History of hardwood floors

The floors in our houses are an important part of the home. Floors provide comfort, warmth, stability, and even a certain amount of protection from outside elements. In addition to providing stability and comfort to a home, floors can also provide a better aesthetic design—whether a floor is patterned, tiled, or even painted.

Hardwood flooring is a type of flooring made from wood, and although today it is relatively common in most Western homes, this was not always the case.

Up until the mid 17th century, most houses in European countries did not have any sort of real floor on the ground level of their homes, shops, businesses or other buildings. The ground floor was typically just cleared and beaten earth that would be swept and kept as tidy as possible. Most homes had mats at the front of the doorway, to avoid the floor getting muddy. If a building had a second floor—a luxury for any homeowner—that floor was made from planked, usually plain wood. Sometimes these planks were two feet wide or more! Wooden floors were simply too expensive for most people to use on the ground floor of their homes. Wealthy and royal people more often used marble and other luxurious material for their flooring, because wooden floors were often rough and synonymous with the working poor’s two story shacks.

However, in the mid 17th century, hardwood flooring began to be seen as something more desirable in homes by the elite. Wooden ground floors, which were considerably rare before 1625, were now much more common place in wealthy homes and were considered fashionable, sturdy, and attractive. One of the reasons for the newfound popularity of hardwood floors among the wealthy was that wooden floors could be customized to a greater degree than marble or other rough material. For example, intricate designs could be carved into the hardwood floor.

Different colored woods could be laid out next to each other, creating an attractive contrast. The entire floor could be also stained and polished to create a very elegant and expensive look. Some floors from this period still exist due to their extreme high quality and sturdiness. However, the “middle class” version of the newly popular hardwood floor, which were put together more cheaply and were often simply painted with designs if they were decorated at all, have not held up as well over the years and very few are to be found intact today.

Even with the increase in popularity of hardwood floors, it was not until the Colonial Era in North America that sturdy and attractive hardwood flooring went from a luxury of the elite to something commonplace in most homes. This was because of an excessive abundance of trees found in North America, which could be easily cut and put together to create stable hardwood floorings for ground floors and additional floors. The wood could also be exported to countries in Europe. The move from earthen floors to hardwood floors not only made homes more attractive, but it kept a home’s inhabitants much warmer, because their feet would no longer be touching the cold natural earth. These colonial hardwood floors were usually not sanded or polished due to the cost of such undertakings, unless the inhabitants were wealthy and could afford such a luxury.

As the 19th century began, more and more intricate designs were used to decorate hardwood flooring. Carvings, paints, and even stains and polishes in a variety of color were all popular ways to customize hardwood flooring for your home. Hardwood floors could even be installed with particular patterns in mind! Hardwood floors were especially popular in growing mansion homes in the United States and England. However, they were still incredibly popular with middle class home owners who sought to have attractive flooring, even if they couldn’t afford a gold finish to their floor. Even poor home owners enjoyed a good hardwood floor, though it often went unpolished and undecorated to keep costs low.

Hardwood flooring had gone from a rare luxury to something that was common in most homes.

But the popularity of hardwood flooring did not last very long. During the early 20th century, hardwood flooring production went from a niche business to being mass produced, because of advancements in factory production. This unfortunately spelled disaster for the reputation of hardwood flooring. Before the mass market production of hardwood floor materials, the cutting and processing of the wood used for hardwood flooring was done by hand, and usually by tradesman who were extremely skilled in their profession. But when the materials began to be produced en masse, the quality of the wood declined. Cracks, unwanted lines, or simply poor material was common. And not only did the quality of the processed wood decline, but the installation as well—rather than pay a skilled artisan a fair wage to properly install a wooden floor, ordinary men looking for work were paid cheap wages to do the same job. “Anyone can do it,” as many advertisements for hardwood floor installers read. Most of these cheaply paid workmen had no clear idea on how to properly install the hardwood flooring. As a result, they often made many mistakes during installation, causing the floors to be improperly and poorly installed. A floor that should have been stable and should have lasted for generations would crack or shift or bruise, if not be broken entirely. All sorts of disastrous mishaps were caused by poor installation and quality. And unfortunately, because many homeowners pass down their homes from generation to generation, each new generation is stuck with poor flooring that is difficult to fix without spending thousands and thousands of dollars. Most hardwood floors installed during the early 20th century by such poorly skilled workers have not survived into the 21st century—quite an embarrassment, considering that even some wooden floors from the 17th century have survived the test of time!

The advent of other floor materials such as linoleum and cork also helped in the decline in the popularity of traditional hardwood flooring in homes. Carpets and other finishing were now installed over the hardwood flooring, to reduce any association with the “cheap floors.” Linoleum and cork flooring were also much easier to maintain.

But, all is not lost for hardwood flooring. Many companies have been striving to once again provide high quality, sturdy, attractive hardwood flooring for homeowners who want to forego carpeted flooring. They take the time and care to train installers properly, making sure that they are not making mistakes when installing hardwood flooring in homes. And with such advances in modern housing technology, wood floor stains and polishes are easier than ever to maintain and keep looking brand new.

Improvements in installation techniques and quality ensure that the hardwood floors installed in 2011 should last for years—hopefully even centuries, like their predecessors—to come.

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