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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Interiors & Decor » The History of Wood Flooring

The History of Wood Flooring

Gleaming tongue-and-groove hardwood floors might seem like the standard for old houses, but that wasn’t always the case, as a trip through wood flooring history illustrates. By Dan Cooper

    Reclaimed wood imparts the look of centuries-old boards.

    Reclaimed wood imparts the look of centuries-old boards. (Photo: Dmitry Fisher/

    When envisioning historic interiors, many people picture rooms fitted with expanses of gleaming wooden floors embellished with oriental rugs. This perception of the past is only partly accurate—in truth, polished hardwood floors (and room-size oriental carpets) were not commonplace until the late 19th century. Before that time, wood was indeed the predominant material used in flooring, but its appearance was much humbler than you might expect.

    The first wooden floors in colonial America were wide, thick planks cut from the continent’s abundant old-growth forests. Because of the trees’ age and massive diameter, the desirable heartwood was extremely tight-grained, making the lumber harder and more durable than the relatively immature wood of the same species that is harvested today.

    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.

    Early wood floors, like this one at the 1805 Woodlawn Plantation, were typically untreated.

    Early wood floors, like this one at the 1805 Woodlawn Plantation, were typically untreated. (Photo: Jasper Silver)

    Although the wide floorboards were butted together on installation, gaps would open between them due to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, allowing damp, cold air to pass into the living area from the basement. Small objects were also prone to falling through these gaps, disappearing into the depths below. This was eventually rectified by ship-lapping the boards, a simple technique wherein the long edge of the plank was planed with an “L” profile that interlocked with the adjacent board. Now, when the wood shrank and drew apart, the gap was concealed by the edge of the adjacent board.

    Decorative Flourishes

    As decoratively painted interiors became popular in the 18th century, this technique was applied to wood floors, too. They could be monochromatic or fancifully ornamented, with geometrics such as checkerboard patterns a perennial favorite. The use of stain and varnish, however—as is so often applied today by homeowners seeking a warm, honey-colored patina—was relatively uncommon; average 18th- or early 19th-century homeowners wouldn’t recognize a shiny floor in their post-and-beam homes.

    Decorative painting became all the rage for floors in the 18th century.

    Decorative painting became all the rage for floors in the 18th century. (Photo: Sandy Agrafiotis)

    During the first two-thirds of the 19th century, wooden floors that weren’t painted were intended to be covered; they were made of structural, not finish-grade, lumber, so knots and other blemishes abounded. The then-recent invention of the power loom meant that carpet was becoming more affordable to the growing middle class: stylish flat-woven carpets called Venetians and Ingrains, and pile carpets known as Wilton, Brussels, and Axminster. All were woven in 27″- or 36″-wide strips, hand-sewn together, and tacked down around the perimeter of the room. (Yes, wall-to-wall carpet wasn’t a mid-century phenomenon; it actually dates to the late 18th century.)

    Before the mid-19th century, there were few finished hardwood floors, but the wealthiest of homes might sport hardwood parquet in certain public rooms. Parquet is the method of arranging pieces of wood in geometric patterns (herringbone and diamond being the most common) and affixing the pieces to the subfloor with tiny nails. This process was hugely labor-intensive, as each piece had to be cut and fitted by hand. To smooth the surfaces of the wood to a consistent level, the entire floor was scraped and planed by hand, then varnished and/or waxed.

    Another benefit of the Industrial Revolution was the invention of steam-driven woodworking machinery that permitted the mass production of finished boards. Now, dimensional lumber could be milled in fixed lengths and widths, which expedited the installation of floors and gave them a far more finished appearance.

    Parquet borders were popular for achieving a high-end look; similar treatments are available from modern manufacturers.

    Parquet borders were popular for achieving a high-end look; similar treatments are available from modern manufacturers. (Photo: Jasper Silver)

    Along with this technology appeared the process for molding tongue-and-groove floorboards. 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.

    Shiny & New

    It wasn’t until the late 19th century that average Americans began to have what we now think of as polished hardwood floors in their homes. Appearing first in public rooms and kitchens, finished hardwood flooring quickly spread to bedrooms and other private areas.

