The History of Floor Cloths

Posted by The Home School in the Woods Team on

Early American history is an exciting period for kids to learn about – from the valiant efforts during events like the American Revolution to the careful formation of important documents like the Declaration of Independence.

It was also a time known for its artistry. During the 18th and 19th centuries, one popular craft was floor cloths, which were painted canvas rugs that were colored with designs. This unique flooring would later give birth to the decorative flooring found in modern American homes today.

In this article, we’ll talk about the history of Colonial floor cloths and why they make for a great hands-on project to complement your Early American history studies. We’ll also discuss our American Revolution Time Traveler, which includes directions on how to make your own floor cloth!

What Are Floor Cloths?

Handmade floor cloths, otherwise known as vinyl floor cloths, painted floor cloths, or painted canvas floor mats, were heavily oiled and decorated pieces of canvas, wool, linen, or cotton. Floor cloths were one of the earliest forms of floor covering, which made way for the linoleum, marble, tile, and parquet flooring we see today. 

Though decorative, floor cloths were quite durable. They were placed over stone or plank floors and could withstand the coming and going of shoes throughout the seasons. Floor cloths were considered water-resistant and could be easily cleaned compared to a rug or carpet. England primarily called floor cloths “olycloths” due to the heavy oil-based paints used to color them. These paints added a considerable amount of weight and durability once the fabric dried. 

To make a floor cloth, designers would begin with a heavy fabric such as canvas. They would cut it and seal it to protect the material from being damaged by the oil they would use next. The oil-based paint they used is what gave its colorful design, which could be used to make intricate patterns. 

A varnish would then be applied between coats, making a heavy-duty flooring that somewhat resembled leather. Early floor cloths were simple and usually lacked decoration. As the craft improved, checkered print and other geometric designs emerged. Hand-painted designs, floral patterns, and faux marble prints later became popular styles. 

Throughout history, many famous people owned floor cloths, including Thomas Jefferson, who had them in his dining room and main entrance at his Monticello plantation. It’s said that the floor cloth in his main entrance was green to resemble the grass outdoors. Many other presidents had floor cloths, including Geroge Washington, who purchased them for his home at Mt. Vernon, and John Adams, who listed floor cloths in White House inventory. 

Vinyl floor cloths continued to be popular into the 18th century until around the Civil War when an Englishman named Sir Frederick Walton created an alternative floor covering called linoleum. Since it was more affordable and could easily be mass-produced, many people made the switch.

Unfortunately, many original floor cloths don’t exist, as they took the beating they were meant to bear and fell apart over time. Colonial Williamsburg, as well as a few other museums, have scraps of historical floor cloths. However, no floor cloths in their full original size have survived. 

Where Did Floor Cloths Originate?

Floor cloths were used to cover plank floors in some of the earliest American homes, but did floor cloths actually originate in America? The answer is most likely no. Historians believe that oiled canvases were being used well before American colonies existed.

We know for sure that floor cloths were being used during the Renaissance in England and France to protect flooring from those tracking in and out of houses. By the 18th century, floor cloths could be seen in both Europe and America and were more than just a durable cover for your floor, but a work of art. 

Floor cloths aren’t just a thing of the past. In fact, they’ve been making a comeback over the years with interior designers hiring skilled artists to create aesthetically pleasing pieces. Today, more and more homes are sporting this vintage flooring for a unique Americana look.


How to Incorporate Floor Cloths Into Your Studies

At Home School in the Woods, we love taking advantage of hands-on projects. We’re big believers that most kids tend to absorb history better when they use their senses. This could be making a recipe from the era they’re learning about or crafting their own treasures. 

Our Time Traveler history studies, as well as our Project Passports, all include endless authentic projects to help accompany the person, place, or event you’re learning about. This includes early America, and of course, floor cloths!

Floor cloths are a fun and relatively easy project to incorporate into your American history studies. If you’re looking to get a better idea of colonists’ day-to-day lives and their living arrangements, then introduce your kids to these vintage floor coverings. 

Once you’ve read up on them, bring out the canvas and design one for yourself! We’ve got an entire project about how to make floor cloths in our American Revolution Time Traveler study. With just a few supplies, you can make a colorful and durable floor cloth for your entryway.

Our family made a vintage floor cloth together many years ago. Believe it or not, more than ten years later, it’s held up well and is still on our floor. Not only is it a talking point for our guests, but a sweet, nostalgic memory my kids are fond of (see a full-size image below!). 

What we love most about making floor cloths is that your children can truly make it their own – from geometric patterns to nature scenes and so much more. It will give your children a chance to get creative and practice a new skill they’ll be proud of. 

Show Us Your Floor Cloth!

Now that you’ve learned about floor cloths, are you ready to make one with your child? The memories, along with the history, will surely stick in their minds forever (and yours, too!). If you happen to make a floor cloth from our American Revolution Time Traveler study, be sure to share your photos with us on social media. We’re on both Facebook and Instagram

For more historical crafts that your child will love, check out more of our Crafting Through the Ages articles like Penny Rugs and Decoupage.

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