Since there have been rugs, there has been the desire to clean them properly. For hundreds of years, hanging the rug up and beating on it with a rug beater bar was the most efficient way to clean them.
Historic Carpet Cleaning Methods
One great source of information on the beginnings of carpet cleaning is a file that you can download from the internet that was compiled by John Burrows of the J.R. Burrows & Company, a historical merchants company. Their report, entitled HISTORIC CARPET CLEANING METHODS IN THE NINETEENTH AND TWENTIETH CENTURIES goes into great detail about carpet cleaning in homes starting in 1827. You can download this compilation here: http://burrows.com/carpetcleaning/index.html
In fact several of the paintings that they show in this report clearly show carpet installed wall to wall from that period forward. According to Burrow’s, one of the most common strategies of keeping carpets clean in the early nineteenth century was to use druggets, heavy woolen goods spread under tables to protect carpet from spills. They are sometimes called crumb cloths. In addition to dining rooms they were used in other areas of heavy wear. E.V. Rippingille painted The Young Trio in 1829 showing a drugget protecting carpet in a parlor where children are at play. Photographic documentation shows wall-to-wall carpet covered during the summer months, and also for special receptions.
This image of the Seward House Drawing Room shows a checked design cloth covering the complete room, slip covers on the chairs, and the heavy draperies removed for the summer. This room retains the original 19th century carpet that is being protected by the summer covering in this view.
Photographs in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society show a pair of parlors in the 1890s with wall-to-wall carpet completely covered with white canvas, stretched and tacked down, for a wedding reception. This extreme effort to protect carpets from sunlight and dirt indicate the high value placed on carpets at that time.
In 1827, instructions to “restore carpets to their first bloom were to beat your carpets with your carpet rods until perfectly clean from dust, then if there be any ink spots take it out with a lemon, and if oil spots, take out as in the foregoing receipt, observing to rinse with clean water; then take a hot loaf of white bread, split down the centre, having the top and bottom crust one on each half, with this rub your carpet extremely well over, then hang it out on or across a line with the right side out; should the night be fine, leave it out all night, and if the weather be clear, leave it out for two or three such nights, then sweep it with a clean corn broom, and it will look as when first new.”
Carpet owners concerns about the presence of pets on the carpet isn’t an invented worry of our generation either. In 1834 in Recollections of a Housekeeper By Mrs. Clarissa Packard in a chapter entitled “A Struggle for Power.” Mrs. Packard describes her feelings about the presence of her husband’s office dog in the home. The types of carpet and rugs in her house is mentioned. Velvet cut pile Wilton carpet was one of the most expensive weaves in the 1830s and were highly prized.
In 1863 directions for sweeping carpets were: “Persons who are accustomed to use tea leaves for sweeping their carpets, and find that they leave stains, will do well to employ fresh cut grass instead. It is better than tea leaves for preventing dust, and gives the carpets a very bright fresh look.”
In 1869, the care of rooms called for: “Unless a parlor is in constant use, it is best to sweep it only once a week, and at other times use a whisk-broom and dust-pan. When a parlor with handsome furniture is to be swept, cover the sofas, centre table, piano, books, and mantelpiece with old cottons kept for the purpose. Remove the rugs and shake them, and clean the jambs, hearth, and fire-furniture. Then sweep the room, moving every article. ”
In 1879, Burrows found the first reference to cleaning and stain and spot removal that went beyond sweeping or beating: To wash carpets “Shake, beat, and sweep well. Tack firmly on the floor. Mix three quarts soft, cold water with one quart beef’s gall. Wash with a flannel, rub off with a clean flannel, immediately after putting it on each strip of carpet,” – Mrs. R.
Beef’s gall would have been a derivative of their bile. I am not sure what the cleaning results would be of using bile. Today it is used in some societies for medicinal purposes.
“Carpets should be washed in spots, with a brush or flannel, one tablespoonful ox-gall in one or two quarts water.” – Mrs. A.
There were even spot removal instructions: “To Remove Ink from Carpets – Take up the ink with a spoon. Pour cold water on the stained spot, take up the water with a spoon, and repeat this process frequently. Then rub on a little oxalic acid and wash off immediately with cold water. Then wet with hartshorn.” – Mrs. R. from the book Housekeeping in Old Virginia, edited by Marion Cabell Tyree. Louisville, Ky.: John P. Morton and Company, 1879.
