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How Hardwood Became America’s Favorite Flooring: A Popular History

Hardwood and the Rise of the American Middle Class

Roman Radiant heat infoBefore the 1600s: Europe
Hardwood is not for floors

Before the 1600s, wood flooring was not a thing.  This is not to say that no floors were made of wood, but most were made of dirt or stone.  In the more densely populated urban centers, where two-story buildings had begun to be constructed, the second floors were, of course, made of wood (usually oak or elm planks about 2 feet wide), but this was a matter of practicality, and little thought was given to them beyond this.

Baroque Era (the mid-1600s to early 1700s)
Hardwood is for Royal floors

It was not until the Baroque era that wood flooring came to be a matter of fashion; this was in no small part due to Louis XIV’s choice to install elegant parquet floors in the Palace at Versailles.  From that point forward, the royalty and very wealthy of Europe followed suit and fancy wood floors, some sporting 3D illusions, others modeled after those at Versailles, and others a bit simpler.

King’s Apartment, Versailles

Hardwood Flooring in Kings Apartment, Versailles via @macwoods

Floors like this one in one of the King’s apartments at Versailles started a craze that hasn’t stopped.  Throughout the areas of the Palace constructed by Louis XIV, parquet designs, many even more intricate than this, can still be found adorning the floors.  One of these, the parquet design in the Hall of Mirrors, is famous for the way it changes from light to dark, depending on the angle from which one views it. Parquet tiles in style shown here are still called “Versailles Parquet.”

These floors were laid over periods of several years by expert artisans, with each inlay or pattern piece carefully hand-crafted and placed. Once placed, any outlying bits would be scraped off; then the whole floor would be scrubbed with sand and polished to a shine.

During this time it became common among the burgeoning merchant class to install wood flooring that could be painted to imitate the ornate parquet floors that only the very wealthy could afford to construct.  While many of the parquet floors of the palaces and estates survive today, few of the painted imitations can still be found.

Colonial Era in North America (the 1700s)
Hardwood floors are for colonists

When European colonists began to arrive in North America, they were quick to take advantage of any number of the continent’s abundant natural resources.  One of these was its vast native hardwood forests.  Very soon, hardwood flooring was no longer for the rich.

The earliest colonial homes featured very basic plank floors made from local hardwoods or slow-growth pine.  Because of the age and consequent size of these trees, they contained more of the tight-grained heartwood.  This tight grain made the wood harder and more durable than the younger trees usually harvested today.  These massive trees also tended to yield wider planks, which, rather than being finished, would merely be worn smooth over time.

An article from Old House Online describes how these planks were made:

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Converting the timber into usable lumber was an arduous process; the introduction of the circular saw was decades away, and the predominant method available to create dimensional boards was to pit-saw the logs into planks. This required two men: One stood in a pit beneath a huge log that had been squared with hand tools, while the other perched atop it. Working together, they pushed and pulled at opposite ends of a long-bladed saw, carefully following chalk lines that indicated the direction of the cut. These rough-sawn planks were finished with plain, squared edges; laid side by side; and face-nailed into the floor joists. The lumber was often left bare and was eventually burnished by years of use.

One of the most remarkable enduring examples of this early colonial flooring can still be seen in heart pine floors in the historic Bacon’s Castle in Virginia.

Bacon's Castle Hardwood Floors

As wood flooring came to be used more and more, several improvements were made to how it was cut and laid. For example, it was soon found that by using ship-lapping­ — ­a ­­method by which the edges of the board are cut into an “L,” allowing them to overlap one another— one could avoid gapping that otherwise occurred as seasons changed and as floors got worn-in.

During the latter part of the century, it also became popular to paint wood floors, not to imitate parquet as had been done in Europe a century earlier, but to continue the decorative motifs that began to adorn walls and furniture.  The checkerboard patterns you often see in restored colonial homes were a product of this trend.

Industrial Revolution (the mid-1700s to early 1800s)
Could hardwood floors be for everyone?

With the advent of steam-driven machines, finished lumber could, for the first time, be produced on a large scale.  No more did it take two men with a giant saw several hours to create a few planks. Now, lumber could be milled in set lengths and widths, without the rough and often uneven cuts of the pit saw.  It was during this time that we began to see the narrower floorboards that were common through the 19th and 20th centuries and are still so prevalent today.

Industrialization also saw an improvement in the ship-lapped boards with the advent of tongue-and-groove molding.  Where ship-lapping only provided a bit of cover when boards began to move, tongue and groove boards, made possible by the invention of the automated side-matcher, could not only be joined together but nailed down without leaving any nails exposed to attack bare feet or snag sweeping skirts.

