The origins of shag carpets are said to have appeared thousands of years ago, either in Central Asia or ancient Greece, based on which historians you choose to believe. Centuries later, the relevance of shag carpeting — especially wall-to-wall as it was experienced by the Boomer Generation — dates back to the end of World War II.
In pre-1940 home-carpeting history, carpeting was made by a woven process, much like the hand looming method used for centuries. Looms had become large-scale factory machinery, run first by steam and then electricity during the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s, but it still meant carpets and carpeting were an expensive proposition for the average homeowner. Then, of course, the Great Depression wasn’t helping the equation. Wall-to-wall carpeting, when it was present in a home, was a pretty good indicator that the occupants were wealthy.
After the War, the technologies used to make carpeting, like in so many other industries, were retooled and revamped with new machinery, methods and materials. By 1950, wall-to-wall carpeting in a home was not only an affordable option for young families, but became a desired aspect of the new suburban lifestyle.
Where pre-1950 carpeting was manufactured with a woven process, most often with wool fibers, post-1950 carpeting used a method called tufting, in which twisted, looped fibers were injected into a substrate, on to which a backing was added. The resulting carpet yarn loops were then cut into a style known as a Saxony pile. The most common material for carpet yarn was no longer wool, but a plethora of newly-developed polyesters. This process and material allowed for intricate and bold, colorful designs for brightening the homes of the early Baby Boomers.
Heading into the 1960s, the fibers used to make carpeting switched from polyester to nylon, and a Berber pile began to gain in popularity. In this style of carpeting, the loops of yarn were kept as is and not cut, leaving a deeper pile, and therefore appearing softer underfoot to burgeoning Baby Boomer families. The colorful patterns of the 1950s diminished into more geometric shapes, single colors or blended tones of the same color. Little by little, manufacturers experimented with the size of the carpeting loops until what we know as shag carpeting was created.
Many believe that color TV and movies of the 1960s provided the impetus for families — and by then the coming-of-age of the first boomers — to embrace the shag as a with-it and groovy addition to the modern home. As with previous carpeting, shag came in bright, jewel-tone colors. By 1970, two of the most popular shag colors were harvest yellow and teal. White was always an option, but though it looked great in a movie or in photos of a star’s home, wasn’t practical for most growing suburban families.
No discussion of shag carpeting would be complete without mentioning the van. Previously a vehicle used only for carrying cargo, the 1970s saw an explosion of vans outfitted for personal use. Shag carpeting remnants fitted in the back of the van or carried completely around the walls and roof, became de rigueur.
Mister Boomer, like most boomers, saw shag carpeting in various forms, though his family never had it in their home. For Mister B, shag was impractical, matted down easily simply by walking on it, and, because the loops were so much larger than other styles, got dirty much faster. He especially observed this fact in the back of vans where a “if this van’s a rockin’, don’t come knockin'” bumper sticker might be present. Mister B hesitated to enter vans that had shag carpeting, wondering what evil lurked in the fibers.
By the end of the 1970s shag carpeting had waned in popularity, though it never fully disappeared. Now it seems to be attracting the attention of a whole new generation. If every generation wants something different than the generation before it, then the cyclical nature of home decor — like fashion — will be poised to embrace a resurgence of shagginess on floors to replace the current hardwood trend, which in turn was popular before the Baby Boomers. As far as Mister B is concerned, that will not be progress.
What has been your relationship to shag carpeting, boomers?