The Unpaved Roadshow: Hooked rugs, America’s indigenous folk art

Early American hooked rugs were originally a craft of poverty. Before 1780, most floors in American homes were bare, especially among the poor. Painted floors or stenciled floor cloths were found in the homes of those who were slightly better off. Only the very wealthy had the means to import carpeting, since the American textile industry was in its infancy.

After 1830, as factories in America began making wool carpets for the rich, having a floor covering became a symbol of domestic and socio-economic well-being. This was a period when Americans were looking beyond just the bare necessities, trying to make their homes more comfortable and livable.

As the fashion for floor coverings took hold, poorer women began ransacking their scrap bags for materials to employ in designing and creating their own homemade floor coverings, employing whatever materials they had available. Their work was laborious and slow: using a special tool adapted from the sailor’s marlinspike, they hooked rag strips through tightly woven linen or hemp backings.

After 1850, trade tariffs relaxed and coffee, grain and feed started to arrive wrapped in jute burlap sacks made in India. This free fabric was strong but loosely woven enough to enable the rag scraps to be easily hooked through it into the characteristic loops.

The women who made the rugs also designed the early ones, and many of the motifs were borrowed from the Oriental rugs imported by the wealthy. It was a New England peddler, Edward Frost of Maine, who noticed the growing trend for rug hooking, and saw an economic opportunity. In 1876, he began stamping the best of the traditional designs onto burlap. His designs also included lions, tigers, leopards, dogs, cats, birds, deer and floral patterns. From this point on, every woman could make her own colorful rugs for her home from scraps of clothing. For the next 50 years, the essentially rural craft spread from the humblest households along the northeastern seaboard of America to the better-off city dwellers.

In the waning years of the 19th century, the industrial revolution was well underway and machine-made goods were sought after; hence, homemade rugs were viewed as “quaint” and lost popularity. Yet, by the 1920s, American towns were growing into cities filling up with multitudes of immigrants. Many Americans reacted to these massive social changes by perpetuating the ideal of the colonial period as a time of noble virtues and high moral standards. By 1928, there was a flurry of interest in hooked rugs associated with the earlier period, and these included ones produced after the colonial period was actually over. Homemade quilts and hooked rugs became imbued with a sense of those more “virtuous” times.

In 1930, architect and hooked-rug authority William Winthrop wrote the first of three volumes on old hooked rugs. He raised them to an art form and argued that the older rugs should be hung on the walls and not used on the floor. His book promoted the craft of rug hooking and encouraged the making of new ones.

Hooked rugs were prevalent throughout the American South, with many depicting homey vignettes or historical places. A fine example is the 1934 rug currently on display at the Shenandoah Valley Museum. Attributed to Rockingham County, Va., it depicts several of the buildings on the campus of Washington & Lee University in Lexington. The central image is of Washington Hall, while House Mountain looms in the background.

By the ’50s and ’60s, styles changed again, and hooked rugs fell out of favor. It wasn’t until 1974, when the American Museum of Folk Art produced a show of early hooked rugs, that antique dealers and interior designers recognized the beauty and historical value of this form of needlework, creating a resurgence of rug hooking. In fact, the great majority of the rugs we find today sold as “antiques” were made between 1930 and 1960 and are more properly called “vintage,” since they are less than 100 years old.

Starting in the mid-1960s, American country antique collecting was at its height. It was then that Armistead Peter III (1896-1983) and his wife Caroline Ogden-Jones Peter (1896-1965), the last owners of the venerable Georgetown estate Tudor Place, began to redecorate their stately home after Peter’s father passed away. They elected to purchase three hooked rugs for their bedrooms, and today those boldly patterned rugs are still on display there.

Today, older hooked rugs have again regained popularity, partly because of their wonderfully colorful graphics. Also, like American primitive antiques in general, they show “the hand of man,” and mix well with other styles, including transitional and the now-popular mid-century modern look.

Condition is very important when collecting older hooked rugs. Collectors should be sure to check the backing for signs of rot or for missing fabric. A restorer can patch the backing and restore missing rag, but a buyer should be ready to do some heavy negotiating for a damaged hooked rug.

These once purely utilitarian objects are now recognized as an art form and tell the history of America’s evolution before and after industrialization. They add a dash of color and history to any well-decorated home.

Michelle Galler (antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com) has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Georgetown and in Washington, Virginia. Contact her with any questions or about great finds you would like to discuss in future columns.

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Michelle Galler
About Michelle Galler 24 Articles
Michelle Galler has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Washington, Va. If you have questions or finds, email her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.