At the moment, in its unfurnished state, the ceiling in Kenmore’s Dining Room would be considered the room’s most prominent feature. It is simply impossible not to look up and stare upon entering the room. It is hard to imagine, therefore, that during the Lewis’s time, there may have been something in the Dining Room that attracted even more attention than the ceiling. That something was the carpet on the floor.
If we were to go strictly by the 1781 probate inventory, and combine that with what was typical of other Virginia houses on par with Kenmore, we might actually leave the Dining Room floor bare, or perhaps cover portions of it with grass matting (as George Washington did at Mount Vernon). Carpets of any kind were rare in the American colonies, due to expense and availability. Even the wealthiest households often had bare floors. But that was not the situation in Kenmore’s Dining Room.
Despite its omission from the probate inventory, we know that there was indeed a carpet on the floor in the Dining Room. During the restoration, original 18th century carpet tacks were found in the threshold of the doorway between the Passage and the Dining Room. Additionally, fibers found still attached to the tacks were wool and had been dyed red. The placement of the carpet tacks in
the center of the threshold also suggests that the carpet was “fitted”, cut to follow the exact outline of the room. The Dining Room is the largest room at Kenmore, and any carpet cut to fit its dimensions would have been not only incredibly expensive, but difficult to find. Most carpets were still being imported from England, although American-made carpets did exist. Kenmore’s Dining Room carpet therefore is a bit of a mystery. We know that Fielding Lewis was already suffering from financial issues as construction on Kenmore came to an end. He did have access to English carpets through his shipping interests, but what could he have afforded?
Options available at the time included what was known as “Scotch” carpet, which was an ingrain, or reversible, flat-woven carpet. Scotch carpets were durable and came in a variety of patterns and colors. It was probably the cheapest option that would still be acceptable in a grand room like Kenmore’s Dining Room. On the higher end of the scale were Wilton carpets, which were thick pile carpets in fantastical colors and patterns, often floral and geometric designs intended to mimic the ceiling decoration in a room. As Kenmore was being constructed, we can safely assume that a Wilton carpet is what Fielding and Betty Lewis imagined for their showplace Dining Room. But was that dream ever realized?
Another option for American homeowners who wanted a high end carpet was to purchase one secondhand. Because they were such a monumental investment, carpets were used and re-used until they quite literally fell apart. They might be moved from house to house for decades, being rolled or cut to fit different room sizes. Advertisements in the Virginia Gazette show that carpets were often among the household goods being sold at estate sales, or when a colonist closed up their house to return to England (a situation that was fairly frequent in the days leading up to the Revolution). One such clearance sale was held on August 12th, 1771 at Jane Vobe’s tavern (now Christiana Campbell’s Tavern) in Williamsburg. August 12th was a court day, and Fielding Lewis was in Williamsburg. A carpet was listed among the items being sold. While we have no indication that Fielding bought anything at the sale, or even attended it, it does show us the tantalizing possibility that Kenmore’s Dining Room carpet may have started its life in another house altogether.
As you may have guessed, we are still in the process of deciding what the carpet in the Dining Room should look like – but stay tuned! It’s sure to be quite the showstopper!