Alison Sofield, Collections Volunteer
In Victorian times, it was a familiar sight in the backyard of many homes, rich and poor alike, to see a woman with a rug beater in hand beating the daylights out of dusty carpets laid over a line. Rugs and pieces of carpet or even animal skins were the common floor coverings in those times, fitted carpets came much later.
The beater was a common household item and they came in many shapes and forms and were usually made of wood, rattan, cane, spring steel or coiled wire. Sometimes mats or rugs were laid out on snowy lawns and beaten so the dirt and dust could be captured by the snow. My research threw up the interesting fact that some towns banned this practice as it left the snow looking less than pristine. Hard to believe.
Rug beaters were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, however with the advance of fitted carpets and vacuum cleaners by the 1950s beaters were mostly to be found in antique shops as more of a curio.
Beaters originated in Europe, in Holland and Germany, though America often claims they were invented on their continent. Handmade domestic items such as clothes pegs and beaters were often cottage industry based, made by gypsies or religious communities.
The Shakers are one such example of a religious sect. To give them their full title, “The Society of Believers in Christs Second Appearing”, begun in 1774, in England, whose followers then immigrated to America in the 1780s. The Shakers believed in communal ownership of property, equal rights for women and pacifism and were known for their loud and enthusiastic forms of worship. They supported themselves by the making of furniture and domestic items, among them, rug beaters.
The Shaker movement had dwindled away by the 1920s. There is only one active community of Shakers left in America as of 2019 and it is still producing their distinctive, very simplistic furniture with clean lines and tapered legs usually in maple or cherry wood. Many Shaker villages now exist as museums. Today if the provenance can be proven to be early Shaker, items can fetch very fancy prices even for things such as the humble carpet beater.
The Whangārei Museum has several beaters in its collections, one of which is pictured above. All made of rattan, with the paddle or head twisted into interesting shapes with handles of varying lengths.
In 1895, America, woven cane carpet beaters, a metre long, were sold for 18 cents each (roughly 27 cents NZ) and was advertised to “last a lifetime”. Perhaps that is why they keep turning up in antique shops so frequently.