Hardwood Floors: A Brief History

Posted by Aaron Schaalma

History of Hardwood Floors

The hardwood floor install process most definitely has not always been what it today. Nor are the tools used to install today resemble much of what was used in the past.

I want to go back in time here and share a little bit with you what the hardwood flooring industry used to be like.

For much of the time that wood has been used as flooring materials only the very rich could afford hard wood floors to be installed in their homes. With sanding, shellacking and waxing processes needed to make these floors beautiful, it was quite an expensive process. There were also only meager means of milling the wood into anything worth bragging about, so hardwood floors were not the norm for common folk.

During colonial times, hardwood floors were mostly comprised of wide planks cut from one of the many forests of old trees that blanketed the region, and milled using a pit-saw and two men. More times than not, these rough planks were left bare and eventually worn smooth by years of foot traffic. In the beginning, the use of hardwood floors were for comfort and practicality with looks mattering very little.

It wasn't until the late 1800s and into the early 1900s that wood floors started being factory mass produced into planks, which then still had to be sanded, filled, and waxed using hand tools.

How Hardwood Floors Used to be Installed

As you can imagine, every piece of wood that was laid was laid by hand and with modest hand tools. Often these tools often included a hatchet, handsaw, hammer, pry bar and string to line up the boards, although tools varied by region and tradesman. Boards were laid upon concrete slabs using hot tar as adhesive and finished off with a cheap process of scraping, sanding, shellacking, waxing and buffing.

There were no fancy knee cushions to ease the installer’s pain either. Rather, they used old pant legs rolled into doughnut shape to rest their knees on!

Each board was nailed in by hand too as power nailing tools didn't become available until the 1950s. As hard of work as it was to nail by hand, and you would think every installer would jump at the chances of using power tools, many old-timers were so skilled at nailing by hand, that they had a harder time with the power nail guns!

Often being paid by the foot, these installers took no chances at being slowed down during their day’s work, so they stuck with what they knew. It wasn’t until the next generation after these men that power tools became the norm.

The Downfall of Hardwood Floors

Hardwood floor installation hit its high in 1955 with 1.2 billion board feet that year.

After WWII when the housing market boomed, wood floor installation companies did all they could just to keep up with the housing demand. This often resulted in cheap production of floors, causing problems for home owners.

During the mid-60s, the Federal Housing Authority and lending agencies began allowing carpet to be approved as part of mortgages. This was all it took for the wood flooring industry to suffer. People were excited to get away from the necessity of waxing and maintaining their hardwood floors, and thought about how wonderful it would be to have carpet beneath their toes.

Many wood flooring companies went into the carpeting business just to stay alive, but the majority wet out of business.

Hardwood Floors Make a Comeback

It wasn’t long until those happy-carpeted homeowners realized that their carpet was cheap too and some went back to hardwood floors.

By the mid-70s hardwood floors started to come back to life, this time, with more oomph than ever before. Installers realized all the new designs they could do with hardwood, and had access to better finishing products like polyurethane, which lasted longer and required less maintenance than previous finishing products used.

The growing popularity of hardwood floors lent to the creation of the National Wood Flooring Association which began in 1985, “with the mission of increasing the awareness, sales and professionalism of the industry.”

A far way away from the early days of hardwood flooring, now a days you see hardwood floors come countless wood species, colors, designs and finishes, with a much easier installation process to go along with the rather low-maintenance needs and warm homey feeling of hardwood floors make them a very popular part of homes today.