The History of Hardwood Flooring May 27 2015, 0 Comments
This day in age, hardwood is considered to be one of the most popular flooring options. With so many species to choose from, there is a hardwood floor that can complement just about any living space. Hardwood floorings combination of timeless style and longevity make it a no brainer for most home owners. But when did it all begin? At what point did hardwood flooring first make its appearance in the pages of history? To understand the evolution of hardwood, we must start long before these pages were written.
The use of wood as a building material dates back to before recorded history. Crude shelters were made using little more than twigs or branches and heavier timbers for stronger structures. Everything from houses, boats, large ships and tools were built using various types of wood species. Wherever it was readily available, wood served as a valuable resource for humanity’s survival and technological progress. Using wood as a structural building material was much more prevalent in northern climates where larger trees were in great abundance. Wood provided ancient people with the most basic of needs, a means to make fire in order stay warm and cook food.
The Rise of Wide Plank Hardwood flooring
From known historical records, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that hardwood began to show up as a flooring material. Most houses by that time still primarily used beaten earth as the main flooring material. This type of flooring required visitors to wipe their shoes on a mat before entering the home in order to prevent the earth from getting muddy or dusty, depending on the weather. If the home owners of the time were wealthy enough to have a second floor, it would have been fitted with wooden joists and then large planks sometimes up to 2 feet in width would be strewn across them. The wood species used for this was most commonly Oak or Elm.
Once North and South America was discovered, along with its seemingly endless supply of old growth forests, the use of wood for flooring became commonplace among the settlers living throughout the colonies. It was in such great abundance that using any other material for common housing was simply impractical. Hardwood floors at that time were mainly built using slow growth pine. Due to the immense size of slow growth trees, it was possible to produce very large sawn planks. They were not sanded or finished like what we find today, they were simply polished smooth by the feet of generations of colonists. Solid planks for these floors were typically 7/8′′ thick, at least 8’ in length. Some planks were even up to 16’ long. They had to be massive as the subfloors were not used and plank ends had to be nailed to joists. Planks were often as wide as they could be, which resulted in no common standard widths.
By (1625-1714) wooden floors began to take on a more elegant flare, introducing French Parquetry and Marquetry flooring patterns. Intricate designs were cut by hand and laid with contrasting colored species of wood. Regardless of the pattern in which they were laid, these floors were typically hand scrapped, scrubbed with sand, stained and polished. This style of flooring required skilled craftsman and painstaking hard labor. These types of hardwood floors were only found in the homes of Royalty and most affluent of the time. It wasn’t uncommon for lower classes to attempt imitating these floors by painting flooring planks with various designs.
In the early 19th century more and more Parquet patterns began to emerge, yet still only in the richest of homes. There were many types of patterns for the panels that make up a luxury wood parquet floor. Three of the most popular were Chantilly, Aremberg and Monticello. Examples of some of these patterns are shown below.
Eventually the industrial age brought machinery for the finer milling of lumber. The development of steam and electric power during this period led to growth in the need for better housing and subsequent demand for even more wood flooring material. Oak quickly became the specie of choice due to its availability, cost, easy machining, strength ,and beauty. With the expanding demand and vast increase in world commerce, the use of different domestic hardwoods, as well as exotic imported species, began to quickly evolve.
The hardwood flooring industry resembling the one we know today began just before the turn of the 20th century. In 1885, the side-matcher was developed, creating flooring with a tongue on one long side and a groove on the other. This allowed wood floors to be blind-nailed, which provided a more elegant look free from visible nail holes.
The technology quickly progressed, bringing better and better milling options and providing easier installation. Then the central heating system was introduced and began wreaking havoc with hardwood floors. The invention of the dry kiln gave flooring a better chance to succeed in normal living conditions. Despite this small setback, wood flooring was still,by far, the most popular option.
Crash of the Hardwood Flooring Industry
However, the hardwood flooring industry boom was short lived. As a result of the industrial revolution along with ever-changing design trends, new flooring options became available (carpet, resilient flooring such as ceramic, stone, tile and bare concrete) and gave the hardwood flooring industry some real competition, and demand for each option began to fluctuate immensely.
Shortly after the crash of the twenties, the use of cheaper flooring materials such as carpet started growing in popularity. Producing carpet was significantly less expensive then wood flooring and most people just couldn’t afford hardwood, not to mention the cost involved in keeping a site finished hardwood floor polished and shined. Prior to the crash of the twenties, carpet could only be found in homes of the wealthy, but with synthetic materials becoming much cheaper to produce, carpet seemed the most appealing option. A combination of changing lifestyles, changing housing construction methods, high maintenance for hardwood, cheaper alternatives and too much job-site time for hardwood installation and finishing, all contributed to the crash of the wood flooring industry in the mid-1960s. By the 1970’s carpet was everywhere, even in the least expensive homes. Hardwood flooring then found its way into the higher priced custom home market.
In 1966, the U.S. Federal Housing Authority approved carpeting as part of a 30-year mortgage. Both homeowners and homebuilders turned away from expensive, labor intensive hardwood in favor of cheaper, easier, and faster-to-install carpet. This was a major factor in the decline of the hardwood flooring industry until the mid-1980s.
The industry bottomed out in the 1982 recession, when only 75 million board feet was shipped.
A renewed awareness about hardwood helped the industry rebound in the mid 1980s. By the 1990s, wood flooring manufacturers introduced higher quality prefinished hardwood flooring, with more stains and finishes available than ever before. The advent of water-based urethanes made finishing easier, and consumers had more options to choose from. These included; traditional hardwood, prefinished hardwood, engineered hardwood, solid hardwood, floating hardwood, nail-down hardwood, glue-down hardwood, and exotic hardwoods from around the world. With all of these new hardwood options available it was finally possible to install hardwood affordably. Concrete subfloors could now have pre-finished engineered hardwood installed above them, which gave people even more reason to choose hardwood as a flooring material in their homes.
Hardwood flooring adds to the value of both new and resale homes. In one national Canadian survey, 90% of real estate agents said homes with wood floors sell faster and for more money. Hardwood flooring is good for your health and the environment.
Despite the major decline of the hardwood industry throughout the 20th century, hardwood flooring has made an astonishing comeback and remains the preferred choice by most home owners, perhaps more so now than ever before. Hardwood is durable and is considered a solid investment. They literally last for decades or generations, providing homes with natural warmth and timeless beauty.
Author: Steve Ruth
Parquet Picture Credit: Jay Hardwood Floor Service