Going back in history: Floorcloths featured at Renfrew workshop
They were formed during the early 17th century from leftover and damaged canvas of sailing ships. Painted with linseed oil and oil-based paints, the canvas became water-resistant and pliable, and found new life as functional and attractive floorcloths.
From colonial times to the early 19th century, floorcloths became popular in the entryways and kitchens of homes.
“Sometimes, depending on how they were made, they could be used as a table cover, similar to modern oilcloths of the 1950s,” Becky LaBarre said. “They came before linoleum and vinyl. It was like a great, great grandparent to that as a wipeable, water-resistant surface.”
LaBarre, executive director of Renfrew Museum and Park in Waynesboro, Pa., will host Winter Workshop — Floorcloths along with her husband, historian Steve LaBarre, on Saturday, Feb. 22, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the museum.
Steve LaBarre has presented the workshop twice before at Clarke House Museum in Chicago, Ill., where Becky served as assistant curator. The Renfrew workshop will be the couple’s first time presenting it in Pennsylvania.
Early floorcloths often would feature decorative motifs, Becky LaBarre said.
“Designs, stenciled motifs sometimes could be painted to look like tile. For large entryways, floorcloths were made in sections and nailed to the floorboards,” she said. “You could see that around the edges of the room.”
The United States bicentennial in 1776 reignited an interest in floorcloths.
“There was a huge resurgence. People got really into floorcloths and began taking up the old-fashioned craft,” LaBarre said. “You’d see it a lot in homes with country décor and primitives.”
Some companies began mass producing floorcloths around that time, with many of them even being manufactured in China.
The LaBarre’s workshop will include a 30- to 40-minute illustrated presentation about the history of floorcloths with primary source accounts, followed by a demonstration of the techniques used to make them. Participants will create historically-inspired mini-mats of their own using period techniques that can be replicated on larger pieces later at home.
Cost is $30 per person and $15 for Renfrew members and includes a prepared 18-by-18-inch blank canvas mat, as well as paints and stencils.
“We’ll be mixing paints and linseed oil, then working with stenciling or freehand painting on the mats,” LaBarre said.
Class size is limited to 12 and response has been robust, offering “a good indication of interest in the community for this type of event,” LaBarre said. While the session has a full roster, as others express interest, it will be offered again.
The group currently registered is diverse and includes some people who are museum members and history enthusiasts and others who are not.
“You don’t have to have any prior experience,” LaBarre said. “You don’t have to be a historian to be someone who appreciates and wants to learn more about this historic art form and craft.”
While the workshop is a nod to historic floor coverings, it also emphasizes the usefulness of floorcloths in the modern home.
“It maintains its practical purpose,” LaBarre said, “and a lot of people make contemporary designs or motifs. It’s a great mat to put in front of a kitchen sink or in the bathroom because it is water resistant.”
In many homes, old-world materials are being reinvented in contemporary ways.
“These are sustainable because they are made of cotton canvas, which can be made of recyclable materials that are biodegradable. You can use paints that are a natural, sustainable, biodegradable product rather than other floor covering alternatives,” she said. “For modern sensibilities, it’s a neat way to pull in the past to create something beautiful, functional and natural.”
Renfrew is a 200-year-old Pennsylvania German farmstead that was formed as a museum in 1975. Edgar and Emma Nicodemus gave the homestead as a gift to Waynesboro, and its core collection is Emma’s early American decorative arts and antiques, LaBarre said.
“(The floorcloths workshop) speaks to our origins being a repository for early American domestic and decorative arts,” she said.
As Renfrew celebrates its 45th anniversary, the museum will offer a variety of programs and workshops through 2020 and beyond, including a hearth cooking workshop hosted by a domestic life historian.
“We are talking with other folks,” LaBarre said. “We want to do some introductory blacksmithing and tin-smithing. We’ll have more hands-on workshops along this vein coming down the pike.”
A goal of the museum is to connect visitors with items and stories to illustrate “how people used ingenuity and creativity to make practical and beautiful things for their everyday lives,” LaBarre said. “It takes a lot of craftsmanship and artisanship to create the things people made by hand during our early time as a nation.”
She believes in offering tactile, sensory experiences to help people make connections between past and present.
“It becomes relevant,” she said. “I think if you had to boil it down, ‘relevance’ is the key term. In a real tangible way, it becomes real to people. You see them say, ‘Oh, they were really smart back then.’ They see the craftsmanship and really begin to appreciate it.”
Top photo: Steve LaBarre demonstrates techniques dating back to colonial times used to create functional and decorative floorcloths. (Submitted photo)