Hardwood got its start as flooring in the 1600s, often as unfinished planks supported by wooden joists over dirt or stone, but developed style and elegance during the Baroque Era (1625-1714). Beginning in 1625, artistic French parquetry and marquetry patterns began to appear. These floors were made from pieces of wood cut by hand and fitted together in contrasting three-dimensional designs. Then they would be scraped by hand, rubbed with sand, stained, and polished to a sheen. This meticulous hand-craftsmanship was affordable to only the most affluent clients and royalty. Some flooring installed on higher floors with less traffic still exists, even 800 years later. Less wealthy merchant class clients imitated the high end flooring designs by painting similar designs, but few of these cheaper options stood the test of time.
Hardwood Flooring Beginnings
American colonists took advantage of the vast forested lands of North America to install plank floors in most homes. These floors were installed for comfort and practicality without regard to style. They were usually constructed of planks cut to random width, left unfinished, and were simply worn smooth over time by use.
European parquet floors began to appear in the wealthiest American homes late in the Victorian era (1840-1910), when factories began mass producing wood floors. About this time a “wood carpet” was advertised, essentially rolls of heavy canvas with thin 1 1/2″ by 5/16″ strips of wood glued on. The ads claimed that installing the flooring was easily accomplished by anyone with basic carpentry skills. The installation method was to tack down each strip using tiny brads that were countersunk and filled. Once installed, the floor was scraped and then sanded using a 25 pound block with a brush made of natural bristles on the bottom and a broom handle for pushing. Sandpaper was attached and the block dragged slowly across the floor until the floor was uniform and smooth. Varnish was applied, and then the floors were finished with hot wax and painstakingly buffed. This cheaper solution made beautiful flooring more accessible, but the floors proved to be squeaky, riddled with splits and cracks, and lacking the durability of the original handmade floors.
The advent of tongue and groove construction in the Edwardian Era (1901-1914) allowed planks to be leveled before installation for a more polished, uniform look, and the look we are still familiar with today began to take shape. Floors were installed on concrete slabs with hot tar used as adhesive. Every part of the process was done by hand, mostly using cheap laborers to scrape, sand, shellac, wax, and buff the floors to a suitably impressive finish. The herringbone pattern of tongue and groove flooring gained popularity during this time, and many of those floors are still in use or have been rescued and refinished for new use.
Hardwood remained the flooring of choice until new linoleum and cork flooring products hit the market in the 1920s. The trendy new materials offered easier installation and maintenance, but wood retained a small market share.
In the 1930s, improved finish in the form of polyurethane provided a no-wax finish that kept hardwoods appealing and popular until inexpensive carpeting hit the market after World War II. The appeal of carpet was aided by inclusion in home loans, making it the most popular choice on the market due to its affordability until the 1980s when consumers, looking for an alternative flooring solution, turned back to hardwood.
In order to compete with cheaper solutions, the hardwood industry tried to cut corners on labor costs. Installers facing drastic pay cuts were forced to work at a frenetic pace to earn a living, resulting in poor quality, especially for parquet flooring. Sloppy installations led to a public perception that wood flooring was a cheap, common solution. The reputation of wood floors as a luxury was temporarily lost.
Hardwood Flooring Today
The late 1980s saw the rise of prefinished woods and a return to the clean, classic look of wood planking without the intricate patterning of parquetry. Due to the way the prefinished wood planking was constructed, splintered edges were common. Today’s manufacturing process produces smoother, more durable flooring, far superior to flooring available in the past. Unfinished wood floors are also available that can be finished on site after installation for a more even and impenetrable surface.
Some controversy exists regarding environmental issues of hardwood. Most of the issues center on unethical logging practices that threaten the old-growth forests that produce most of the world’s oxygen supply. At first glance, hardwoods, which take 30 years or more to mature, may seem to lack sustainability. However, considering that some hardwoods are reclaimed and recycled, and installed and cared for properly, hardwood flooring can last a century or more, the question of sustainability is reduced to one of ethical harvesting. A recent amendment to the Lacey Act addresses that issue by making every part of the chain, from logging to sale, responsible for ethical harvesting. Each link in the chain is required to research and document the origins of the wood.