In researching floors and floor coverings of Georgian houses, I came across these interesting tidbits of information.
During the middle ages, the floors of simple peasant households consisted of dirt. Hay and straw were strewn on top of the surface, and often cow dung and household wastes were tossed on top of the rushes. This mixture was trampled upon by the inhabitants. (During the middle ages, animals often shared the house with their human owners.) The result was a surface that became as hard as cement over time. Around the 1100s, saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was used for gunpowder, and the floors of former peasant homes provided a good source for this mineral. Mint was used as a deodorizer to cover the smell of the floors, for walking around the room and tramping onthe herb helped to spread its scent. (A Not So Boring History of Flooring)
Concrete floors were also widespread. They were made by plastering a concrete preparation over reeds that were fastened to joists. When this substance dried the concrete assumed the character of a slab of unbroken stone which was strong enough to bear a heavy load without the aid of supporting joists. This hardy substance was both fireproof and long lasting.
Concrete floors eventually began to be replaced with wood floors during the Middle Ages.
We are not able to find any distinct records of wood having been employed for the boarding of the floors of dwelling-houses until towards the latter part of the middle ages, when an upper story began to be attached to middle-class houses in consequence of the increased value of land. The most abundant specimens of these early wooden floors are to be met with in London, probably for the reason that land being of higher values there than elsewhere, upperstoried houses wore more common. The name of 1′ lofts” was given to these upper storied rooms on their first introduction, from whence we have the compound word sentence of “up-a-loft,” and the word “cock-loft” has, probably, the same derivation, for wo find it now to be occasionally employed in some of the villages in the Midland counties to signify an up-stairs bedroom.- Building News and Engineering Journal, Vol 41, 1881
Wood floor planks were rough at first, and hand planed and hand finished with stone or metal. Old growth trees allowed for the maximum wood plank width (about 1-2 feet), which minimized the work required to cover a floor surface. In the 18th century, floorborads were irregular in shape and ranged in size and length. The goal was to use the smallest number of boards to cover a surface. More formal rooms used narower floorboards, indicating the wealth of the family who could afford to pay for the extra hours that craftsman took for the smaller sized boards.
Narrower floor boards general adoption gained rapid foothold during the Industrial Revolution after the repeal of duties place on foreign timber and the introductionof steam-powered planing machinery. In the early 1800s, production for such boards increased. The irony is that today wider floorboards have become a status symbol, for they have become more valuable as old growth trees have become scarce.
Wood floors had a variety of finishes. They were left unpainted and scrubbed with a mixture of sand and herbs. They were lymewashed, or oil painted in solid colors and stenciled. The floors were not sanded or washed or varnished during this early period. At a later time varnishes and stains were applied to help make the wood last longer.
In the mid 1800s decorated floor tile floors became popular in Europe. They had been used in Turkey, the Middle East, and in Dutch houses during the 1600s, and can be readily seen in Dutch interior paintings.
Floors were covered with a variety of rugs: rag rugs made of old bits of cloth; oil cloths; marble cloths; floor cloths, which were often painted to resemble carpets; and Persian rugs for the wealthy, which were prized for their color, design, and durability. Floor cloths were used in fine homes in France in the 14th century and made their appearance in England in the 17th century. Designs were often painted on them, as this U.S. example from Lakeport Plantation shows:
Another fascinating fact is that rubber floors were used as far back as the 13th century and remained popular until the 1600s. In 1863, Frederick Walton, an English rubber manufacturer, patented linoleum, which is still made in the same way today.
Interesting fact: From ‘besom’ to broom
To sweep floors during the Middle Ages, the British used a ‘besom’ – a handful of twigs with the leaves attached. Besoms were often made of twigs from the ‘broom scrub,’ and so the sweeping implements came to be called ‘brooms’ around AD 1000.
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