New Hampshire Tidbits: The Dirty Secret of Colonial Floors

SweepingThe earliest buildings of New Hampshire had dirt floors. Once they had evolved to wood flooring, the problem arose of how to keep them clean. Rugs and even coarse wool druggets were rare in those early colonial days.

Today we take for granted that we have vacuum cleaners, electric floor washers and steamers. So how did colonial women keep their floors clean? SAND. Yes, you read it correctly SAND. There were, of course, those who did not have access to sand who used hay, herbs, rushes or other natural grasses. But when it was available, SAND was often the choice. At some point the sand could be swept out and replaced with fresh, and the cost was negligible.

“Use of sand as a covering on unfinished floorboards. Sand cushioned a walking surface, collected dirt and grease, protected feet from cold floors, and sometimes…provided decoration. Colonists sprinkled sand on floors through sieves or deposited it in piles and swept it into decorative patterns, such as scrolls, feathers, or herringbones.” — Early American Decorative Arts, 1620-1860, by Rosemary Troy Krill, 2010, page 250

Example of a 16th century persian rug.

Example of a 16th century persian rug.

The parlor room, if the house had one, was most often the room where attention would be given to artistic sweeping patterns in the sand. This room was reserved for special occasions, and guests would be entertained here, and so it was important to give the impression of cleanliness and industry.

“The white sea sand used to be regularly brought from the beach and the floors of the living rooms carefully sanded; I learned more fully about this process of sanding. Little piles were placed here and there on the floors and as the family walked back and forth it became evenly scattered, and also answered the purpose of scouring. A good housewife must have her floor as white as the table. Sometimes the sand would be placed in a basket and carefully sprinkled, then with a broom it could be crinkled into curious little waves like those on the sea beach. Or if there was an artistic nature in the home, a tree might appear with its branches and twigs. The work must have been discouraging, for of course with the first step upon the floor, the beauty of the design was marred.” –The Colonial and Revolutionary Homes of Wilton, Norwalk, Westport, Darien and Vicinity by The Daughters, 1901, page. 89

Although I could not find a statement as to exactly when new sand was laid down, one source mentions that the sweeping was done at the “close of the strenuous work of Saturday, in preparation for the early beginning of the New England Sabbath, often tracing on the clean surface intricate patterns with the rough broom.” [The Colonial House, by Joseph Everett Chandler, 1916, p. 130]pirates

Around 1750 woven rush mats began to be used in homes.  We don’t know who owned the first carpet in New Hampshire, but reportedly the first carpet brought to New York City was in the house of Captain Kidd, that’s right–THAT Capt Kidd, the notorious pirate, at 119 Pearl Street. It was a Turkish rug, of a good size, that was valued then at twenty-five dollars.

Some homes upgraded from sand-covered floors to painted designs. “So when sand gave way to paint as a floor covering, ornamental patterns soon sprang into popularity. Paint on interior woodwork in Colonial houses does not appear to have been used prior to the 1720’s; yet in the typical Cape Cod town of Barnstable there are two freehand decorated floors that were executed only a few years after that date. Many floors were stenciled in a sort of rug pattern, with a running border a foot or more in width, and an allover design laid off in square or diamond shaped units.” — Painted Decoration In Colonial Homes, The Cambridge Historical Society, page 54

Although the plush, imported carpets remained the object of the wealthy yet for many years, rougher and often home-spun versions eventually became common objects in New Hampshire Homes. In September of 1761 the New-Hampshire Gazette of Portsmouth NH announced “Just Imported from London, by Jacob Treadwell, Jun., in his store “the next store to the Sign of the State House, articles “cheap” (among many items) –rugs. That following November in the same publication, Samuel Moffatt, “at his store at the North End,” was also selling “ruggs,” along with druggets.


Early Rug Collecting and Collectors

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One Response to New Hampshire Tidbits: The Dirty Secret of Colonial Floors

  1. LInda Gordon says:

    Fascinating! I had been reading Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon and they made a reference about the sand on the floor the the herringbone pattern and was so curious about it. Thanks.

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