about the neglected rugs he saw lying around in careless indifference in all sorts of unlikely places. Many he picked ill) for a bagatelle and turned over to a couple of elderly New England women who understood these things, to clean and repair.
Before long Mr. Shoemaker had about foo such rugs. His immediate task was to get public attention focussed upon them. Mr. Shoemaker has told me that he tried first to get the rug buyer of a large New York department store to take them over for resale. But the buyer, who was accustomed to handling only rich orientals, thought Mr. Shoemaker must be crazy to offer him these, and said as much. He flatly refused to invest a cent in them.
Mr. Shoemaker then prevailed upon him to display them in a few of the Fifth Avenue windows, and also to set apart a few square feet in the rug department for some of them. The buyer agreed to take about 300 of the rugs "on consignment," that is, without paying anything or committing himself to anything more than to gauge customer reaction. The display was ready on a Monday morning. The following Friday the buyer came breathlessly to Mr. Shoemaker's place with a check for the entire 300 and an order for all others that were available. The craze was oil! Ever since, the search has continued and it is regrettable that the opportunities for finding good old examples are by now practically exhausted.
The districts in which to look would be mainly the cold east coast from about Delaware up to the section around Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, where early need for lwotection against the bleak hard winters played an important part in the production of hooked rugs. This ground has been ransacked by would-be private owners and collectors as well as by museums.
However, no one section has a monopoly. With luck, skill and patience, you may find good rugs almost anywhere on the continent. When the New Englanders began their trek to the west in the mid- 18oos they took this skill with them, and thus it fanned out from one region to another. Accordingly, hooked rugs made in the century beginning about 1750 are still to be found, but not necessarilv in the district of their origin.
There is, of course, no reason to assume that if you find a hooked rug you have found a beautiful rug. As in any case of folk art done by untrained craftsmen, we can only too easily discover some pretty bad specimens, which however, are not to be totally deplored. Remember, they may still have perlormed certain elementary functions of floor furnishing for warmth and color may even have had a therapeutic effect on the makers, as in the case of the lonely wives whose husbands spent long months at sea in whalingvessels. Large numbers of women beguiled the long dark evenings making rugs that depicted themes of the whalers-not necessarily good art but good therapy.
Furthermore, a serious artistic deterioration in the hooked rug took place when Frost undertook the commercialization of many poor stock designs by selling burlap foundations caring ugly stenciled patterns. When any design is to be multiplied, whether by stencil or by machine or any other mechanical duplicating process, it is infinitely important for the basic design to be good before it is multiplied. Otherwise the machine or other such process can only multiply ugliness instead of beauty and a priceless opportunity is lost. The people are miseducated and their homes instead of being enhanced become repositories for bad art. Thus mass production can be a cultural peril in our machine age if we are not made aesthetically aware.
In purchasing a hooked rug take into consideration colors, shading, pattern or composition, fineness and evenness of hooking, quality and strength and similar characteristics. The presence of handwoven cloth composed of yarn spun from virgin American wool is most preferable, for American wool is a quality product and hand weaving is likely to be testimony of the early age of the piece.
As for danger signals, one should not buy a hooked rug which is stiff or brittle, for such a one is probably rotten in the literal sense. In the latter half of the 1800s hooked rugs were so little valued that they were often exposed to snow, rain and sun or put to farmyard uses which no fabric would be able to survive.
However, if the rug is soft, a few holes or tears are not serious ills, and need not be an obstacle to purchase. They may be repaired expertly. Genuine antique hooked rugs are now so rare that it is just about impossible to find any that have not been used and somewhat the worse for wear. A purchaser should insist that such a rug be drycleaned, and not merely washed or scrubbed. When cleaned and perfectly reconditioned it will last for many years and will justify these steps taken at the outset.
Nonetheless, it is becoming a more common practice to keep rare rugs more as objects of art, after this preliminary care, than to rise them. According to W. W. Kent, a leading authority on hooked rugs, the really fine antique ones should never be placed on the floor but should be preserved as pictures. Their naivete of design and quality of workmanship are too precious to risk as floor coverings. His advice is to buy Frost patterns and make, or have made for vou, the rugs you want to walk on, preserve the antiques as hangings.
An antique rug is usually considered as one made between 1775-1825. From 1825 to 1875 collectors identify them as "early," while "late" covers the years from 1875 to 1900, and "modern" are those made within the last fifty years. Age in a hooked rug is revealed to some degree by pattern and subject, but more by the use of a hand-woven foundation material of cotton or linen, as well as the presence of vegetable dyes. The linen foundation was soon superseded by burlap, so that while rugs containing linen bases are definitely antique, few are to be seen.
But the significance of old hooked rugs does not lie in these technical details. It lies in the fact that they are an original expression of an aesthetic outburst. This surging forward of the creative faculties may sometimes have been more original than aesthetic in results obtained, but in any case it is to be properly regarded as having given birth to an American folk art which forms a real part of our national heritage.
It is no wonder that we view our early American rugs with a feeling akin to veneration. Not alone for the admiration customarily given to them as precious museum pieces but because of their special relationship to the intimate day-today experiences of those who lived in our land while it was young. Not primarily because of any special effects which the rugs revealed as decorative utilities, but for the intangible duality of fortitude and character which they combined with pathetically limited resources to make a product always serviceable, usually ingenious and often beautiful.