A Short History of Wood Flooring


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History of
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In Europe during the 1600s, French nobles began installing fancy wood floors in their homes. These floors were often either parquet or marquet. In parquet flooring, veneer (thin pieces of wood, usually 1/8 inch thick or less) is applied to form geometric patterns. The best known modern day example of parquet flooring is the Boston Celtics' basketball court. They have used a parquet floor since 1946. Marquet flooring is very similar to parquet, but more complex designs or even pictures can be formed. Once these strips were applied to the base flooring, workers had to hand scrape the entire floor to make it smooth and level. After that, they were stained and polished. Naturally, this was very expensive, so only noblemen could afford it. The noble wannabes sometimes tried to emulate them by installing wood floors with designs painted on them. Those farther down the social ladder had dirt floors.

Boston Celtics' Parquet Floor
The Boston Celtics have played on a parquet floor since 1946
(Photo courtesy of Eric Kilby & Creative Commons)

Wood Flooring in the New World

Heartwood - Sapwood
Front Parlor at Mt. Vernon
Photo courtesy of George Washington's Mount Vernon
When Europeans first came to settle the New World, they found vast stands of virgin timber. Naturally, the made use of this plentiful resource, and installed wood flooring in their homes. Unlike the French nobility, there was nothing fancy about these floors - No sanding or finishing. To make use of as much wood as possible from a felled tree, these floors were generally composed of planks of varying width. Planks cut from the center of the log would be the widest, while planks cut from the sides would be progressively thinner. In the northeastern United States most flooring was made of eastern white pine. In the southern states, southern yellow pine (which is significantly harder than eastern white pine) was often used. As Americans became more prosperous, the wealthiest of them purchased rugs and carpets to cover their floors. Accoriding to the Mount Vernon website, the carpet George Washington installed in his front parlor was the

"Most expensive and desirable British carpet imported to North America during the eighteenth century"

As in France, those less affluent in this time period painted their floors.

Wood Flooring in the 1800s

Heartwood - Sapwood
Tongue and Groove Flooring
Photo courtesy of New To Woodworking
In the 1800s, wealthy Americans started installing parquet floors in their homes. Those who were well off but not wealthy had tongue and groove flooring that was painted. According to the Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt, tongue and groove goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. Wood was (and still is) scarce in that part of the world, so the Egyptians needed to come up with ways of joining small pieces of wood together. Poorer Americans had wood floors without tongue and groove. This was the era of the Industrial Revolution. In 1827 Malcolm Muir of Scotland patented a machine for milling tongue and groove flooring. A year later, William Woodworth patented a similar machine in the United States. These machines helped bring about mass production of wood flooring late in the 1800s.

Wood Flooring in the 1900s

In the early years of the twentienth century, tongue and groove wood was the most popular type of flooring in the United States. Wood flooring was less expensive than carpeting. Starting in the 1920s, alternative flooring like cork & linoleum started to displace wood flooring in American homes, although it still retained a significant market share. Around mid-century, the carpet industry went through a major change. Tufted carpeting began to replace woven carpets, since it was cheaper to produce. Once a luxury, carpeting suddenly became affordable. In the post World War II housing boom, wall to wall carpeting was included in the homes and was therefore part of the mortagage, instead of something homeowners would have to pay cash for after making the down payment for the mortagage. This caused the popularity of wood flooring drop off sharply.

Wood Flooring in the Twenty First Century

Heartwood - Sapwood
Rustic Style Flooring from Zeagler Farms
In recent years, people have started looking at alternatives to carpeting. Many have turned back to the timeless beauty of wood. Numerous companies now produce wood flooring. Individuals who like the rustic, old time look often prefer random width wide plank flooring shown in the photo to the left.


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