Shop Etsy

History Lesson: Libby Prison Bloodhound Hooked Rug

Oct 17, 2012

by Jeni Sandberg

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Jeni Sandberg is a dealer, appraiser and consultant in 20th century design. She has worked in museums, was a Senior Specialist at Christie’s, and also appears on WGBH’s Antiques Roadshow. She writes about fun objects on her blog. In this series, she will explore the history of decorative objects. The first subject: this handmade Libby Prison bloodhound hook rug, constructed circa 1890.

It’s easy to take rugs for granted today, but in the 18th century, textiles in American homes were costly and not generally used for floor coverings, though you might find a rug used for a bed or table cover. Early settlers brought techniques from their homelands, and floor rugs from the 19th century were often a combination of embroidery, applique, braided, knitted, crocheted, shirred and woven techniques. The hooked rug, though, is generally considered to have developed in America.

Hooked rugs were made by drawing narrow strips of wool fabric or wool yarn through a coarse ground cloth with a hook. The resulting pile could be cut or left looped. Textiles were costly, so scraps from old wool clothing and upholstery were often used — an excellent and artful means of upcycling. Popular motifs included bouquets of flowers, animals, and geometric patterns, all executed in colors that often varied with their availability.

Not Forgotten Farm

From Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, 1887

By the 1850s, the popularity of these handmade rugs was noted by clever manufacturers, who devised ways to simplify the laborious process with new tools and make ornate patterns available to those who were not so artistically inclined. In 1868, Edward Sands Frost of Maine introduced the first of his hooked rug patterns printed on jute burlap and met with immediate success. His repertoire expanded to more than a hundred patterns.

Others emulated Frost’s work, including Ebenezer Ross of Toledo, Ohio. In the 1880s, Ross developed a punch tool that allowed a continuous yarn to be quickly tufted through the ground cloth, thus speeding the time-consuming process of making a rug. Ross also adapted many of Frost’s rug patterns and added more of his own, and his printed burlap designs were available through mail order.

This hooked rug was made from one of Ross’s patterns from the 1890s and depicts a large standing dog surrounded by a border of what appear to be tobacco leaves and the title “Libby Prison Blood Hound.” Ross clearly copied the image of the dog from a contemporary print source, which in turn was likely taken from a photograph. The dog has the same fearsome stance and harness in both the print and executed rug.

During the American Civil War, Libby was a notorious prison for Union soldiers in Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the Confederacy. Between 1862 and 1865, the Richmond prison held more than 50,000 Union captives, and disease, starvation and death were commonplace within the walls of the former tobacco warehouse.

National Parks Service/Library of Congress

Hero the dog.

Of some repute at the prison was the commandant’s dog, Hero. A massive black dog, Hero reportedly belonged to Joseph Carrington Mayo, the mayor of Richmond, who loaned the dog to the prison for added security. The dog was described by the Richmond Whig in 1865 as measuring 7 feet long from tip to tail and weighing nearly 200 pounds. Hero’s exact breed was a bit murky — most often called a Russian bloodhound, he may have been a Bavarian boar hound or a type of mastiff.

While Hero’s size was undisputed, his temperament was a bit more of a question. Those who ran the prison naturally wanted to promote the notion of Hero as a vicious guard dog with a taste for blood in order to promote order among the incarcerated. However, at least one contemporary account by Reverend J. L. Burrows described Hero as “one of the best natured hounds whose head I ever patted, and one of the most cowardly…I never heard that he bit anything but the bones that were thrown him, and he was quite a playfellow with the prisoners…”

So was Hero a vicious man eater or playful pooch? Which is more appropriate to immortalize on a handmade rug? Ross produced this rug pattern more than 25 years after the end of the Civil War, at a time when commemoration of the event was forefront in the public’s mind. Civil War monuments were going up all over the country in the late 19th century and, in 1889, Chicago even saw the opening of the Libby Prison War Museum. This popular attraction housed one man’s collection of Civil War artifacts and other curiosities, with the Southern prison taking center stage. Some who used this pattern omitted the title when creating the rug, which eliminated the direct connection to the Civil War. Today, though, we can see the rug as a valuable piece of 19th century history.

3 Featured Comments

  • MinaMinette

    Jan Penn from MinaMinette said 4 years ago Featured

    I've always appreciated hooked rugs for their graphic punch and wonderful colors, and making one someday is on my bucket list! Thank you for sharing the history behind this one. I love it when history, necessity and art all come together!

  • lkmccray

    Linzee from lkmccray said 4 years ago Featured

    Dogs. History. Textiles. Thanks for a fascinating post about some of my favorite subjects!

