The History of Hardwood Floors

October 8, 2015 - 6:33am
early wood flooring

The modest beginnings of wood floors began in the Middle Ages, but they did not resemble what we have today.   Those floors were rustic planks cut by axe and adz to measure the approximate same width and length. It was not until the Baroque Age that floors became more elegant and diverse. The parquet de menuiserie (woodwork parquet) was designed and even replaced some of the marble floors in Versailles in 1684.  These floors were so expensive they were only available to royalty and the affluent.   

So what happened to change that?  In North America, it was the abundance of supply.  The timber was close by and easy to access.  The colonial homes started with slow growing pine planks.  They left the wood raw only polished smooth by the wear of everyday foot traffic.   

As our nation expanded, the demand for better housing increased. Homes needed economical flooring that could meet the supply and demand. The industrial age gave us the invention power-driven machines, steam engines and electricity.  This helped create the wood floor industry.  Now manufactures had the ability to mass-produce wood planks.

The use of oak became standard with the early manufactures because of its availability.  Many of the manufactures were located in our southern states as it was near the raw-material source.  It also provided the climatic advantage to air dray the raw lumber.  The flooring mills depended on nearby timber stands where trees where cut down, sawed by portable mills into rough boards and stacked in fields to dry for four to six months. 

rough wood

When the wood sufficiently aged, they hauled it by house-drawn wagons to the flooring mill for kiln drying and manufacture finishes.  With the development of trucks and roads the wood supply and range of shipping was increased.  The actual peak in the Oak Floor Industry came in 1956 with 47 manufactures producing over a billion feet of product.

In the early 1900’s manufacturers introduced “wood carpeting” that would allow anyone with carpentry skills to install it.  This carpet came in rolls about three feet wide of wood slats glued to heavy cotton canvas. To install it you had to tack down each board every foot or so, fill the cracks, sand it and apply a finish. Sounded great, but the final product was not a durable as claimed.  The floors often turned out split ridden and squeaky.  An invention about that time was tongue and groove planks.  This allowed the interlocking boards to be nailed together minimizing gaps and unleveled floors. 

Things changed in the post-war era, when houses were in mass production.  The goal became how to make things less expensive.  Builders started using concrete slab foundations rather than conventional crawl spaces.   The slab construction created the need for subflooring to nail down the wood floors.  Then the invention of synthetic fiber in tufted carpet allowed factories to create wall-to wall carpet.  It was inexpensive and could be installed directly over the concrete surfaces.  Loan companies such as FHA even got on board including carpet as the only floor surface in their 20-30 year mortgages. The wood floor manufacturers struggled and many closed down.  Others turned to furniture, cabinet making and lumber supply. 

Starting in the late 1980’s, the hardwood flooring industry started to rebuild. It took many changes to reclaim the flooring market.  These changes included the invention of engineered floors, new glue products that allowed floors to adhere to concrete, prefinished flooring, exotic wood choices and even environment friendly products.   Today the choice of finishes and wood species is at an extraordinary level.  The prices are affordable for even borders, inlays and specialty patterns.  You now have the choice of installing prefinished floors or selecting solid wood and having our experts apply the color and finish you want.

Hardwood floors