Saturday, 27 September 2008


If you have found this page, you may be surprised that it looks incomplete. That is because it is a draft page for Tea and Carpets, a fully developed blogsite on oriental carpets, carpet collecting, and the wonderful world of East meets West. To be redirected there, PLEASE CLICK HERE

A Room With No View: How Wall-To-Wall Carpeting Took The Place Of Oriental Rugs

WASHINGTON, October 10, 2008 -- One of the many things that makes rugs such a fascinating hobby is comparing the ways our ancestors regarded them with how we do.

It is well known, for example, that the late 19th century marked the peak of Western interest in oriental carpets. No other period comes close to it in viewing Eastern rugs as an integral part of Western interiors.

Just how much they were prized by our great-grandparents can be seen in a picture such as this. Titled 'Divan,' it is by the Croat artist Vlaho Bukovac in 1905 but could have been painted anywhere in America or Europe at the time.

By contrast, just about no-one would think of making such a picture today.

But why were people a century and-a-half ago such huge lovers of carpets? There are many answers to consider, including one that is as often overlooked as it is simple: the dreadful condition of their floors.

The story is told by Randall L. Patton of Kennesaw State University (U.S. state of Georgia) in a study entitled 'A History of the U.S. Carpet Industry.' He explains how American companies became hugely successful by developing inexpensive wall-to-wall carpeting to solve the country's flooring problems. And, along the way, the tale explains much about how oriental carpets were driven from Western homes.

To follow the argument, one has to remember that many of our ideas today about 19th century homes come from visiting manors that have been turned into museums. In these great houses, the floors are of hardwood that is as carefully laid down as a mosaic and as highly polished as the furniture.

But, in fact, most 19th century homes had floors that were hastily cobbled together by the builders from softwood boards of random sizes. The builders neither stained nor varnished these arrays of panels and they left the homeowners the task of figuring out what to do with them.

So how did people cope with such floors? One way was to leave them bare but "whiten them" by scrubbing them with a stiff brush and sand. Or they could be bleached with lye.

Still another possibility was to paint the flooring to resemble a carpet. That option took many forms that are detailed in wonderful detail on a blogsite named 'Victorian Interiors and More.' The subtitle of the blog is "Victorian life wasn't quite what you may have thought it was."

The site offers this description of using a stencil to paint a floor, as quoted from an 1859 short story that appeared in 'Godey's' magazine:

“Tomorrow, you must drive down to Dayton, Albert, purchase some pearl-colored paint, enough to put two coats on the floor, and some green, enough for a border. Take a sheet of tin, mark three large leaves in a group upon it, and take it to the tinman. Tell him to cut out the leaves like a stencil letter; you can, by putting it down and painting over it, make a handsome border of green leaves for your carpet.”

Beyond painting the floors directly, one could put down painted coverings. A cheap way to do that was to glue newspapers to the floor and paint and shellac them.

Another, more expensive, option was to put down a painted floor cloth. As the Victorian-expert website notes, "generally they were placed in hallways and parlors." In kitchens or any room where water was likely to be spilled, oilcloth was the better choice.

And then, of course, there was matting - the most often used floor covering of all. Inexpensive mats were woven from coconut fiber, straw, and corn husks, while expensive ones were made from wool.

As time went by, and the industrial age brought more wealth to the middle class, all these homemade solutions began to give way to what people really wanted: large and attractive woven carpets.

It was not an indulgence. As one observer at the time noted: "the general use of carpets was a necessity some few years ago from the fact that the floors of our houses were generally built of such poor material, and in such a shiftless manner, that the floor was too unsightly to be left exposed." That is Horace Greeley, writing in his 1872 book 'Great Industries of the United States.'

Carpet manufacturers -- domestic and foreign, hand loom and power loom -- fought hard to satisfy the demand for large rugs. The battle continued on a grand scale until the progressive introduction of hardwood floors through the century finally reduced the demand for wall-to-wall sized carpets and increased interest in smaller accent rugs.

Through these decades from the second half of the 19th century to the early 20th century, the most desired carpets of all were handwoven oriental ones. Their widespread appeal was heightened by their historical association with the rich and by the fad of "Orientalism" that accompanied the expanding colonial age.

Plus, they got a boost from the World Expositions like those in Paris and Chicago, which helped to familiarize millions of people with the artistic traditions of the Islamic world, China, and Japan and to popularize them.

But it was also during this period that power loomed carpets began their steady progress into American homes, a progress that would eventually push out every competitor.