  • thewoodendarner

    kathy said 4 years ago Featured

    As a hooker I loved the history of both the rug and the designer. I also spent some time in your shop and at your blog. I learned a ton, I'll be a regular! Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

56 comments

  • maggiesraggedyinn

    Mary Robertson from MaggiesInn said 4 years ago

    I really enjoyed this post. I have 3 books on rug hooking in my library and reading this just rekindles my desire to hook again. This was so interesting... thank you!!!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 4 years ago

    As a Great Dane owner, I like the thought of Hero as a gentle giant, showing the prisoners a little love & gentleness amongst all the hardship & squalour... although I understand that the authorities wouldn't want to stress that side of his nature!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 4 years ago

    Here in the north east hook rugs are called clippy mats, I must say that I've always loved them because of how colourful they can be!

  • auntjanecan

    Jane Priser from JanePriserArts said 4 years ago

    This is historically interesting. I enjoyed reading about different rug techniques and about Hero.

  • bosquecarpentry

    Gabriel Montes from bosquecarpentry said 4 years ago

    I love rugs. It is so interesting to me to learn more about this American way of making them.

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie said 4 years ago

    Nice!

  • OurBrand

    Katy and Kyle from OurBrand said 4 years ago

    I never realized how much history a rug can have. Thanks for the read !

  • cberez

    CB DESIGN'S from CBDesignsPR said 4 years ago

    It is very interesting. Thanks for sharing

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 4 years ago

    Great read! Thanks for sharing!

  • KMalinka

    Natalia from KMalinkaVintage said 4 years ago

    Awesome article:O)

  • VintageMarketPlace

    VintageMarketPlace from VintageMarketPlace said 4 years ago

    Love the history here. I have always wanted to learn this form of art. Back home there is a little hook rug shop that teaches the primitive style from scraps of wool.

  • myneedlehabit

    Carla Hansen from myneedlehabit said 4 years ago

    Fascinating.

  • lythamsnowdrops

    Lauren Kinter from lythamsnowdrops said 4 years ago

    Interesting. My ancestor, Thomas O'dear, and his brother, John O'dear, were incarcerated there in 1862-63 as prisoners of war during the Civil War. I wonder if they saw him.

  • lythamsnowdrops

    Lauren Kinter from lythamsnowdrops said 4 years ago

    They were later sent to the infamous Andersonville Prison camp in Georgia, where Thomas died of disease and is buried.

  • anotherghostquilts

    Nancy from anotherghostquilts said 4 years ago

    Very interesting. thanks!

  • leeannasjewerybox

    Leeanna from LeeannasJewelryBox said 4 years ago

    I made hooked rugs as a child, this article brought back some of those memories. Thanks.

  • birdie1

    Laurie from BirdinHandVTG said 4 years ago

    So fascinating! Am I missing the appraisal? Didn't see it mentioned.

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 4 years ago

    Pretty!

  • MinaMinette

    Jan Penn from MinaMinette said 4 years ago Featured

    I've always appreciated hooked rugs for their graphic punch and wonderful colors, and making one someday is on my bucket list! Thank you for sharing the history behind this one. I love it when history, necessity and art all come together!

  • LoveButtons

    Julia K Walton from JKWaltonCollages said 4 years ago

    A fascinating story and a beautiful rug.

  • reflectionsjewelry

    Emily Delfin from reflectionsjewelry said 4 years ago

    What an interesting story!

  • SuzisPillowStudio

    Suzi from ThePillowStudioShop said 4 years ago

    Look at that, I even learned a little history today! Thanks so much.

  • recycledwares

    Nerrissa W from RecycledWares said 4 years ago

    I would like to think Hero was a playful, fun dog. Thanks for the history.

  • ProfessorTiny

    Susan Sanford from ProfessorTiny said 4 years ago

    Lovely read, I enjoy the dog's good nature winning out over his public relations spin.

  • InnerWild

    Flora from InnerWild said 4 years ago

    what a timelessly beautiful rug. love this article, thank you Jeni.

  • meganwms

    m w from DCCuriosityShop said 4 years ago

    I used to live in Richmond, but I never knew this bit of history. Gotta love the pooch rug back-story. Thanks!

  • sandboxcastle

    H Wang from sandboxcastle said 4 years ago

    Beautiful rug and great story :3 What a fun read!

  • PotatoFace

    Sarrah Riddle from PotatoFace said 4 years ago

    I love hooking rugs and love to see the craft celebrated!

  • knitfitt

    Cate Fitt said 4 years ago

    Looking forward to future posts. This one is right up my alley. Thanks.

  • paramountvintage

    kristin from blackmoonsky said 4 years ago

    I love this story. It has all of my favorite things... History, vintage textiles, and dogs! Thanks for sharing :)

  • ljersey

    Lisa Jersey from JerseyGirlTrinkets said 4 years ago

    How interesting! Love it!

