The Boston Public Library

We have a penchant for history at Real Wood Floors. And no better place to talk history than when you investigate the past of hardwood flooring.

We’ve found that when looking into this history, what began as function gave way to design. Then, what became design cast a backward glance to the function (and style) of the traditional wood floor.

Historically, widths were functional.

In the early 1900s, wood flooring was functional and structural, and certainly not a design feature.

To produce flooring at this time, lumber mills cut boards into two primary widths: 2 1/4 and 1 1/2 inches.

These measurements were a result of the milling process. Lumber was cut from a 3” by 1” plank to manufacture a 2 1/4” board (essentially a two-by-four).

Given that some boards were fewer than 3 inches, mills cut these smaller boards into 1 1/2” strips (“strip flooring”). Typically made from red or white oak, it provided another flooring option for consumers at the turn of the twentieth century.

The 1950s and 60s bring change.

Across the US after World War II, many building codes changed. Up until then, builders constructed homes primarily with brick, but regulations were modified as a good number of buyers wanted a uniqueness to their homes, different from the urban landscape. Subsequently, more homes were built with wood and shingle siding.

Builders began laying down plywood over floor joists, which gave offices and homeowners a structural subfloor. Now consumers could add carpet, tile, or linoleum—with carpet the head and shoulders’ choice above the rest. As well, there was a bit of prestige with carpet because it fetched a price, and other homeowners were aware of that.

Because of this new design choice, wood flooring went out of fashion for the new fad of carpet.

Another shift in the 1980s.

During the 1980s many people became frustrated with the cleaning maintenance that came with carpet. It was often difficult to remove stains or eliminate foul smells, particularly if pets roamed the house. They needed another flooring choice. At this time many adventurous folks purchased gorgeous older homes to remodel or restore, and they started ripping up old carpet to reveal and highlight a traditional real wood floor.

Both dissatisfied carpet owners and home renovators once again turned to wood flooring as a viable option for their needs. Unlike the past, the wood floor didn’t need to be structural per building codes, so wood flooring took on a decorative role. While some consumers stuck to the traditional width of 2 1/4, or even 3 1/4, others wanted new design options such as larger plank dimensions, colors, and textures.

The flooring manufacturers began to meet consumer demand by cutting boards wider, and wide flooring became a mainstay as a design feature.

In the 1990s, engineered flooring entered the market.

Homeowners’ desire for wider floors created a uniquely wood-natured issue, particularly in the South.

The larger floorboards started to move, and consumers discovered gapping in their floors. This seasonal gapping occurs typically in winter with changes in the home’s temperature and relative humidity; the dry air causes wood to shrink, and then humid summer air makes it expand. (Learn how to protect your floor.) Manufacturers had a solution: an engineered floor. With its origin in the 1970s, the engineered floor had a standard width of 5 inches, and its layered wood design didn’t allow as much expansion and contraction as traditional floor boards.

Today’s trend in floor width.

With no need for structural concerns, today’s consumers can focus on design.

For both solid wood and engineered flooring, wide widths are popular for a number of reasons. Wide boards can create the appearance that a space is larger than it actually is. Texture and knots, the heart of the wood, provide consumers with a unique, beautiful floor. Cathedral grain (arches in the wood) offers still another interesting aesthetic attribute that one can’t get in narrow boards. You can see these live-sawn features in our classic collection, Brick & Board.

Like widths, board lengths have their own history: Also a matter of function.

Floors at the turn of the twentieth century often featured boards that were 10 foot, 12 foot, or even longer. Mills culled lumber from old-growth forests and chopped a board when the tree was no longer straight. Like widths, this decision was purely functional.

In the twenty-first century, shipping changes the game.

With the growth of industry, housing, and suburbs, wood flooring had to be hauled greater distances. Because of this, logistics took center stage. Four-foot-long planks became standard because trucking companies could easily haul flooring in 4×4 chunks.

Once again, design influenced the game. Four-foot flooring didn’t have to be the optimal choice for a home or office. Manufacturers met this design demand by making longer floors, reminiscent of the old days when warehouses and buildings had extremely long planks.

Today’s trend is in floor length.

Strahan – The Tasmania Collection

Significantly long boards remain the trend today because these lengths are attractive visually; instead of a choppy or cluttered look, the floor flows smoothly across a room. Also, longer planks are usually composed of a higher grade of wood.

The only constant is change.

Mantel – The Brick & Board Collection

Change is also a constant when it comes to design and trends in wood flooring. Narrow widths are making a comeback, given design choices for a line-heavy look or simply for overall versatility.

Throughout August we are featuring our 5-inch-width floor, Mantel, from the Brick and Board Collection. Typically, we charge for samples, but we are sending out samples this month at no charge. Contact us today via our website or by phone, 877.215.1831, for your free samples.