Walkabout: Pourquoi Parquet? Part 1 (1830-1880)

Read Part 2 of this story.

I like to go to open houses with friends who are looking to buy, or for myself, to satisfy my curiosity about places in my neighborhood that I’ve always wanted to see. And hey, you never know…..To me, the best old houses are the ones that no one has touched in years. The floors are covered in wall to wall carpeting of dubious antiquity, or layers upon layers of linoleum.

The moment of truth arises when you can grab the end of the carpet, or lift up the linoleum and there they are, protected for umpteen years from wear and tear and the foibles of bad decor: parquet floors! Even better is going to a corner and catching sight of an ornate border, ringing the room, the different colored woods forming lines and patterns, artistry in wood. Love it! However, sometimes you can pull up the carpet, and there is nothing special there.

A house with ornate woodwork, marble fireplaces, the works, and there you go an eh floor. What happened? Were the original owners cheap? Did someone tear out the floors? Why do some houses have such wonderful original floors, and others don’t? When did parquet become popular, and what did homeowners use in our Brooklyn homes before that?

With the exception of a handful of Colonial era houses, most of the oldest brownstones and frame houses in our oldest neighborhoods are from the 1830’s to the late 1850’s. In these earliest houses, the original floors were softwood plank floors, like pine, laid in random widths. The original finish was never a gleaming waxed or varnished finish. To clean these floors, they were usually scrubbed with sand and a wire brush, or sometimes bleached with lye. Most of the time, the floor was either painted, or covered.

Painted floors were often stenciled with border or rug patterns. Coverings ranged from woven matting, somewhat similar to our modern day sisal rugs, to heavy canvas painted floorcloths, to a covering called drugget, or carpet. Drugget was a cheap woolen or cotton/flax plain woven fabric, sewn together to the desired width.

Depending upon one’s budget, drugget was often used to cover a better carpet, to protect it, and was also popular underneath the carpet to provide an attractive border where the carpeting stopped. Matting, much of it imported from India and China, also was used as a carpet padding, and also protection of the carpet in well traveled areas, such as near stairs and at entrances.

As manufacturing techniques for carpeting improved, more and more households were able to afford carpeting. One popular carpet was the rag rug, often made at home by braiding strips of fabric, or weaving lengths of fabric through a loom, creating the kind of rugs most of us are familiar with today as small bathroom or casual rugs.

Most carpeting of the time was woven on looms in narrow lengths and then sewn together to achieve the desired width. The term broadloom comes from this time, and referred to the first larger looms invented that were able to weave wider and wider carpets. Carpet from this period was reversible, as the weave was not the tufted punched carpet that we are used to today.

The designs and patterns were woven into the rug, like a French Aubousson rug. The jacquard loom was invented in France by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1804. It utilized punch cards that were read by the steel needles in the loom, which raised and lowered the harness of the loom allowing different colors to be woven in, creating patterns. The technology came to the US by 1825, and by 1832, jacquard looms were used in the carpet factories of Lowell, Massachusetts, creating a booming rug manufacturing center in the US.

Up through the 1870’s, the trends in flooring stayed much the same. Painted floors were recommended, especially for service areas, hallways and bedrooms. Stenciling was still popular, and a viable substitute for carpet in these areas. Tile floors were becoming more popular, especially encaustic tile in vestibules, hallways and sometimes verandahs and porches. The tile was expensive, but long lasting, and worth the expense, as it was easy to clean, and the patterns were very attractive. Very wealthy homes began to tile their receiving rooms and foyers in the European manner, often with encaustic tile, but also with marble, sometimes in patterns of different colored stone.

Floorcloths were also still popular, as was grass matting, especially in the summer months. Drugget was now used mostly as a rug underlining, and as an insulation for plank floors in winter, when contracting wood allowed drafts to seep up through the cracks and separations in the flooring. But carpeting was king.

The consumer of the mid 19th century had options. Carpeting had become so inexpensive that middle class homeowners could afford to cover all of their floors in their public rooms in carpet. Carpeting had become a basic household item, not a luxury. Magazines and books on home decor advised as it is customary in this country to carpet every room in the house, flooring need not be laid with a view to appearance.

It is cheap to lay down an undressed floor, covering the joints with slips of brown paper and then spreading old newspapers instead of straw, under the carpet. (The Economic Cottage Builder) Many floors were covered with what was called Venetian carpet, a narrowly woven rug materials made of striped bands. This was popular on stairs, as well as in larger rooms. Tufted pile carpet, called Brussels or Wilton carpet, had been invented in Europe since the late 1700’s, but was hugely expensive.

By the mid 1900’s, the techniques had become more mechanized, and production had begun in the United States. The looms for these carpets were still relatively narrow, and the carpet was still sewn together to create the width needed for a home. Axminster carpet, another pile carpeting from England, woven with very realistic natural patterns and colors, was also imported to better homes during this time period, as well.

As pile carpets grew in popularity, so did the patterns and colors used. To our eyes today, many of the patterns and colors are extremely fussy and bright, and the patterns overwhelming. Domestic critics of the day thought so too. They decried the realistic looking shaded floral patterns, which gave three dimensionality, and said Carefully shaded flowers and other vegetative decoration always appear out of place upon the floor to be trodden on.

Crunching living flowers under foot, even to inhale their odor, is a barbarity, but to tread on worsted ones, odorless and without form, certainly seems senseless. (Rural Homes). Another publication, the World of Art and Industry, said, One is almost afraid to walk here, lest his inadvertent foot should crunch the beauty of the roses, or tread out the purple juices of the grapes. We do not strew bouquets or pile fruit upon our parlor floors to decorate them…common sense should teach that these are inappropriate.

Unfortunately for the critics, people loved their patterned and floral rugs, and bought miles of it, well into the 1870’s and beyond. Wall to wall carpet was king. To help a confused homeowner do it right, numerous publications laid down rules regarding the colors one should use, the size and scale of the pattern in relationship to the room, and the most important rule; how the overall colors of the carpet affected the color scheme of the rest of the room, so that rooms could be called the green room, the red room, etc, instead of just the southwest chamber, or the room your grandmother had last summer.

Next time: Parquet, we’re getting to it, really! Flooring from the 1880’s through the early 20th century. Hardwood floors and parquet rule!

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