Penny rugs were originally made from scraps of wool fabric or felt, as they were an economical way of using pieces that were too small to braid or hook. 19th century women saved scraps from men’s suits, hats or blankets. Named “Penny Rugs” because coins were used as a template, coin sized circles were cut and then stitched on top of larger circles using a blanket stitch. These medallions were then stitched onto a backing material, burlap, canvas or recycled pants’ material.
Penny rugs were popularized on the 1800’s around the time of the Civil War and they had a variety of uses. Some were mostly decorative, as a table mat under a candle or a pillow cover. The blanket stitch helped to strengthen the rugs and enable them to withstand being beaten with a rug beater, for some were placed in front of the fireplace hearth to protect floors from burning logs. Eventually women used the penny rug style to create a colorful folk art tradition that used remnants, colorful thread and elaborate stitching to tell stories and depict various scenes and landscapes.
Our penny rug is oval in shape, the circular medallions show off the maker’s hand. Many are off-center and the combination of the color-scheme and the asymmetrical overall patterns gives it a whimsical feeling. The medallions are sewn onto a thick grey background and this is then sewn onto an olive-green backing, which has also been pieced together. The entire rug is bordered with braided remnants which adds to the handmade quality.
Florence Richardson Rich, the donor of this unique rug, lived in Wellfleet in the 1930’s and through most of her life until she passed in 2004. She was a talented and creative rug designer and maker. She dyed her own wool, and her designs were subtle and complex. She sold her rugs at the Arts and Crafts Gallery that she opened in the 50’s. She did not make Penny Rugs, but she collected this one and she generously donated it to the Historical Society in 1979.