    Along with the technology that permitted its mass production, fashion and health concerns created an increasing demand for hardwood floors. The revival of medievalism, as promoted by Charles Locke Eastlake and William Morris, and the concurrent fascination with Orientalism and the decorative arts from Asia and the Middle East, were an austere departure from the plush neoclassical, Renaissance, and Rococo influences that had dominated popular taste for the past century.

    Reclaimed boards of varied tones call to mind the late 19th-century practice of alternating species within the same floor.

    Reclaimed boards of varied tones call to mind the late 19th-century practice of alternating species within the same floor. (Photo: Courtesy of Chestnut Specialists)

    Eastlake, in his widely read book Hints on Household Taste, was an influential proponent of area rugs laid upon hardwood floors. It was believed to be healthier, as rugs, unlike tacked-down carpets, could be taken out and beaten. Eastlake also promoted the use of hardwood parquet borders around the perimeter of the room, with less-expensive softwood, covered by carpet, in the center. This gave the appearance of a high-end floor with a much lower price tag, since homeowners only shelled out for the fancy border. Carpet manufacturers capitalized on this trend, too, by creating borders for their goods and emulating oriental carpet patterns in their lines, allowing them to obtain the look of expensive, hand-woven imported carpets for a fraction of the cost.

    The hardwood floors of this period were typically white oak, chestnut, maple, or black walnut milled into 2″- to 3″-wide boards. Maple was popular in kitchens due to its strength and resilience, since it had no open pores that might absorb spills. Around the 1870s and 1880s, it wasn’t unusual to find floors in public rooms laid in alternating strips of walnut and maple. Toward the turn of the century, fir became the wood of choice, first in kitchens, but then creeping into other rooms.

    Using wide-plank flooring can help a new addition blend with an old house.

    Using wide-plank flooring can help a new addition blend with an old house. (Photo: Courtesy of Hull Forest Products)

    Installation was still much more laborious than it is today; before the advent of the power sander, wood floors had to be scraped smooth by hand. These were finished with coats of orange shellac and then waxed. Interestingly, this was considered a maintenance finish; when marred or worn, the shellac was scrubbed off and then reapplied—a very different approach than at the turn of the century and later, when varnished (and later, polyurethaned) surfaces had to be sanded down to the bare wood. Wood floors were not typically stained; the vintage ones you see have darkened varnish.

    Hardwood floors remained popular into the mid-20th century, at which point manufactured materials became synonymous with modernism, and wood fell from favor. But the Victorian and Craftsman revivals of the late 20th century saw a renewed interest in hardwood flooring, along with the use of reclaimed lumber to replicate early floors. Regardless of the whims of fashion, wood floors have retained their enduring appeal, particularly for those dwelling in vintage homes.

    Online Exclusive: Find solutions to common flooring problems in our collection of wood-floor advice.

    Published in: Old-House Journal December/January 2013


    Sandy Henry August 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Simply fantastic article! It is great to look back in time to see the origins of our modern selves. I recently helped updated a family house, built in the 1920’s and we were all surprised to find such stunning wood under all that flooring and carpeting. Unfortunately, a lot of pieces had to be replaced but luckily the lumber specialist was very helpful in us making the right choices to restore the floor back to its vivacious beauty!

    AmyB May 31, 2014 at 2:36 am

    I recently looked at a home that was built in the 1880′s. The downstairs has regular style hardwood flooring that covers the outer edges of all the rooms, however all of the rooms have area rugs covering the centers of the floor because the center of all the rooms are just plywood. I was told by my boyfriend that it is commonly found older homes, when money was tight for the owner, that the floors were incomplete because they could not afford to finish the entire floor. The only known term my boyfriend knew was “poor man’s” floor. Whatis the actual term for a floor like this? Or is there even a term for it? And is this true that when money was tight that hardwood flooring in homes was constructed in this manner?

    Thomas S Porter June 27, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    When did they start to make plywood?

    Debbie Gartner aka The Flooring Girl July 5, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Yes, this is a fascinating article. I live right outside NYC, so we have many older and historic homes. It is fun to see and refinish some of the older pine floors. We’ve done many from the 1800′s and several from the 1700′s. Thanks for the history lesson. Very very cool.

