What Was Old Is New Again: The Return of a Map & Floorcloth to Fielding Lewis’s Office

There were exciting arrivals at Historic Kenmore at the end of March! Two new additions made their debut in Fielding Lewis’s Office – a reproduction map on hanging rollers, and a long-awaited floorcloth.   

Fielding Lewis owned 6 maps, which we assume he stored in his office.  One of those maps may well have been what we know today as the Fry-Jefferson map (first produced in 1755, and titled at the time A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina).  The Fry-Jefferson map was considered the definitive depiction of the Virginia colony throughout the 18th century.  The surveyors and cartographers who created its accurate depiction were Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s father).  The George Washington Foundation owns an original copy of the map.

The Fry-Jefferson map on display over the fireplace in Fielding Lewis’s Office.

Over the past several years, we investigated the possibility that Fielding Lewis’s Office had a floorcloth covering its floorboards, much like the Passage.  Floorcloths were popular floorcoverings in colonial American households. They were far more affordable than carpet and durable enough to protect floors in high-traffic areas.  These decoratively painted sheets of sail canvas could be mopped when dirty, re-varnished when they began to wear, and simply repainted with a new design to keep up with changing fashion. 

Evidence shows, however, that floorcloths were sometimes used in less traffic areas of a house, as well.  They are sometimes listed in probate inventories as being in chambers, and private rooms on a house’s second floor.  Even in formal rooms, like the Dining Room, a floorcloth might be put under a dining table to catch food and spilled drinks.  In areas where a floorcloth was seen by more than just family members, it was probably decorated in a more ornate pattern.  Fielding’s office was both a utilitarian, working office and a space in which Fielding might meet with business associates and other gentry who needed to be suitably impressed.  Would it have had a floorcloth?

Kenmore’s most recent restoration in the 2000s provided us with two clues as to the existence of a floorcloth in the Office.  First, a small fragment of painted textile was found wedged under one of the baseboards in the room.  Microscopic analysis of the fragment found that it was composed of hemp with some wool and cotton fibers mixed in.  Although this was not the usual make-up of canvas from the 18th century, historic textile consultants suggested that it could represent the natural fibers of padding placed under floorcloths on occasion.  The paint attached to the fibers represented at least 5 layers of paint and varnish. The textile had been painted, varnished, worn through, repainted and re-varnished multiple times, which is exactly what one would expect to find on such a fragment. Unfortunately, the fragment was so small and degraded that no determination to original color could be made. The existence of the fragment, however, strongly indicates that the Office had a floorcloth at one time.

The second clue found during the restoration was a group of larger floorcloth fragments under the attic floorboards.  These fragments were large enough that we could see a pattern and color scheme.  While obviously from a floorcloth, dating them was a little harder.  Floorcloths were used in American households from the mid-18th century through the mid-19th century.  Was this floorcloth old enough to have been used during the Lewis era at Kenmore? To narrow down the date range, samples from the green painted areas on the fragments were once again put under a microscope.  Prior to 1816, green pigmented paint did not have chrome yellow in its composition.  Analysis confirmed an absence of chrome yellow, meaning the floorcloth dated to before 1816.  While not a conclusive date, it certainly moved the possible date range closer to the Lewis occupation of Kenmore. 

Floorcloth fragments discovered during the restoration at Kenmore.

After this initial analysis of the fragments recovered during Kenmore’s restoration, we progressed under the assumption that the fragments came from a floorcloth in the Office.  The same studio that produced the Passage floorcloth (Black Dog Gallery in Yorktown) undertook the project.  Their first task was to look at the fragments and reconstruct the pattern.  We thought this would be easy, after all the fragments were large and showed a lot of clear decoration. Surely that was enough to piece together the original pattern!

In fact, the specialists working on the project began to doubt whether all of the fragments were from the same floorcloth.  The decorative elements – namely medallions, scalloped shells and “basket weave” cross hatching – simply didn’t line up in any logical way, at least not like any typical floorcloth patterns from the time.  But the paint analysis clearly showed the same generations of paint on all of the fragments, strongly indicating that they were from one floorcloth.  Additionally, the way in which the fragments were found – all on top of each other, as if the floorcloth had been rolled up, then left to sit for a century and eventually cracked and broke at the rolled edges – strongly indicated one original unit, too.

In the end, the specialists turned to the only other pattern source from the period that might provide some clues – wallpaper catalogs.  For some reason, the decorative elements on the fragments made much more sense when compared to 18th century wallpaper patterns. Perhaps the original floorcloth had actually been block printed, the way wallpaper was, with some handpainting done afterwards to highlight certain details.  Perhaps the person who made the original floorcloth was simply more familiar with wallpaper than with floorcloths. Perhaps the Lewises requested a floorcloth inspired by some wallpaper.  We’ll never know, but the wallpaper connection provided the bridge needed to recreate a reasonable pattern from the surviving fragments.

Once the pattern was determined, production began.  The floorcloth was made in the same manner that floorcloths have been for hundreds of years.  A sheet of canvas was cut to size, stretched out on the ground, painted with several base coats, handpainted with a “show layer” (the pattern) and then coated with clear varnish.  It was left to cure for several weeks. Then, the entire thing was rolled up and transported to Kenmore for installation (which was relatively easy, in comparison to the huge floorcloths installed in the Passage years earlier).

Floorcloth for Fielding Lewis’s Office being made.
The new floorcloth on the floor of the Office.

The floorcloth and map have added the final touches to Fielding Lewis’s Office, making the room all the more like it was in 1775.  Purchase your ticket to tour Kenmore now, and see these new additions for yourself!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations