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.
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.
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.