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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 very 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. Service Seminararbeit schreiben lassen in a scientific study described that the abundance of wood led to the widespread use of wood floors in 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 Carpeting became cheap with the advent of synthetic fibers and hardwood was deemed “outdated.”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 re-application which was trying.
  • Shellac – Shellac is made from the residue of the lac bug of India. Shipped worldwide in lac “flakes”, and 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 its delicate nature and its 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 its 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 its 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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40 thoughts on “A History of Wood Floors

  1. Hello Scott, we bought a 1924 Ridgway, Pa. Home. Flooding from frozen pipe in bathroom and kitchen to pulling up the top layer laminate. Found carpet backing with 12X12 linoleum squares under that, revealing 9X9 oak parquet plywood squares. They are one piece and I cannot find anywhere online the same product. Went to a custom wood shop to buy wood to replicate damaged ones and showed photos of the floor and they said it was custom made. The sub flooring is unfinished pine and a sheet of ugly linoleum between it and the parquet. I wish I could find out how old the parquet is.It is a Treasure to find this and would be forgotten completely if not for the flooding. Turns out to be a good thing after all! I really enjoy your knowledge of flooring,very interesting! Wish I could send photos of it.

    1. Hello Russell,

      SO sorry to hear about the flooding but so glad it revealed the true flooring! You are always welcome to tag us in photos on Instagram if you’re on there ( ) or tag us on Facebook if you’re on there. We love seeing photos from our Craftsman Blog family worldwide!

      Best of luck to you!
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  2. We had 4 inches of water in our historic bungalow during hurricane Michael. Our wood floors started to cup a bit and the moisture meter read around 17-30% on the subfloor so we are taking out the wood floors now. There is a layer of tar paper under the floors and the subfloors are pine plank that look nice, but are painted brown (probably lead paint). Can this pine subfloor be restored and become our new wood flooring? There is closed cell spray foam underneath the house that we fear is holding moisture in, but we have 4 big squirrel cage fans blowing on the subfloor and the moisture content is coming down every day. Could this pine floor be sanded and stained? What about sanding off lead paint and having that dust all over the house? .

    1. Be sure the planks dry thoroughly and are not mildewed/moldy. You can plane them or heat strip with an inexpensive heat gun using the lowest setting possible (if there was a natural shellac varnish underneath the brown paint, and there most likely is ). Don’t worry about lead too much if you’re not making dust by sanding, but do contain the paint chips and flakes and clean thoroughly, wash before eating, etc. Many municipalities have regulations but most of those are for the pros. We’ve done our floors now in two different ho es and they look great. No ill effects so far and since the house already had a lot of lead issues, we are just careful not to eat the paint chips 😉

  3. My original 1952 oak, hardwood floors have begun to cup. We had a flood on the 15th of June. Water did not get inside my home and I thought I had missed the damage. I believe they are laid on sleepers without a plywood topping. I have an inspector from the Flood Insurance coming out to assess the damage. Is there anything I should know to help him understand what I should do. The house is on a slab…my garage is about 8 inches lower than the house and it had 6 inches in the garage. I’m thinking the water must have gotten under the floors but not enough to show above the floors or damage the baseboards or sheet rock. Thank you for your help.

    1. Hi Donna,
      What we would also recommend is having a licensed preservationist come take a look at your floors in addition to the flood insurance people to be sure that you have the perspective and expertise from someone who understands and cares for old houses/old floors etc. Here’s a directory of preservationists across the states and you can search to see if you can find one in your area.
      I hope this helps!
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  4. I am renovating a house built around 1905 and it has oak hardwood flooring and a red wood that lookins like fir. It is heavy and has little grain as it is probable about 600 years old. Sorry I a cannot post a photo. Could you make a suggetion as to what type of hardwood it isÉ

    1. What level is the fir on my guess 1st and 3rd with oak on the 2nd floor level.
      Is the fir 3 1/2″ wide and 1″ thick? If so early the fir is 1900’s

  5. We are buying a home that was built in the 1920s and still has the original wood floor. It currently is stained a dark brown color and we are thinking refinishing them. We like the idea of lighter floors but we were wondering what color stain would be typical of the time that the house was originally built. Do you know what stain was typical during that time?

  6. My husband and I bought a home whose title says 1948, some of the floors are 1 1/2” unfinished pine, the others are 2 1/4” oak. To me this doesn’t make sense with the date on the title, which I’m now pretty sure is wrong. Can you help me with the possible age of the pine floors?