    Patrick Barrett July 7, 2014 at 12:07 am

    Per wikipedia:

    “In 1928, the first standard-sized 4 ft by 8 ft (1.2 m by 2.4 m) plywood sheets were introduced in the United States for use as a general building material.”

    So the plywood floor center could be on a house built later than that, or it could have been replaced at some point. It’s even possible that the outside is older, but the low quality center board deteriorated, and were later replaced with hardwood.

    Dianna August 2, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    We found nice hardwood under carpeting in our 1907 Victorian but they’re discolored in the centers. My husband says he saw on This Old House that people used to only finish outside borders and use area rugs in center. I can’t find any info.

    Hardwood Flooring September 13, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    I’d really like to know when hardwood flooring was initially sold to the public by a company. How far back was hardwood flooring purchased?

    Charlotte White October 4, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    I am looking for Victorian Style painted on borders for hardwood flooring. I’ve seen this a lot in the Mid-West. If you could enlighten me to some patterns that were used in that era or before I would be grateful.

    Thank You


    Sally Stauffer October 18, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Thank you for this article. Wondering if anyone knows why some homes built in the 1920s have fir floors in the kitchen and back of the house and oak floors in the front of the house (i.e. living room & dining room)? I live in Portland, Oregon, and have seen this in many 1920s homes.

    Wendy K October 20, 2014 at 11:16 am

    I have a 1898 suburban cottage with original maple strip floor in the back kitchen, but original red oak strip in the rest of the house. What is the reasoning for having two woods?

    Andrea January 21, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    THANK YOU! I always wondered why kitchens so often are maple while the rest of the house or apartment is oak!!!

    James Mason February 10, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    I am searching for qualified individuals in identifying a particular hardwood floor. It’s wood’s origin and etc.. The history of hardwood flooring as it pertains to 18th and 19th century, low to medium income housing, particularly in Europe.
    PLEASE EXAMINE THE BACKGROUND IMAGE AT THIS WEBSITE AND DETERMINE IF YOU CAN ADD ANY HELPFUL INFORMATION ABOUT THE IMAGE AND THE FLOORING SPECIFICALLY. Your knowledge will be recived with gratitude and perhaps very helpful in finding the building. – James G. Mason.

    Diana Bregman February 19, 2015 at 8:13 am

    I am purchasing a 1945 mediteranean revival style house in Florida and want to put reclaimed wood floors into the kitchen, (over bad 80′s era tile) but in keeping w/ material that may have been used in that time and place. I am from New England and have a lot of barn board, I thought I might use, but am not sure that is a type of wood they would have used in Florida at that time.
    What might they have used in that era, just as the war was ending and before the baby boom? There is some cypress in the house…but possibly it’s an addition. Yes, in keeping w/ the area and style, but not a good choice, and too expensive) for the kitchen floor.
    Any suggestions? THANKS!
    Think my wood is what New Englanders call “brown board”…maybe old pine, hemlock perhaps. Wide boards.

    Debbie Hill May 11, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    Thank you for this step back in time to see the origin of polished floors. I have always been interested in houses built in 1800′s and often stayed as accomodation or taken tours through them and loved their hardwood floors.
    My brother has a floor sanding business and it’s strenuous work today, but not so much when compared to time before machinery!! I look forward to sharing this history with him!

    Frank Wukitsch May 26, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Maple, (specifically hard or rock map[le,) was used in the kitchen because it is extremely hard and close grained and will not absorb grease and other kitchen spills as easily as open grained oak. Our kitchen in a 1913 house, has a rock maple floor. When we moved in forty years ago, I stripped layers of tile and linoleum off that floor and put a urethane finish on it, the first finish it ever had. The finish lasted only about a year and was inexorably worn off by traffic. I never finished it again. Washing the floor about once a week with oil soap keeps it looking like brand new.

    Judy November 5, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    Help! I’m the only volunteer in a 1884 home in Oakland, Ca. There are raw wood floors, very dirty. Any advice on cleaning, protecting without doing damage? Judy

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