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A not-so-boring history of flooring

By Sharon J. Huntington / May 18, 2004



Are the floors in your home made of wood? Tile? Are they covered with carpeting or vinyl? We have plenty of options for covering our floors now, with even ancient types of floors still in use today in different parts of the world. Here's a look at what's been underfoot for the past 5,000 years or so.

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Track the dirt inside

In many early homes, the floor was just a patch of ground. This is still true in some parts of the world, such as places in Africa where the weather is always warm. Dirt is a good, inexpensive surface. Hay, straw, and cow dung are sometimes strewn on the floor and tamped down as people walk on it, creating a surface almost as hard as cement.

In some regions, household waste was just thrown on the floor and trampled down. During the Middle Ages in Europe (about AD 400 to 1400), animals sometimes shared the house with peasants, though in a separate room.

Occasionally the animals wandered into the humans' part of the house, and their dung was also trampled into the floor. When the mineral called saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was first used to develop gunpowder around the 1100s, the floors of former peasant homes served as a good source for saltpeter. It is found in places where manure and refuse accumulate in the soil under dry conditions.

The first known use for mint in Europe was as a room deodorizer. The herb was strewn across the floors to cover the smell of the litter. Stepping on the mint helped to spread its scent through the room.

In early North American homes, settlers would sometimes spread sand on top of the dirt floor. When the litter in the room became unbearable, they'd simply sweep it out the door along with the sand. Then they'd spread a new layer of sand on the floor. Other settlers would spread peanut and sunflower seed shells on the floor. As these were trampled underfoot, the shells spread oil into the dirt to help settle the dust.

In the Los Banos area of central California, native American Yokuts dug house pits about three feet deep. They piled the dirt outside the hole for walls. Then they made domes from branches, reeds, and mud for a roof. As they walked across the dirt floors with their bare feet, the oil in their feet gradually made the dirt watertight and easy to clean.

Sometimes dirt floors were decorated to make them more attractive. Colored sand was used to form patterns in the dirt. In India this evolved into a well-known art form called "rangoli," or floor painting. On a mud floor, a painting could be formed from rice powder and flower petals. These were created at the doorstep to greet visitors entering the home or to mark an important occasion.

Dressing up stone

About 5,000 years ago, Egyptians developed stone construction. Stone and brick floors began to appear. Soon these floors became works of art as well as a useful surface for the home. Colored tiles created patterns called mosaics across the floor to add beauty to the house.

As far back as 3,000 years ago, Greeks created pebble mosaics for their floors. Gradually they began using oblong stone shapes rather than pebbles. This technique was used in ancient France, Spain, Italy, and Northern Europe.

During the Roman Empire (27 BC to AD 476) engineers found another advantage of stone floors - heating. They built a small basement with pillars under the floor to support large stone squares. A vent was created at one end of the basement, and a fire was started under the opposite end. The heat and smoke from the fire would heat the stone floor above.

Evidence also shows that ceramic tiles were used for floors thousands of years ago. The Romans introduced tilemaking in portions of Western Europe. After the fall of Rome, however, the craft was forgotten for centuries. Tile floors appeared and disappeared. Decorated tiles were used in Turkey, the Middle East, and in the Netherlands during the 1600s. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that they became popular again throughout Europe.

The modern tile industry began in 1843 when Herbert Minton revived tilemaking in England. In Latin and South America, plain, undecorated ceramic tiles were common. Tiles became popular in North America during the late 1500s and flourished until about 1930.

Walking on wood

The earliest known wood floors came into use during the Middle Ages. At first, rough planks were laid across the floor. Then these were sanded or smoothed by rubbing them with stone or metal. Later, varnishes or stains were applied to help smooth the floor and make it last longer.

Stains were also used to add patterns to the floors. Sometimes inlaid patterns were created by carving shapes out of different-colored woods and piecing them together to form patterns, like a puzzle. People also painted patterns and designs on the floor.

Now for something woolly
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