A Brief History Of Wood Floors

According to “THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE” encyclopedia as late as 1625 the ground floor of most European houses still lacked a wooden floor. Most houses had a beaten earth floor that required visitors to wipe their shoes on a entry mat to prevent this natural floor from getting muddy or dusty depending on the weather. The second floor, if you could afford one, had wooden joists and plank flooring sometimes 2 feet wide of oak or elm.

It wasn’t until the Barouque Era (1625-1714) that wooden floors became elegant, starting with the French parquetry and marquetry patterns. Illusionistic 3D designs were made from hand cut and laid pieces of contrasting coloured hardwoods. They were then hand scraped of their overwood, scrubbed with sand, stained and polished. These were only found in the most affluent and royal homes of their time. Some of the merchant class would imitate this by painting a plank floor with designs, but few of these floors survive today.

The great abundance of wood in North America brought common use of the plank floor on the main floor during the Colonial Era (1607-1780). At last the new Americans could get off the earthen floors and enjoy the resiliency and warmth of wooden floors.

These floors were not sanded or finisished, but because they were made out of slow growth pine, they were simply polished smooth by the feet of generations of colonists.

By the early 19 th century more parquet patterns were showing up, but only in the richest of rooms. Wooden plank floors remianed the norm and were treated with paint, and in the better homes laid in a tongue and grove configuration. More modest houses would have random width boards simply face nailed to the joists. The advent of the T. and G. meant the boards could be leveled before they were painted. The carpenter would affix a scraper to a 6 foot pole and using his foot as weight, pull ribbons of overwood off the edges of the boards. A final hand sanding, a good shellacking, and a team of servants to wax and buff the floor made these floors glow. All this was labour intensive but at the starvation wages paid to help those days why not if you had the bucks.

Wooden floors didn’t get factory mass produced until the American Victorian Era (1840-1910) and then only late in this era. A 1903 E. L. Roberts catalog shows “wood carpeting” consisting of 1 1/2″ by 5/16″ strips glued to a heavy cotton canvas. These came in rolls about 3 feet wide and were installed by tacking down each board every foot or so. They suggested many patterns of installation, most with fancy parquetry borders. Each of these small brads had to be set below the surface and filled. All these pieces were then scraped, sanded with the hand operated floor brush. This was a 25 pound block with natural bristles on it’s bottom. A broom handle attached, you pushed it across the floor, with sandpaper strapped to it. Slow but effective. Varnishes were usually slow curing tung oils introduced from China. These were not durable in themselves so the floors were hot waxed and buffed to a shine with the floor brush.

The factory mills said in their ads “Any one familiar with the use of a saw, hammer and varnish brush can lay and finish them. A servant of average intelligence can keep parquetry floors as if they were newly laid with but little effort” Sure and at 10 cents an hour why not ? These floors were touted as easy to install and yet as elegant as the time proven European parquetry. But few of these floors survive today. All that face nailing of small strips made for a sqeaky and split ridden floor. At the same time mass produced 3/8″, 1/2″, 3/4″ strip hardwood flooring was cheaply available at 10, 15 and 20 cents per square foot respectivly. Why most folk in this city of Toronto chose the 3/8″ strip (saving about 80 dollars in the average house) I have no idea. A poor choice of hardwood by one generation is then foisted on the next. Most of the 3/4″ strip floor on the other hand is still around and is being carefully and happily restored by this generation.

By the Edwardian Era (1901-1914) wooden tongue and grove floor boards were the most popular domestic flooring. Parquetry patterns were found framing the edges of carpet (back then carpet was much more expensive than wood). Block hardwood floor could be laid on top of concrete using hot tar as an adhesive. Some block floors survive today and can be removed, cleaned of the tar and relaid in a modern mastic. Herringbone is a similar form of tongue and grove type floor popular in this era.

By the 1920’s and 30’s wooden floors came into competion with linoleum and cork floors, which offered a more basic geometry, and less maintenance. This modern movement continued to emphisize hard durable surfaces. Varnishes improved hardness and curing time with the addition of alkyd resin and in the 1930’s polyurethane was the ideal no-wax finish for floors. This allowed wood to play a prominent role throughout the Modern Era (1920-1950). Even then wall to wall carpeting was still terribly expensive.

The close of World War Two brought a housing boom which ironically spelled doom for the wood floor trade. New housing built for the vets could have the broadloom cost included in the loan. So although for a while hardwood was still laid, sanded and finished it was promptly covered up with wall to wall carpet before the new owners moved in. And soon with the use of plywood as a subfloor they just forgot about the hardwood altogether. So for about 30 years (1950-1980) the wood flooring industry struggled just for survival, most companies had to install carpet to stay in busines at all.

This was the time the industry tried to compete with the low price of synthetic carpeting by lowering it’s labour standards. For years the production installer got faster and sloppier and piece work payment dropped in 1970 from 6 to 4 cents a square foot for a parquet installation. The workers found thenselves trying to install up to 1000 square feet in a day just to make 40 bucks, for two guys. This was the highrise apartment work that used the basic mosaic pattern parquet. This turned the public off these poorly laid and finished floors. Parquet was now branded as cheap and common.

When I first started my business I got as little as 17 cents per square foot to sand and refinish these floors, and to my surprise we got undercut on this price in 1980. A lot of production but not much quality at these prices.

Prefinished flooring had already been around for some time. With the downgrading of skills (and in some regions lack of any floor sanders) by the late 1980’s prefinished grew in popularity until they make up at least half the newly installed hardwood floors today. Prefinished started out employing deep V groove at the edges of the planks but as customers demanded a smoother floor those edges became only slightly chamfered. I learned of several large jobs that used this “eased edge” flooring. In just a few months edge splinters developed and well known manufactures found themselves in warranty disputes. In the early 90’s one of my own jobs developed this same problem and all I could provide my customer was my sympathy and a touch up kit. As long as the defects didn’t involve more than 5 % of the total floor the warranty was totaly useless. At best the warranty provided only for the supply of some new material, not it’s more expensive and time consuming repair.

Now after 10 years of dominating the wood flooring industry most prefinished manufactures have greatly improved their quality control. Unfortunately some of the smaller brands have tweaked their milling tolerences to the point that some of the boards will no longer fit together easily. But the finishes have improved greatly . Some of the aluminun oxide finishes should far out last most any of the site applied finishes. But I’m sorry I still prefer the smooth, warm glow of a finished on site hardwood floor. The bumpy feel of a prefinished floor with it’s “paneled” visual effect leaves me cold. Each board reflects the light at a different angle giving these floors an unnatural appearance. But I am totally biased, make your own choice.