WASHINGTON, October 10, 2008 -- One of the many things that makes rugs such a fascinating hobby is comparing the ways our ancestors regarded them with how we do.
It is well known, for example, that the late 19th century marked the peak of Western interest in oriental carpets. No other period comes close to it in viewing Eastern rugs as an integral part of Western interiors.
Just how much they were prized by our great-grandparents can be seen in a picture such as this. Titled 'Divan,' it is by the Croat artist Vlaho Bukovac in 1905 but could have been painted anywhere in America or Europe at the time.
By contrast, just about no-one would think of making such a picture today.
But why were people a century and-a-half ago such huge lovers of carpets? There are many answers to consider, including one that is as often overlooked as it is simple: the dreadful condition of their floors.
The story is told by Randall L. Patton of Kennesaw State University (U.S. state of Georgia) in a study entitled 'A History of the U.S. Carpet Industry.' He explains how American companies became hugely successful by developing inexpensive wall-to-wall carpeting to solve the country's flooring problems. And, along the way, the tale explains much about how oriental carpets were driven from Western homes.
To follow the argument, one has to remember that many of our ideas today about 19th century homes come from visiting manors that have been turned into museums. In these great houses, the floors are of hardwood that is as carefully laid down as a mosaic and as highly polished as the furniture.
But, in fact, most 19th century homes had floors that were hastily cobbled together by the builders from softwood boards of random sizes. The builders neither stained nor varnished these arrays of panels and they left the homeowners the task of figuring out what to do with them.
So how did people cope with such floors? One way was to leave them bare but "whiten them" by scrubbing them with a stiff brush and sand. Or they could be bleached with lye.
Still another possibility was to paint the flooring to resemble a carpet. That option took many forms that are detailed in wonderful detail on a blogsite named 'Victorian Interiors and More.' The subtitle of the blog is "Victorian life wasn't quite what you may have thought it was."
The site offers this description of using a stencil to paint a floor, as quoted from an 1859 short story that appeared in 'Godey's' magazine:
“Tomorrow, you must drive down to Dayton, Albert, purchase some pearl-colored paint, enough to put two coats on the floor, and some green, enough for a border. Take a sheet of tin, mark three large leaves in a group upon it, and take it to the tinman. Tell him to cut out the leaves like a stencil letter; you can, by putting it down and painting over it, make a handsome border of green leaves for your carpet.”
Beyond painting the floors directly, one could put down painted coverings. A cheap way to do that was to glue newspapers to the floor and paint and shellac them.
Another, more expensive, option was to put down a painted floor cloth. As the Victorian-expert website notes, "generally they were placed in hallways and parlors." In kitchens or any room where water was likely to be spilled, oilcloth was the better choice.
And then, of course, there was matting - the most often used floor covering of all. Inexpensive mats were woven from coconut fiber, straw, and corn husks, while expensive ones were made from wool.
As time went by, and the industrial age brought more wealth to the middle class, all these homemade solutions began to give way to what people really wanted: large and attractive woven carpets.
It was not an indulgence. As one observer at the time noted: "the general use of carpets was a necessity some few years ago from the fact that the floors of our houses were generally built of such poor material, and in such a shiftless manner, that the floor was too unsightly to be left exposed." That is Horace Greeley, writing in his 1872 book 'Great Industries of the United States.'
Carpet manufacturers -- domestic and foreign, hand loom and power loom -- fought hard to satisfy the demand for large rugs. The battle continued on a grand scale until the progressive introduction of hardwood floors through the century finally reduced the demand for wall-to-wall sized carpets and increased interest in smaller accent rugs.
Through these decades from the second half of the 19th century to the early 20th century, the most desired carpets of all were handwoven oriental ones. Their widespread appeal was heightened by their historical association with the rich and by the fad of "Orientalism" that accompanied the expanding colonial age.
Plus, they got a boost from the World Expositions like those in Paris and Chicago, which helped to familiarize millions of people with the artistic traditions of the Islamic world, China, and Japan and popularized them.
But it was also during this period that power loomed carpets began their steady progress into American homes, a progress that would eventually push out every competitor.
In his history of the U.S. carpet industry, Patton notes that by 1870 power loom technology had been refined sufficiently to produce "reasonable substitutes for higher quality hand loom woven goods." The American machine carpet makers published lavish catalogs, advertised directly to consumers, and sales ballooned to roughly 80 million square meters by 1923.
Then came the Great Depression and a fall-off in business of all kinds. But out the ashes emerged a far more formidable power loom industry. First, based in the northeastern United States and using wool, it struggled just to regain the heights of the turn-of-the-century. But in the 1950s, the industry relocated to the area around Dalton, Georgia, switched to cotton, and discovered a magic formula.
That formula was "tufting" a technique traditionally used by local women to produce bedspreads. The technique is to insert tufts of cotton yarn into a pre-woven grid of backing material and then boil the backing to shrink it and lock in the tufts.
Once mechanized, the tufting process reduced the cost of making carpets by half compared to weaving and opened the way for wall-to-wall carpeting to sweep the market. The tufting industry later overcame some final objections that its cotton carpets were less durable than woven wool ones by switching to synthetic fibers and then no more obstacles remained.
Patton says that by 1990 Americans were consuming over 12 square meters of carpet per family per year, compared to about 2 square meters in the early 1950s. "Tufted carpets achieved total dominance of not just the residential carpet market," he notes, "but the residential flooring market in general."
The omnipresence of tufted carpeting in American homes and businesses today has not entirely forced woven carpets -- power loomed or hand loomed -- from the scene. As the author notes, high-end consumers do still appreciate the special qualities of wool and woven carpets continue to dominate specialty commercial markets such as hotel lobbies.
But the triumph of cheap wall-to-wall carpeting does mean that many American housing contractors now simply lay down carpeting rather than hardwood floors as the first and least expensive choice. And that, ironically, creates a situation not so different from the one faced by our great-grandparents.
That is, when your flooring is highly affordable but monotonous, how do you liven it up?
For the past many years, that question has been waived as homeowners have continued to welcome wall-to-wall carpets in white and other single tones. The carpeting, just like white walls, complements today's minimalist interior designs and poses no color problems when choosing the rest of the furnishings.
Still, nothing remains the same and history has a way of repeating itself. Today, people argue over whether it is good taste to add an oriental accent rug to an already machine-carpeted room. Tomorrow, it may become the first thing they rush to do.
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Randall L. Patton, A History of the U.S. Carpet Industry
Victorian Interiors and More
History of Carpet Tufting
World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893