  7. Hi Scott,
    We own a 1896 house in Colorado. I’m specifically concerned about the flooring on our front porch. It’s been stained and painted serveral times of the centuries and someone eventually put indoor/outdoor carpeting over it. The previous owners ruled up the carpet but left the adhesive used to adhere the carpet and then painted over that. I spent weeks and weeks using a heat gun and striped all glue and paint off. The majority of the porch is in very very good shape (especially considering the age) but on the edges of the porch some of the wood is cracked or splintering. Is this something that could be fixed or could the boards potentially be replaced and then feathered in to the existing old wood? Every contractor I’ve spoken to just encourages us to rip it out and start fresh. Any advice would be SO appreciated. Thanks in advance!

    1. Oh wow. That’s so sad to hear! In my opinion, a lot of GC’s who aren’t certified preservationists are going to be a lot quicker to just rip it out and start over. I would encourage you to find a GC who is a preservationist as well. We actually have a directory that helps with locating one in your area. Hopefully that will give you a much more ideal solution in saving your beautiful porch flooring!
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  8. Great read, very informative. I was curious because I purchased a home that was built in 1905 and I have been told I might have Fir flooring? Any thoughts on that?

    1. Fir is softer than oak but can be long lasting is the grain is tight (slow growth trees). We have fir floors and they were very common in many places at that time. Ours are from Oregon c.1900. You can find out which woods were used around there by finding out what kinds of forests were nearby. Also the other trim in the house is likely to be the same. You can ask a Local woodworker (cabinet maker) or a wood shop teacher. Mine knew all the woods, Take photos. Hope this helps!

  9. My house was rebuilt in about 1830. These “new” wide wood floors are old growth chestnut. I want to have them revitalized yet retain as much of their original wear and aging. The only issue I cannot resolve are the gap between the boards, with some as w half an inch in places. I know this is due to the years of drying. But in refinishing the floors, should I have the cracks refilled (I have some with residue of a plaster-like material). What do you suggest?

    1. Thats some pretty big gaps. how wide r those chesnut boards? wider board move more “expansion/ contraction”.. If they r not toung& grooved pull them up and push them closer. If they r face nailed thats not too big of a job but you may need 1 more board to finish up! with some basic skills and reading it may help but filling those cracks will not work.

  10. I love wood floors.This is really very informative post you have provided here.Just wanted to say thank you so much for such a fabulous idea today! I know you always do a great job but today you uploading all good benefits blogs.Brilliant job Thank you for sharing this post.
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  11. Our house in Athens Greece was built in 1937…..the floors are American oak….under the tiles its writen …..BRADLEY BRAND…WARREN ARK TRADE…U.S.A
    Does anyone knows if the firm exists ??/
    thank you…my E-M is ….and…my face book is ARGYRIS VAGENAS and phone 210-9345285 Athens Greece and mobile 6944149705

  12. Hello Scott, great blog! We just purchased a nice larger house in upstate NY and from what I can track down it was built in 1893. Due to some water damage the kitchen floor which was probably 1980 parquet ish stuff needed to be ripped up, along with about five layers of other flooring (thankfully no asbestos floor) …but here I am mid rip out, and I love what I think is the original floor which seems like 4″wide and 2″ thick, quarter sawn pine. Then at a friend suggested I might be ruining the structural integrity of the home and that it was just subfloor…that the house would not be to code anymore….insert mild panic attack!
    From all my research, the age of the home suggests this is the actual floor, that we are probably not going to see subfloor as it wasn’t usual at the time, and that it is sandable and able to be refinished.
    Do you have any insight into this to help me from completely freaking out?! I Love the old floor, and had already completed a small refinish in the pantry, but won’t go to all the trouble if I just need to lay modern floor down to meet code. Help!

  13. 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?

    1. The flooring in the upstairs is not hardwood flooring. It is Plank flooring which is commonly found without tongue and groove flooring on top in attics in old Chicago homes. You can sand them but it will be a lot of trouble for a not so great end result. I would suggest installing a new floor (3/4″) directly over the floor running across the direction of the planks

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

    1. have purchased home built in ’50s w/oak and pine flooring was this common construction in the ’50s

  16. 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

  17. 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! 🙂


    1. 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.

      1. 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?

        1. 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.

        2. Have a 1935 home with hardwood flooring that got about a 3 by 5 foot section damaged by water that dropped Tom an air conditioner. Trying to match the wood to replace a section. Got a quote for 4000.00 to fix this small section. I am “floored”! The company said they could not find the would and would have to sad it down. There had to be another way to find the. Any suggestions?????!

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