Also from Old House:

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Tongue-and-groove molding is a precise method of joining boards together along their lengths by fitting a protruding “tongue” on one board into a channel cut on the adjoining board. With tongue-and-groove installation, the nails are driven through the tongue, forcing the boards together; this also conceals the nail holes, creating an unmarred surface. The interlocking boards also were much more resistant to upward movement, which minimized irregular edges sticking up in the path of passing feet. Structural-grade tongue-and-groove floorboards, typically pine or lower-grade oak, were typically a uniform 6″ to 8″ in width, much narrower than the wider pit-sawn planks of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The side-matcher also made it possible to create hollow-backed boards, which were lighter and conformed better to subfloors, which were becoming more and more common.

Wall-to-wall carpet factDuring this time, though many homeowners continued to paint their floors to match their décor, it also became popular to lay tightly woven carpet over a hardwood floor.  Just as steam-powered mills had given a boon to the lumber industry, so too had the invention of the power loom made carpet more common and affordable.  It was around this time, then, that wall-to-wall carpet made its first inroad to the mainstream.

Victorian Era (the mid-1800s to early 1900s)
Hardwood floors ARE for everyone!

As the Victorian Era came into full swing, so did the hardwood flooring industry.  Parquet patterns began to make a comeback, though usually only in those rooms reserved for entertaining in the homes of the wealthy.  However, it was also during this period, and thanks to industrialization, that we began to see what we now think of as hardwood flooring (smooth, even, polished boards) in middle-class American homes.  Hardwood floors started to be advertised as literally for everyone and anyone.

This description of “wood carpeting” from  WoodFloorDoctor.com is an excellent example of how far the hardwood industry began to reach.

gray-quotation-marks-squareA 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 squeaky 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 respectively.

Les raboteurs de parquet (The Floor-Scrapers)

Les raboteurs de parquet (The Floor-Scrapers) by Gustave Caillebotte, 1875

By contrast, quality hardwood floors were usually installed over concrete slabs and glued down with hot tar.  Then laborers were paid (a little) to scrape the floors smooth, sand them even smoother, then shellac, wax and buff them shiny.  It was also in the early 20th century that the herringbone pattern of wood flooring began to gain popularity.

 The 1920s and 1930s
Hardwood is for everyone, but not everyone is for hardwood

Wood remained the dominant choice for flooring in private homes, shops, and public buildings well into the 20th century.  However, during the 1920s and ‘30s, flooring materials like linoleum and cork, which tended to be less expensive, easier to maintain and, at the time, easier to install, started to give hardwood some distinguished competition.  In response, the hardwood industry made some advancements of its own, developing quicker-curing, harder varnishes and, finally, polyurethane finishes, eliminating the need for wax for the first time since hardwood floors were just a step up from dirt.

Post-WWII (the 1940s and ’50s)
Hardwood falls on hard times

Hardwood was able to hold its own against linoleum and cork, but when inexpensive wall-to-wall carpeting became widely available following the Second World War, the hardwood industry took a hard hit. Carpet had long been coveted among the middle classes because it had, until now, only been affordable by the very rich.  Now, not only could average Americans afford to carpet their homes, but the cost of carpeting was often included in home loans.  Unfortunately, the response of the hardwood industry this time was a more desperate one. Many installers, forced to cut costs to offer competitive pricing, also began to cut corners and the quality of the beautiful floors they laid began to falter.  Wood flooring came once again to be seen as a lower-quality alternative to more popular materials, materials that now had become reasonably affordable to most homeowners.  Consequently, wall-to-wall carpet and linoleum continued to dominate the flooring market through the 1980s.

NWFA founding Board

In 1985, the National Hardwood Flooring Association (NHFA) was formed. One of its tasks has been to ensure that the kind of quality crisis that followed the carpet-craze after WWII never happens again.

The 1980s – 1990s
Hardwood makes a comeback

As the century drew to a close, the dark cloud that had lain over oak began to dissipate and, mainly as carpeting laid decades earlier began to need replacing, younger generations once again turned their eyes to the hardwood.  In many cases, they found, when they pulled up their carpet, which a decent hardwood floor lay beneath.  With modern finishing methods, it was not too complicated to bring these floors to a presentable state.  Consequently, the perfect plank looks slowly began to come back into style.

Today
Hardwood is back on top

These days, more and more homebuilders are looking to hardwood to increase the value of new homes.  “Hardwood floors” has become a selling point for older homes and renovated apartments, and renovators go to great lengths to preserve original wood floors.  Our recent survey of designers nationwide showed that 84% percent of designers prefer to install hardwood when undertaking a project.

The advent and constant improvement of prefinished and engineered flooring over the past couple of decades have provided wood flooring more durable and more stable than ever before.  These advancements have also made self-installation a practical choice, finally marrying the convenience of Roberts’s “wood carpeting” with the quality of traditional hardwood floors.

Exotic hardwoods are imported from all over the world, and domestic hardwoods are harvested more and more sustainably.

New and trendy materials will no doubt continue to come and go, but when it comes to practical, lasting, beautiful floors, nothing compares to hardwood.

Final Thoughts

Are you planning on laying new floors in your home or perhaps buying a new house? If so, hardwood is a timeless option. It’s been sought after and trusted for centuries.

 


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