Date of this Version
Textile Narratives & Conversions: Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, October 11–14, Toronto, Ontario
Academic scholarship pertaining to Oriental rugs, which began at the end of the nineteenthcentury, has concentrated mainly on connoisseurship and the study of the cultures of origin and the peoples that have produced these items with a particular bias for items produced without the taint of Western influence. Little attention has been paid to the actual consumption of Oriental rugs in the West and the general influence of this trade on the evolution of decorative taste or how they may reflect changes in cultural and social attitudes. Oriental rugs within the Canada have received even less attention leading to assumptions that the taste for Eastern floor-coverings in Canada followed similar trends to England and the United States. This discussion will focus on the Canadian context by using Toronto to explore the consumption of Oriental rugs during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and examine the decorative taste of middle and upper class households in order to understand the various factors that influenced the popularity of Oriental rugs during this period. The simultaneous influence of international decorative trends coupled with changing attitudes toward domestic cleanliness and the work of retailers and the carpet trade all contributed to elevate the popularity of Oriental rugs to the point that they became commonplace floor coverings absorbed into the general lexicon of the tasteful interior.
Eastern rugs first came to North America with wealthy colonists keen to outfit their homes with fine furnishings. Initially, they were imported through trade with England, but direct trade with Turkish ports opened after the American Revolution in 1784. Numerous eighteenth-century American portraits illustrate rugs underfoot and draped on tabletops. Such carpets also appeared in numerous American household inventories from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, attesting to their popularity and widespread consumption.
Large scale European settlement of Upper Canada, or what is known as the Province of Ontario today, by the British began in earnest after the American Revolution when England was forced to find land for those that remained loyal to the crown during the conflict. Partly due to the scarcity of resources and partly due to a fashion away from Oriental rugs, hand-knotted pile carpeting appears to have been virtually non-existent in Upper Canada during the early years of settlement in the late-eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-centuries. Bourgeois interiors during this period would have been similar to the one depicted in the conversation piece painted by William Berczy in 1809. The painting depicted the wealthy Woolsey family of Quebec arranged in a neoclassical interior. The painted geometric design on the floor was in keeping with the tenants of balance and symmetric that typified the classical decorative taste of the period, notions that were seen to be at odds with the design sensibilities of Eastern floor coverings, however it was these same characteristics, particularly asymmetry, that later encouraged their popularity.