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Fun Facts in Carpet History

19th Century Carpeting
Illustration by F.M. Ward

American author Edgar Allan Poe is best known for his mournful poetry and eerie short stories. He also had plenty to say about what we today call interior design. In an 1840 essay about interior decorating, Poe states, "A carpet is the soul of the apartment."

Carpets and rugs have come a long way since Poe made that statement but it still rings true to this day. Your flooring (be it carpet, hardwood or tile) ties your home together and it's always been that way, especially as far back as the 17th century.

In the 17th century, frugal housewives who still wanted some "style" in their homes poured clean sand over the bare floor then used a broom to swirl patterns into it to add a design accent to their homes.

As sawmills began appearing throughout the continent wood floors became more prominent, as did the concept of painting them. One popular motif was alternating black and white squares to imitate the marble floors in grand European homes.

By the 18th century, floor coverings of heavy canvas appeared. Floorcloths were painted in colorful geometric designs or swirling marble patterns. Some patterns were based on the Oriental carpets beginning to make their way into well-to-do homes.

Far more common were rugs and smaller mats made at home by weaving multicolored scraps of wool fabric on a handloom. These "rag" rugs became more colorful as machine-made textiles were more plentiful and affordable in the 1840s and 1850s.

Also in the 1840s, hooked rugs gained popularity. Burlap fabric made of jute fiber was strong and widely available. This loosely woven material was perfect foundation for rugs which housewives made by pulling narrow strips of fabric through from the back with a small hook.

In the 1860s, professionally designed patterns began to be stamped or stenciled on a burlap background. Edward Sands Frost, a New England merchant, started a successful business creating stencil patterns; surviving examples of Frost's designs are much sought after today.

The Middle Eastern Oriental rugs often displayed today in American homes and museums were, in fact, not widely used until the later half of the 19th century. These long-wearing handwoven creations offer an endless variety of colors and patterns.

Who's to know what new fashions will emerge. Whatever the period of a house and the tastes of its inhabitants, there will be a carpet, in Poe's words, in the soul of it.

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