In his history of the U.S. carpet industry, Patton notes that by 1870 power loom technology had been refined sufficiently to produce "reasonable substitutes for higher quality hand loom woven goods." The American machine carpet makers published lavish catalogs, advertised directly to consumers, and sales ballooned to roughly 80 million square meters by 1923.

Then came the Great Depression and a fall-off in business of all kinds. But out the ashes emerged a far more formidable power loom industry. First, based in the northeastern United States and using wool, it struggled to regain the heights of the turn-of-the-century. But in the 1950s, it relocated to the town of Dalton, Georgia, and discovered a magic formula.

That formula was "tufting" a technique traditionally used by local women to produce bedspreads. The technique is to insert tufts of yarn into a pre-woven grid of backing material and then boil the cotton backing to shrink it and lock in the tufts.

Once mechanized, the tufting process reduced the cost of making carpets by half compared to weaving and opened the way for wall-to-wall carpeting to sweep the market. The tufting industry later overcame some final objections that its cotton carpets were less durable than woven wool ones by switching to synthetic fibers and then no more obstacles remained.

Patton says that by 1990 Americans were consuming over 12 square meters of carpet per family per year, compared to about 2 square meters in the early 1950s. "Tufted carpets achieved total dominance of not just the residential carpet market," he notes, "but the residential flooring market in general."

The omnipresence of tufted carpeting in American homes and businesses today has not entirely forced woven carpets -- power loomed or hand loomed -- from the scene. As the author notes, high-end consumers do still appreciate the special qualities of wool and woven carpets continue to dominate specialty commercial markets such as hotel lobbies.

But the triumph of cheap wall-to-wall carpeting does mean that many American housing contractors now simply lay down carpeting rather than hardwood floors as the first and least expensive choice. And that, ironically, creates a situation not so different from the one faced by our great-grandparents.

That is, when your flooring is highly affordable but monotonous, how do you liven it up?

For the past many years, that question has been waived as homeowners have continued to welcome wall-to-wall carpets in white and other single tones. The carpeting, just like white walls, complements today's minimalist interior designs and poses no color problems when choosing the rest of the furnishings.

Still, nothing remains the same and history has a way of repeating itself. Today, people argue over whether it is good taste to add an oriental accent rug to an already machine-carpeted room. Tomorrow, it may become the first thing they rush to do.




Related Links:

Randall L. Patton, A History of the U.S. Carpet Industry

Victorian Interiors and More

History of Carpet Tufting

Victoriana Magazine

World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893

Thursday, 4 September 2008


If you have found this page, you may be surprised that it looks incomplete. That is because it is a draft page for Tea and Carpets, a fully developed blogsite on oriental carpets, carpet collecting, and the wonderful world of East meets West. To be redirected there, PLEASE CLICK HERE

A Postage Stamp Commemorates Isfahan As 'The City Of Polish Children'

WARSAW, September 26, 2008 -- Isfahan is best known for its architecture. It is so beautiful, Iranians say, that to visit the city is to see “half the world.”

And, Isfahan is famous for its carpets in classical Persian court styles.

But in Poland, the city is known for still something else. It is “Isfahan - the city of Polish children.”

This summer the Polish postal service issued a stamp that explains why.

The stamp shows a small boy dressed in a cadet’s uniform. Draped behind him is an Isfahan carpet emblazoned with the Polish eagle. And next to him is the city’s nickname in Polish: “Isfahan - Miasto Dzieci Polskich.”

The stamp commemorates two things: a huge tragedy in Poland’s history, and how Iran helped rescue some of the victims. But to understand the whole story – which today is largely forgotten outside Poland – one must go back to the very start of World War II.

In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland and divided it between them. Both the Nazis and Soviets sent huge numbers of Poland’s elite to prisons and labor camps. But the Soviets went a step further. They deported some 1.5 million Polish citizens to distant points in Siberia and Central Asia.

The deportations of military families, police, doctors, teachers, and anyone else suspected of patriotic feelings was intended to simplify the Polish territory’s incorporation into the Soviet Union. It also provided more laborers for the Soviet Union's collective farms as Moscow prepared for an inevitable war with Germany.

The horror of this time is vividly told in the accounts of the deportees. Families were packed into boxcars in Poland and confined in them for six weeks as the trains rolled east, for example, to Kazakhstan. Anyone who tried to escape was shot.

Then, in the summer of 1941, the Soviet leaders suddenly changed their strategy. As the war began with Germany, they decided to raise an army instead from among the thousands of Polish soldiers they were keeping in prisons in the Soviet Union. And to ease the way, they granted an “amnesty” to all the Polish deportees.

The result was one of the epic journeys of World War II.