  • messinabella

    messinabella from BandBEstate said 4 years ago

    Very interesting!

  • cbarjcrafts

    Christina from ThreeDogFarmStudio said 4 years ago

    Love getting a history lesson while on etsy!

  • libbyaddington

    Libby Addington said 4 years ago

    what a great read!!! thanks for the history lesson!

  • devildingo

    Devil Dingo from Devildingocafe said 4 years ago

    We sure wish we could take a nap on that fabulous Libby rug! Hey, someone should weave one of us!

  • rolantomassi

    rolan tomassi said 4 years ago

    They sure did commemorate some strange stuff back then. Why, I figure someone with enough gumption could do a pretty fair piece of writing on the more peculiar commemorative items alone. I would buy a book on that.

  • KellyColemanCoursey

    Kelly Coleman Coursey from KellyColemanCoursey said 4 years ago

    Love this! Hero is a dead ringer for my Great Dane Bo!

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth said 4 years ago

    I would love to learn an art like this. Love it. ♥♥♥

  • QuirkMuseum

    Michael Quirk from QuirkMuseum said 4 years ago

    I've seen a few unique hooked rugs before, but this one is pretty cool. My sister has a hooked rug I always liked depicting a salmon swimming in blue and gray waters.

  • AntoinettesWhims

    Antoinette from AntoinettesWhims said 4 years ago

    I loved hearing the history of the rug, who designed it and the story of the dog. I'm not sure the prisoners were playing with the dog though. My mother is the curator of a local museum which has an old photo album of a handful of officers who managed to survive 9 months of imprisonment there. Here is some more info about the prison... Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia was created in 1862 from three vacant warehouse buildings. Originally intended for 1,000 prisoners, the buildings held up to 4,200 men at one time. Prisoners were confined to the two top floors that were stifling hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. Overcrowding and lack of food and heat led to disease and death. Illnesses such as scurvy, chronic diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid pneumonia killed several men a day. Bodies were piled in a cellar until a wagon-load was accumulated and carted away. The death toll at Libby Prison is unknown; Confederate officials burned all the prison records at the end of the war.

  • peshka

    Peshka from Peshka said 4 years ago

    Love this! Thanks!

  • brooksbarrow

    brooks barrow from brooksbarrow said 4 years ago

    Interesting read - thanks!

  • alexanderspear1

    alexander spear said 4 years ago

    i like it

  • lkmccray

    Linzee from lkmccray said 4 years ago Featured

    Dogs. History. Textiles. Thanks for a fascinating post about some of my favorite subjects!

  • EnterpriseAmericana

    Enterprise Americana from EnterpriseAmericana said 4 years ago

    What an interesting article!!!

  • thewoodendarner

    kathy said 4 years ago Featured

    As a hooker I loved the history of both the rug and the designer. I also spent some time in your shop and at your blog. I learned a ton, I'll be a regular! Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

  • cberez

    CB DESIGN'S from CBDesignsPR said 4 years ago

    very interesting, thanks for sharing!

  • muziKant
  • goldiesnaturalgems

    Kathleen Paschal and Sheena Ingram from GoldiesNaturalGems said 4 years ago

    I used to hook in high school... that is such a weird sentence, but you guys know what I mean. Sometimes I'd use kits and sometimes I'd draw my own or free form it, just adding a color until I thought it was enough. Everyone in my family and half my friends had one, probably still do. It's cool to learn about the diverse history of an American tradition that I contributed to in my humble way. Thanks Jeni!

  • vlslvs2go

    vlslvs2go said 4 years ago

    History, dogs and textiles... what's not to love about this well written article? I have been captivated by decorative arts for decades and knowing the more personal aspect of an object makes it all the more valuble to me. More please!!!

  • lauraprilltoo

    Laura Prill from lauraprilltoo said 4 years ago

    Hero is so impressive!

  • LostInTheValley

    LostInTheValley from LostInTheValleyPhoto said 4 years ago

    Wonderful blog post!

  • alexanderspear1

    alexander spear said 4 years ago

    Dogs are the most beloved pets in the world and they are very loyal as compared to any other pets. http://secretclassroomreview.freeblog.biz/

  • alexanderspear1

    alexander spear said 4 years ago

    http://secretclassroomreview.freeblog.biz/

  • youngfolk1314

    Ribo Flavour from riboflavour said 4 years ago

    nice story!

  • GradCafe

    Lydia Ferguson from GradCafe said 3 years ago

    Wow! This is pretty amazing. I'm actually researching this dog's breed in relation to 19th century performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Could you tell me where you verified E. Ross & Co. as the pattern maker? All I can find are archived pattern books from 1889 and 1891, neither of which has this pattern. Any info on the rug's particular history would be greatly appreciated!

Sign in to add your own