A History of Wood Floors

Hand hewn plank floor similar to the first forms of wood flooring.

Flooring, just like everything else in the home had humble beginnings. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, and that was typically slate or other local stones. Royalty were the first to enjoy the comforts of wood floors. These first wood floors were hand-scraped and literally “sanded.” The workers would lay down rough hand-hewn timbers and use hand tools to scrape smooth the flooring before bringing in handfuls of sand that they would rub on the floors until they were as smooth as possible. It was an arduous task that only the richest could afford.

However, things in the New World were different. The abundance of wood brought common use of wood plank flooring to the masses during the Colonial Era (1607-1780). At last the new Americans could get off the earthen floors and enjoy the resiliency and warmth of wooden floors.

In some ways flooring has changed a lot since its earliest days and in other ways it has remained much the same. From 1800-1945 wood floors were available in local species of trees and were installed in relatively simple patterns except for the ultra rich. When it came to residential flooring wood was king for these years. Competing only with tile or linoleum in the bathrooms and kitchens. The cost of wall to wall carpeting was still prohibitively high.

After WWII everything changed and hardwood flooring began a three decades decline. Carpeting became cheap with the advent of synthetic fibers and hardwood was deemed “outdated.” It wasn’t until the 1990s that hardwood floors began to rise in prominence again. The introduction of engineered wood floors made wood more affordable, even if it is a less than stellar product. And recently homeowners have begun to rediscover solid hardwood floors and their many benefits.

In the beginning flooring wasn’t finished. It was worn smooth by generations of foot traffic. There were several ways that wood flooring was finished in the old days, and none of them were particularly effective or long lasting. Floors had to stand up to lots of foot traffic bringing in dirt, sand, and water which all served to wear away the flooring.

  • Wax – Waxing was a early form of finish to help prevent the evils of water and wear, but it isn’t a hard finish and thus required frequent reapplication which was trying.
  • Shellac – Shellac is made from the residue of the lac bug of India. Shipped worldwide in in lac “flakes” is mixed with denatured alcohol until the flakes are dissolved and then applied to the wood surface and allowed to dry. While useful on furniture and trim it was not the best on floors due to it’s delicate nature and it’s tendency to darken with wear and moisture. Often floors were shellacked and then had wax applied over top to protect the shellac.
  • Varnish – Varnish was an impressive improvement to wood finishes. It was discovered in the mid 18th century but didn’t really gain in popularity until after the Civil War. Compared to its predecessors varnish is much harder and resists most anything. Tung and linseed oils were the principle varnish oils used as they penetrated the wood to provide for a relatively strong finish. The disadvantages of varnish is that they were slow drying compared to shellac and by todays standards provided a finish that was still fairly soft.
  • Polyurethane – Polyurethane was discovered in 1936 and became commercially available around 1940. Though this type of floor finish was not a part of most historic homes because of it’s late discovery it by far the most common after-factory finish applied to wood flooring today. The reason? It dries relatively quickly, and most importantly, provides an extremely hard and durable surface that can last a decade or more without any care other than an occasional mopping. Polyurethane essentially creates an impenetrable layer of hard plastic over you wood floor. When applied properly it is self leveling and very smooth. This is the preferred method of floor finishing we recommend even though not historically accurate because it maintains the wood and protects it against decay and wear more effectively than any of it’s predecessors.

Why Wood?
We’ll leave you with some parting thoughts if you are considering tiling over or carpeting over your antique wood floors…Don’t! Of course, we can’t argue for one person’s decorating taste over another’s, but wood floors are a resilient flooring choice that will last hundreds of years if cared for properly. Even the finest carpet wears out after only a few years of traffic. Tile can chip when something is dropped on it and does’t respond well to the years of expansion and contraction that houses undergo. Vinyl can tear just by looking at it crossly! Wood flooring is long lasting, easily repairable (by a pro), and breathes with your house over the years.

Nothing can compare to the warmth that wood floors add. There are a myriad of different species with different grain  patterns and colors and even more choices when you add in the option of stain. The Heart Pine floors in George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate are still going strong after 250 years. If they were good enough for our founding fathers aren’t they good enough for the rest of us?

To see more photos of how we can repair and refinish your wood floors visit our Portfolio.

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by Scott Sidler

I'm a historic preservationist and licensed contractor. I help old house lovers understand & restore their homes so they can enjoy the history and character that surrounds them more everyday! When not working, writing or teaching about old houses I spend most of my time fixing up my own 1929 bungalow with my wife Delores and sons Charley and Jude.



  1. Karen Kaiser Lee on said:

    Hi Scott,
    I’m about to buy a 1916 Chicago bungalow and one of the first things I’d like to do is finish the half story attic space. I was thinking to cover the wood floor since the wood they used originally has natural holes in places from the knots (not sure I’m explaining this right). But it sounds like you would recommend that I fill in these holes and finish the floor that’s there. Any thoughts?

  2. David on said:

    NEED HELP PLEASE ASAP!! My home had water damage to the oak hard wood floors. My home is from the1940’s.the Insurance company already pulled up a lot of my floors I had them stop! I still have some left in my home. On the back of the oak wood, oak 3 nofma ” McKinney superb brand oak flooring 3 nofma” McKinney, it’s on all the backs of the wood flooring. Need help finding it or matching it.

  3. Sarah on said:

    Hi Scott,
    I live in Canada in a 1906 house. It has red oak 1 3/4″ strip flooring everywhere – except for white oak in the living room. Downstairs the oak strip is beautiful quarter-sawn and upstairs it is plain-sawn. The way the floors are laid and the patterns make it seem like it’s all original. On both the stairs landing and the second floor, where the oak strip meets the staircase it is really messy: the sub-floor is bull-nosed and the oak strip sits on top and parallel. In other words, the sub-floor bullnose (which matches the bullnose on the original stairs) is totally visible and sloppy looking. This makes no sense given the great attention to detail in the rest of the flooring. Why?

  4. becky on said:

    Hi I own a 1917 home in eastern Colorado. I think it has oak floors how do I tell the difference? Thanks

  5. ann on said:

    I have 1930 hardwood floor that I want to preserve. Can you please tell me if these are to far gone to be saved. Thanks Ann Can I send some pictures

  6. Toni on said:

    With the house we are buying, our realtor had said that the wood floor used in our home was a “soft wood” like fir. I’m not really sure what the difference is between a “hard wood” and “soft wood” floor. Is there a difference? And how do you take care of one over the other, or is there a way for me to tell what kind of wood we have? Sorry for all the questions! 🙂


    • Toni, No problem about the questions! Happy to help! There isn’t a firm dividing line between hard and soft woods. They are all ranked on the Janka scale of hardness which you can find online.
      The only difference in care is that softer woods tend to get dented or gouged more often. Just be more careful with a softer wood like pine over a harder wood like oak.

      • Toni on said:

        Ok, then I definitely think we have soft wood because some of the pieces have small dents and things. Is there a way to protect soft wood like hard wood?

        • The best way to keep them from scratches and dents is to use felt on the bottoms of all your furniture. Also, try reading my post called How To: Care For Wood Floors for a few more tips.

  7. gulvfirma on said:

    Wood floor has an easy maintenance. And you will not pay too much from your pocket for the maintenance.

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