The History of Hardwood Flooring

Medieval Times

Installing wood flooring into medieval homes was extremely labor intensive, often requiring years to complete.  Each board was cut by hand and nailed to wooden floor joists over the dirt or stone foundation.  Typically, hardwood flooring was not just about aesthetics, but installed for practicality.  Since oak and pine were readily available, those species are the most abundant in homes and castles from the middle ages.  Old growth trees were typically used due to the width of the trees, with most planks averaging 1-2 feet wide, minimizing the work needed to cover a home’s foundation.  Planks were rough, hand finished with wooden or metal tools and were irregular in shape and size.  Narrower boards were a sign of wealth and only families who could afford the extra labor and meticulous craftsmanship it took to lay narrow plank floors could have them. 

Sigulda Old Castle, Latvia


Antique hemlock flooring with nail holes and saw marks 

Baroque Era 

During the Baroque era, wood flooring became part of the celebration of decadence that arose during this period.  Baroque architecture focused on highly detailed, elaborate décor and embellishment.  Some of the most famous buildings in the world were completed during the Baroque Era, including St. Peter’s Basilica, Chateau de Versailles, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The style of the day carried over into hardwood flooring and in 1625 artistic French parquetry and marquetry patterns began to appear in some of Europe’s finest architecture.  The process to make such an elaborately designed floor could take decades to install, with craftsman cutting each individual piece of wood to methodically fit them together to make complex, three-dimensional designs.  Each piece was painstakingly scraped by hand, rubbed with sand to smooth the surface, stained and polished until shiny. 

Potsdam Palace, Germany 

Chateau de Versailles, France  

Intricately designed floors became the standard of opulence in interior design during the period and those who could not afford the style imitated it by painting designs on floor cloths and tiles.  Merchant class people in Europe, wanting to keep up with the Jones’ commissioned artists to beautify their homes by emulating the upper-class preference for Baroque style.   

Medieval painted floor tiles in Gloucestershire, England  

Baroque era floor cloth, Turkey 

Colonial Times 

When settlers first colonized North America, they took advantage of the abundant old growth forests and most homes had wide plank flooring.  Again, most hardwood floors were installed out of necessity, without regard for style.  Colonial Americans who were in the upper classes began installing French inspired parquet designs.  During this time, the Victorian era (1840-1910), factories began to mass produce hardwood flooring, unveiling the “wood carpet”, a rolled up piece of canvas with 1 1/2″ to 5/16″ strips of wood glued on the fabric.  Although this product made hardwood flooring more readily available, allowing lower classes and those without complex woodworking skills access to hardwood flooring, it proved to be unreliable in standing up to the stress of a busy house. 

Farmhouse at Hardeman Farm, Georgia, USA 

Victorian House, Plainfield, New Jersey, USA 

Edwardian Era 

As manufacturing in America began to flourish in the Edwardian era (1901-1914), craftsmen developed the tongue and groove and end match construction methods which lead to the even, polished look that we are familiar with today.  Since the level of craftsmanship needed to install tongue and groove flooring was much lower, the use of cheap labor to install hardwood flooring increased. The first tongue and groove floors were typically installed over a concrete slab using hot tar for an adhesive.  Each part of the process was done by hand, with workers scraping, sanding, shellacking, waxing and buffing every plank.   

Twentieth Century  

In the turn of the 20th century, manufacturing was a booming industry in America.  New technology allowed for hollow-backing of flooring planks and new dimensions were introduced which lightened up the loads being hauled around the country.  Manufacturers also began to dry kiln their wood, permitting it to survive in 20th-century homes where centralized heating and air were becoming the norm.  Along with the industrial revolution that improved manufacturing processes for hardwood flooring,  the 1920’s brought new, less expensive products to the marketplace.  With the Great Depression looming, consumers turned to cork and laminate flooring which offered durability at a fraction of the price.   

In the 1930’s, polyurethane finishes were developed and helped keep hardwood flooring popular.  Wood flooring remained as a top choice until after World War II, when wall to wall carpeting was introduced.  In the 1960’s home loan companies offered loans that included carpeting and the trend exploded in popularity.  Hardwood flooring companies felt the hit and began cutting costs to compete, which lead to installers being forced to work at a much higher pace to support their families. Installation became lackadaisical and wood flooring’s perception changed from being a status symbol for wealth to a cheap flooring option for the masses. 

In the late 1960’s and 1970’s carpet was all the rage and people couldn’t get enough of it.  It came in every color imaginable and homeowners would find unexpected ways to adorn their homes with carpet.  Carpet was considered the on-trend flooring option for fashionable homeowners all the way through the 1980’s.  

Yellow carpet surrounding a Jacuzzi Tub, 1970’s 

Elvis’ Jungle Room, Memphis, Tennessee, USA 

Later into the 1980’s, prefinished hardwood flooring began to grow in popularity, offering the clean look of plank flooring and increased durability that carpet couldn’t offer.  In the late 20th century a Victorian and Craftsman Revival began and homeowners started discovering original hardwood flooring that had remained hidden for decades under wall-to-wall carpeting.  Many people opted to rip out their carpeting and refinish the original hardwood flooring in their homes, celebrating the natural beauty of wood.   

Current Times 

In the 21st century, there has been a rebirth of the hardwood flooring industry, with home buyers listing hardwood flooring at the top of their priority list when shopping for a home.  Finishes have improved and the variety of stains and colors available are limitless.  Prefinished flooring is widely available in solid and engineered varieties and hand-texturizing techniques have been developed to mimic the look of old world hardwood flooring and that has aged.    

This desire for specific hardwood flooring options has led to the development of specialized companies like Shannon & Waterman, where we allow the homeowner, architect or designer free range in designing the custom hardwood floor of their dreams.  With many floors designed to mimic the old, wide plank flooring you would see in a Medieval castle or Colonial home, Shannon & Waterman is on the cutting edge of modern home design. 

Shannon & Waterman Custom Floor in Walnut