The new Polish army, under an agreement between Moscow and the exiled Polish government in London, was to be sent to the North African front to fight alongside the British. So the Army's assembled just north of the border with Iran, on the road to the Middle East. And it was there, at bases in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, that tens of thousands of deported Polish families headed in hopes of rejoining the soldiers.

But for the families to succeed, they first had to escape the farms they had been assigned to (and many local bosses refused to release them), have money to buy train tickets, and travel for months from Siberia to the south under appalling conditions.

Maria van der Linden, a survivor who was then a child, describes the trip this way in her book An Unforgettable Journey, published in New Zealand:

"We had to change trains frequently, because of the varying width of rail tracks In the USSR. At every railway station we faced long queues for tickets, where numerous waiting families slept on bare floors. Conditions were filthy. People were infested with hair and body lice. There were no proper washing facilities at the stations and toilets were seldom cleaned. Infections spread like wildfire among the waiting travelers. Some people were too ill and exhausted to continue their journey and many passengers died as they waited to purchase their train tickets for the next stage of their trip."

Another child, Zdzislawa Wasylkowska, recalls her journey south like this:

"We had to beg for bread of steal whenever we could. There were no washing facilities. There were lice everywhere and so many dead children. I saw many people thrown from the train. It took us another month to get to Jalalabad, close to the Afghanistan border, but they did not want to take us. We moved on to Guzar where my mother and sister became sick with typhus."

Parents unable to go farther gave their children to others who could. And as the journey went on, the number of orphans multiplied, to the point that the Polish army reception centers had to set up special orphanages to accommodate them all.

The Polish army, known as the Anders’ Army for its commander General W. Anders, crossed into Iran by ship across the Caspian or by road at the end of 1942. The exodus numbered 115,000 – that is, 45,000 soldiers, 37,000 civilians adults, and 18,000 children. Just after they crossed, the Soviet government closed the border again, preventing any more of the some 1 million Polish citizens still in the USSR from leaving.

For those Poles who reached Iran, after thousands died along the way, the emotions were overwhelming. Another survivor, Helena Woloch, recalls:

"Exhausted by hard labour, disease and starvation - barely recognizable as human beings - we disembarked at the port of Pahlavi (now Bandar-e Anzali). There, we knelt down together in our thousands along the sandy shoreline to kiss the soil of Persia. We had escaped Siberia, and were free at last. We had reached our longed-for Promised Land."

Ironically, the Poles had reached a country that itself had been occupied in late 1941 by Russia and Britain. They did so to secure its oil and keep Iran open as a supply route to the Soviet army. Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had earlier brought Iran closer to Germany, was in exile in South Africa and his son was on the throne in his place.

However, if Iranians resented the Russian and the British presence, they were sympathetic to the Polish refugees and welcomed them.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi opened his private pool to the orphans. Polish soldiers saluted Persian officers when they passed in the street. And, over time, all the orphans were relocated to Isfahan along with many Polish families because the beauty of the city was thought to be conducive for their physical and mental health.

After the Polish Army left for the Middle East, the families and children stayed on. From 1942 to 1945, there were 2,590 Polish children in Isfahan below the age of seven, living in what became a lively community which was very interested in Iranian culture.

During this time, Polish academicians in Isfahan began an Institute of Iranian Studies. And the carpet in the background of the commemorative postage stamp was woven by Polish girls in the Isfahan school of weaving.

At the end of the war, the refugees went on to Britain or to British colonies, or to the United States and Australia. But, due to a final twist of fate, none returned to Poland. That was because the Allied leaders had agreed at a meeting in Tehran in 1943 to put Poland in the Soviet Union’s orbit. It remained there until 1989.

The Polish postage stamp issued this June recalls all this history. One of the orphans, Przemek Stojakowski, is the boy on the postage stamp. On the First Day Cover that accompanies the stamp, the names of just a few of the hundreds of other orphaned children are also printed.

The stamp helps to explain several other things, too, including why Dariusz remains a popular name today for Polish boys and how the word “kish-mesh” (Persian for raisins) came into the Polish language.

But perhaps most of all, the stamp is a reminder of a universal truth. That is, the world has a long history of tragedies. But it has just as long a memory for acts of kindness.


Related Links:

Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942, by Ryszard Antolak

An Unforgettable Journey, by Maria van der Linden

Wikipedia: Anders’ Army

Polish deportees in the Soviet Union, by Michael Hope

The Polish Deportees of World War II: Recollections of Removal to the Soviet Union and Dispersal, edited by Tadeusz Piotrowski

The Institute of National Remembrance, Warsaw