Today at Kenmore, the long-awaited floorcloths for our Passage and Side Passage have finally arrived! Great! Fantastic! …but, what exactly is a floorcloth? In colonial America, floorcoverings like carpets or area rugs were incredibly expensive and extremely hard to come by. The colonists often lived with bare floors, even in homes as grand as Kenmore. However, there was a slightly cheaper alternative that was easier to obtain – the floorcloth. A heavy weight material like oil cloth or canvas was cut to fit the dimensions of a floor, and then was painted with layer after layer of primer and paint to make it stiff. A final layer of paint was applied in a pattern, often imitating popular rug patterns or even a marble floor, and then a top coat of lacquer or wax to protect it. The end result was a durable, fashionable, floor covering that could be mopped and swept for ease of cleaning, and could be re-painted when it wore out. Eventually, floorcloths became just as sought after as the more expensive carpets. They were most often found in central passages, but could also be used in dining rooms (where keeping spilled food off the floor was important) and even in bedchambers on occasion (there is some evidence for this in Kenmore’s Chamber).
Ginny Lascara of Black Dog Gallery in Yorktown, Virginia, made the reproduction floorcloths for us and delivered them this morning. Ginny specializes in historic reproduction floorcloths, utilizing 18th century patterns and techniques. Kenmore’s new floorcloths are based on a design by John Carwitham, a London engraver who published a design book in 1739 called Various Kinds of Floor Decorations in Plano and Perspective. Carwitham’s book became the design source for fashionable floorcoverings throughout the rest of the 18th century, in both England and the American colonies. Although we do not know what the original floorcloth in Kenmore’s Passage looked like, we do know that the Lewis family would have been very familiar with Carwitham’s designs. The yellow stripe in the floorcloth’s border, as well as the grey undertones in the faux-marbled diamonds, were chosen to compliment the yellow wallpaper and grey highlights in the wallpaper border.
Ginny and our Foundation staff were able to get the floorcloths installed just as a bus load of visitors from Maryland came in to tour Kenmore. They were the first lucky folks to walk on the floorcloths! As soon as we can get a shot of the Passage without guests, we’ll share what the finished space looks like.