One of the earliest forms of interior decoration, now scarcely remembered, was the painting of “floorcloths” in various patterns and colors. Though only scraps of these painted carpets have been preserved, they may be observed in numerous paintings of the period and we can tell how striking and vivid they were in the early rooms.
The very first floor covering used in America, was a heavy-coated sailcloth painted in patterns, which covered the entire floor. In the seventeenth century, from as early as about 1650, these floorcloths were painted in tile-like designs. The contrasting blocks of color – dark red and ochre for one example; but most often black and white were sometimes solid, sometimes marbleized.
By the eighteenth century the geometrical patterns were being replaced by freer and more elaborate designs, with a much greater variety of colors. Floorcloths are advertised in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston papers after 1720, but were evidently at their peak from the middle to the end of the century, when numerous advertisements bear witness to their popularity. An item in a Newburyport, Massachusetts paper dated 1747 reads: “Painted Canvass at Great Bargains. A large assortment of Painted Carpetings, comprising many styles and quantities at prices which cannot fail to give satisfaction. S. Sweetser & Sons, 5 Liberty St.” A Boston Newsletter of the late 1760′s carries the typical advertisement of a George Killcup advertises that he “Paints Carpets & other articles.” At this time painted carpets were also imported from London, as evidenced by a number of old bills for imported floorcloths. The painted carpets, manufactured in quantity in America from about 1750, were adapted from designs that were developed in England before 1650. The late eighth-century American floorcloths, with their elaborately designed repeat patterns, may be seen in numerous paintings by Gilbert Stuart, Edward Savage, and John Brewster, Jr.
By the nineteenth century the carpet patterns were generally stenciled rather than painted, and the method by which they were done is described by Rufus Porter in a little book called Curious Arts, published in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1825.