Oxalic acid is still used today in some rust removing solutions.
In 1884, there was the first mention of using dry cleaning to clean the carpet. Cleansing Carpets (Naphta Process). – “This is regarded as the surest and most satisfactory, where there is the slightest suspicion of moth eggs or worms. It is especially adapted to pile carpets. Caution should be exercised as to the purity and clearness of the naphtha used, and the thorough extraction of the grease, else the dirt adheres more easily than before. Where carpets are to remain on storage some time, the odor can be left in the carpet if desired. A more through cleansing can be assured by having the carpet beaten first. A surface application of naphtha will drive the impurities through the article, to be absorbed by that which is under it.”S ounds like rapid resoiling was even seen as an issue in 1884. These instructions came from a carpet retailer in Boston: Carpet Notes, John Pray, Sons & Co., Boston 1884
From The Household, A Cyclopaedia of Practical Hints for Modern Homes, edited by May Perrin Goff. Detroit, Mich.: The Detroit Free Press Publishing Company, 1886: “After a Carpet has been well beaten and the floor perfectly dry, it can be nailed down tightly, and then the soiled portions can be cleaned with two quarts of cold water with a bullock’s gall dissolved in it. Put on with a soft brush and wipe dry with a clean cloth. Potter’s clay mixed as a past (thick) with water and spread on with a knife, wet, will clean them nicely. Cover over with several thicknesses of heavy brown paper, leaving it for a day or two; then brush off. If not entirely removed, apply again. It never fails when properly used. If spots of grease are upon them, saturate the spot with spirits of turpentine and let it remain several hours; then rub it between the hands. It will crumble away without injuring the color or texture. When a color has been destroyed by acid (unless some shade of red), ammonia will neutralize the acid, and chloroform will restore the original color. A solution of oxalic acid crystals, one part by measure to eight of soft water, will entirely remove dry ink stains. The goods must be afterwards thoroughly washed, as the acid destroys the cloth. If a carpet is thick, like those of Brussels or Axminster, and is much soiled, take a clean mop and dip it into warmish water, to which one teaspoonful of ammonia has been added to each quart. Wring out the mop as dry as possible, and rub it over the carpet in breadths. When the water becomes soiled, take a fresh supply.” “Benzine will eradicate moths in the carpets the same as in furniture. Avoid using it near the fire, or in a room where a light is burning. Alum is also certain death to all insects. Dissolve it in proportion of one tablespoonful to a quart of water….”
It wasn’t until 1920 that Burrows found a discussion of using vacuum sweepers or vacuum cleaners.
Then finally, in 1934, we see the use of what could now recognize as a professional carpet cleaning method:
1934 Shampooing a Rug
“A rug can be shampooed in the house, although conditions are better when done outdoors. There are needed an ample supply of soap jelly, a large bowl, an egg beater, a soft scrub brush, 2 pails of clean water, and a number of clean cloths.The rug should be thoroughly cleaned on both sides, preferably with a vacuum cleaner; if the work is to be done in the house, the floor beneath should also be cleaned. The rug can be shampooed lying on the floor, but there is greater convenience in having a small table over which it can be drawn section by section.
A quantity of soap jelly is placed in the bowl and beaten to a stiff lather resembling whipped cream. This is applied with the brush to a section of the rug not over 2 feet square and rubbed in with a circular motion; more lather is added as required. When the section is clean, the lather is wiped off with a damp cloth, the space again gone over with another clean cloth wrung out in clean water in the second pail and wiped with a dry cloth. An adjoining section of the rug is then shampooed, with care to work over the edge of the first to prevent the leaving of an unwashed streak. When cleaned, the rug should be hung outdoors in the shade to dry. Should this not be possible, it should be supported on chair backs, and all windows opened to admit plenty of air. When dry, the nap should be brushed in one direction with a stiff broom. “ [Note: no cleaning method is given for wall to wall carpet, which had fallen from style in the 1920s-30s.] First Aid for The Ailing House, Roger B. Whitman, New York: Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1934.