History of Wood Floors
The history of wood floors is a fascinating one, to say the least. According to the encyclopedia The Elements of Style, the ground floor of most European houses still lacked a wooden floor as late as 1625! Most houses had a beaten-earth floor that required visitors to wipe their shoes on an entry mat. This was done 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. These planks were sometimes 2 feet wide, often of oak or elm.
It wasn’t until the Baroque Era (1625-1714) that wooden floors became popular, starting with the French parquetry and marquetry patterns. Illusionistic 3-D designs were made from hand-cut and laid pieces of contrasting colored hardwoods. They were then hand-scraped of their over-wood, scrubbed with sand, stained, and polished. These floors 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. Unfortunately, few of these floors survive today.
Wood Floors in America
The great abundance of wood in North America brought common use of the plank floor on the main floor of a house during the Colonial days. At last, the new Americans could get off the earthen floors and enjoy the resiliency and warmth of wooden floors.
These early wood floors were not sanded nor finished. However, because they were made out of slow-growth pine, they were simply polished smooth by the feet of generations of colonists.
By the early 19th century, more parquet patterns were showing. Wooden plank floors remained the norm and were treated with paint. In the nicer homes, floors were laid in a tongue and grove configuration. More modest houses would have boards of random widths simply nailed to the joists. The carpenter would affix a scraper to a 6 foot pole and, using his foot as weight, pull ribbons of over-wood 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.
Mass-Production of Wood Floors
Wooden floors didn’t get factory mass-produced until the American Victorian Era (1840-1910). These were not durable however, so the floors were hot waxed and buffed to a shine with the floor brush.
All that face-nailing of small strips made for a squeaky and split ridden floor. At the same time, mass produced 3/8″, 1/2″, and 3/4″ strip hardwood flooring was cheaply available at 10, 15 and 20 cents per square foot respectively.
By the 1920s and 30s, wooden floors came into competition with linoleum and cork floors, which offered a more basic geometry and less maintenance. This modern movement continued to emphasize hard and durable surfaces. Varnishes improved hardness and curing time with the addition of alkyd resin. Eventually, in the 1930s, 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 terribly expensive.
This was the time the industry tried to compete with the low price of synthetic carpeting by lowering it’s labor 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 themselves trying to install up to 1000 square feet in a day just to make 40 dollars for two guys. This was the case in high-rise apartment work that used the basic mosaic pattern parquet. Consequently, this turned the public off of these poorly laid and finished floors. Parquet was now branded as cheap and common.
Wood Floors Today
Now, after 10 years of dominating the wood flooring industry, most pre-finished manufacturers have greatly improved their quality control. Unfortunately, some of the smaller brands have tweaked their milling tolerances to the point that some of the boards will no longer fit together easily. But the finishes have improved greatly. Some of the aluminum oxide finishes should far out last most any of the site-applied finishes. I ultimately leave it to the customer to decide what flooring fits their needs. We concentrate on educating so they can make that decision confidently.