If you were the artistic wife of a sailor back in 17th century France, you didn't let modest means deter you from decorating your home in style.
You transformed your husband's old sails into beautifully painted floor coverings that rivaled those in wealthy homes. British sailors started bringing them back as souvenirs, and a fad with impressive reach and longevity was born.
The heavy canvases — called “oilcloths” in Britain and “floorcloths” when the art came to North America — would be painted with simple or elaborate designs depending on the skill level of the artists (often house painters) and the financial status of homeowners. The term “oilcloth” probably refers to the oil-based paints and linseed oil coatings applied to the canvases.
Waterproof, insect resistant and sturdy, floorcloths became just as popular in American homes. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams had floorcloths in their homes. You can still see one at Mount Vernon — a solid green, as Washington sought to simulate the grass outdoors inside.
Near the start of the 20th century, the advent of mass-produced linoleum sent labor-intensive floorcloths out of style, but in the '60s and again more recently, artists have rediscovered the craft.
Julie Biggs of Pickerington, Ohio, paints hers with contemporary designs like polka dots or naif flowers in hues of pink, turquoise, yellow and charcoal gray. A green polka dot rug would look fresh and young in a child's room. She's playing with other ideas, too.
“My favorite technique right now is a layered, worn look, which includes several layers of designs on one floorcloth,” Biggs says.