The History of "Penny Rugs"

Posted by The Home School in the Woods Team on

Welcome back to our “Crafting Through the Ages” series! 

Today we’re going to talk about a one-of-a-kind, colorful American craft called penny rugs. If you’re studying the Civil War through the Great Depression, this is the perfect sewing project to include in your child’s history curriculum.

We’ll discuss the history behind these unique mats and how you can make your own with our simple penny rug pattern, found in our Industrial Revolution Through the Great Depression Time Traveler study. 

What Are Penny Rugs?

Believe it or not, penny rugs aren’t actually rugs! They are decorative mats for tables, mantles, and other furniture. These mini “rugs” were originally made up of various sized wool pennies and stitched together using a blanket stitch. 

Penny rugs were typically backed with material like burlap, which adds to their rustic appearance. Penny rugs are recognized for being made up of circles. However, some were made with appliquéd designs (e.g., farmhouses, animals, flowers, and other antique shapes). 

The History Behind Penny Rugs

Penny rugs are believed to have started in the 1800s during the Civil War

During this time, homemakers made these decorative mats to utilize scraps of wool or felt from old clothing. The scraps were cut into three different sized circles and placed on top of one another from largest to smallest. 

Penny rugs got their famous name due to crafters using pennies as a template for measuring the top layer of circles. Although keep in mind that pennies from the 1800s were not the same size as the ones we recognize today – they were much bigger.

As time went on, crafters began incorporating decorative edging, as seen in the shape of scallops, teardrops, and tongues. They even switched in designs that told unique folk stories. 

However, despite their beautiful appearance, penny rugs were initially meant to be quite durable. By using the blanket stitch, penny rugs could withstand a rug beater and even be used in practical ways like wiping dirt off muddy boots! 

Sometimes, crafters even sewed pennies into the bottom of the rugs to weigh them down flat. So, if you’re ever at an auction and find one of these rugs, be sure to check and see if there are pennies inside. Chances are the piece is authentic and could be worth something. 

Why Include Penny Rugs in Your History Lessons?

At Home School in the Woods, we’re all about living history hands-on. Whether it’s crafting a 3D replica of Jamestown, dressing up, or cooking a historical recipe, we believe every parent can bring home history in a fun way.

Many of our children still have history projects they made from when they were young. In fact, most of them continue to sit on their bookshelves or desks – each one serving as a reminder of that unique piece of history they learned about. 

Not only do penny rugs allow children to take a step back in time and see a piece of 1800s decor, but they also help improve on essential skills like sewing and following step-by-step directions. 

How to Make a Penny Rug 

As mentioned before, we have an affordable penny rug project that teaches you exactly how to make a penny rug coaster or candle mat. This pattern will help teach your kids the basics of traditional penny-rug making and give them more details on the history behind it. 

The great thing about this penny rug pattern is that you can make your rug as big as you’d like. Some continue past the size of a coaster to create beautiful centerpieces for tables, mantles, and dressers. 

All you’ll need are some scraps of wool or felt, a sewing needle, scissors, and thread. You can back your penny rug with any recycled material (burlap, heavy canvas, old blue jeans, etc.). If you’re looking for smaller cuts of wool, your best bet is to check your local quilt shop.

A Craft Worth More Than Its Name 

We hope you enjoyed learning the history behind the timeless penny rug! Although this craft can take a bit of time, many would agree they are worth well more than their name suggests.

 If you’re looking for other crafts to complement the era your child is learning about, visit our website, where you can find hands-on history projects like quilling, penny rugs, and more.

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  • Love making penny rugs and working with wool. .

    JoAnn on
  • I knew that the “rugs” were created using scraps of old clothing but didn’t know the timeframe that they originated. Because my knickname is Penny I plan to make table runners for the people I love to remember me by. I am a great grandmother and I am “great” . I want to include the history of the rugs with the gifts I make. God Bless.

    Penny on
  • Very interesting article. Well written.

    Carole Ellison on

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