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A Blast from the Past: Wood Floors in the 1920’s

Last month I featured a couple of old hardwood floor brochures from the late 1800’s. This month I wanted to show you another couple of brochures that I found from the 1920’s.

It can be fun to look through these and see what they did back then, where our industry has come from and to see all the advancements made throughout the years.

The 1920’s were a time of economic boom after World War 1 had ended. They were called the roaring 20’s for a reason. Music, fashion, lifestyles, (hairstyles) and culture were all going through major changes. Jazz, automobiles, telephones and motion pictures from Hollywood were all the rage.

It was also a big transition period for housing and architecture.

There were a lot of changes and improved standards in residential home building. New materials and building methods meant houses were easier to heat and cool, were more hygienic, and far better suited to modern living.

Oak hardwood flooring really came into its own during this period.

New manufacturing processes meant better milled and more stable flooring was available (you can see an illustration of new milling techniques a few pictures below). Cool patterns like herringbone, chevron and basket weave were popular with wealthier homeowners… as well as parquet and strip flooring for ‘average’ homes.

That’s when this brochure came onto the scene. For those with good eyes you can see it’s also from right here in Chicago in 1920…

Below you can see the different types and grades of oak flooring offered back then and the suggestions of which type of application they would be suited to…

For those that didn’t have money floating around like many of the high flyers in the 20’s, there are suggestions on how to have the ‘look’ of high-end flooring for substantial savings – up to 40% in savings!

Apparently this was quite a common practice in those days as you can read in a section of the brochure below…

So that explains why your 1920-30’s home in the Chicagoland area may have two different grades of wood in the same room. Interesting hey.

Below you can see the changes in milling techniques that provided a much better fitting floor. Tongue and groove milling had been around for a while, but now “Tongue and Groove” milling on the ends of boards was available…

Another thing that has come a long way since the 20’s is sanding procedures and equipment. Back then pretty much everything was done by hand.

Can you imagine how much work it would be to smooth a 1,000sqft floor with a hand scraper?

Even the power scrapers in the 1920’s weren’t easy to use and they weighed a ton. Check out this old ad (again in Chicago!) from 1915…

Can you imagine the weight of that contraption on the right?

It wouldn’t be for a few more years until more affordable and truly portable sanding machines would come onto the market. (Maybe in another blog post it would be fun to show the progression of hardwood floor sanding machines. I have quite a few old ads for these too).

Another thing that has definitely changed since the 20’s is the use of dangerous products on floors such as gasoline.

Have a look at the process they suggested for wood floor filler…

Probably the most obvious changes and advancements in the hardwood flooring industry since the 1920’s have been in protective finishes and coatings.

In the snippet above from 1920 you can see the recommendation of shellac, wax or varnish as the choice finishes to use on wood floors. And again in 1921, the booklet below titled “The Perfect Floor” has the same suggestions…

These finishes had severe limitations though.

In the highlighted section above it says this about Shellac Finish – “If water has been spilled upon the floor, turning it white in spots”… and then suggestions are given on how to clean the floor, but it continues with… “Do not repeat this operation too often nor too vigorously, or the surface finish will be entirely destroyed.”

That was the problem with wood floor finishes in those days… they were very finicky and needed to be constantly maintained and re-waxed.

As we saw last month, this was a laborious task done with a heavy and awkward wax polishing brush.

But in the 20’s, electric versions of these brushes started to become popular. It’s fun to see the marketing they used for them. Here’s an ad from 1925 from the Ponsell Floor Machine Company…

“No exertion whatever” – “No skill needed” – “No effort = No muss” – “Five times faster”… who could resist purchasing one of these for their floors?

Here are two more ads from 1926 for these ‘Electric Floor Polishers’…

…so simple even a child could do it 🙂

Compared to hand polishing I’m sure they were far easier. They still didn’t do anything to better the finishes used though, just make it easier to maintain them.

Here’s another 1920’s brochure from the same wood floor and furniture finishing supply company as the ads above…

I love the suggestion they have on Page 6 for waxing dance floors…

“Simply sprinkle the Wax lightly over the floor, and the feet of the dancers will spread it, polishing the floor and making a perfect dancing surface.”

What a great idea.

From now on we should host hardwood floor finishing ‘Dance’ parties! What do you think? Would you be interested? 🙂

The Late 20’s and Beyond…

By the late 1920’s wood floors started to have major competition from linoleum floors, which offered far less maintenance and hassle. To combat this, varnishes were reformulated with resins to improve hardness, durability and cure time.

By the 1930’s polyurethane was becoming popular and the old wax and shellac floors were coming to the end of their long – and very useful – days.

Wood floors continued to be extremely popular through the 40’s, especially during the housing boom after World War II. Then in the 50’s, carpet and vinyl began to be more affordable as well as being much easier to maintain. And that’s when the bottom fell out of the wood floor market… which is a shame because that’s when some of the best machinery started to come out to make this job a whole lot easier.

Since then there’s been some amazing advancements in hardwood floor finishes.

Unlike in the 20’s and prior where high maintenance wax or shellac were your only options, we now have such a huge choice of high quality, low hassle finishes to choose from. And hardwood is again the top choice of flooring for homeowners.

In Conclusion…

That was fun to have a glimpse into the past wasn’t it?

If you happen to be lucky enough to have one of those original old hardwood floors from a previous generation, enjoy it and appreciate its history and all the wonderful character it holds.

These floors are priceless.

Think of all the effort and backbreaking work someone spent installing them without power tools, scraping them smooth by hand and then hand waxing them. You’re walking on history.

Also, as you think about previous generations, be very thankful that your weekend doesn’t have to be consumed with stripping your floors with turpentine, filling the gaps with a concoction of filler and gasoline and then re-applying wax over them.

And last but not least…

[Start Rant] If you have incredible floors from the 1800’s, the 20’s or even the 50’s – Please don’t hand them over to the cheapest ‘floor sander’ in town who will end up destroying them by grinding them into oblivion! These historic antique floors need to be preserved and treated with the utmost care, not just handed over to the lowest bidder who has no appreciation for them and is only thinking of getting them done as fast as possible so he can move onto his next job. [End Rant]

Oh and one more thing to wrap up this post… if you happen to have any historic floor machines, advertisements or pamphlets/brochures lying around that you don’t need… we’d be more than happy to provide a safe home for them 🙂

Ps. I found a great write-up of the history of wood floors over the last 100 years. It goes into a lot more detail than this article. If you’d like to read it you can find it here.

 

8 Comments

  1. Nathan says:

    Hello Tadas, I just read through pretty much all of your blog posts. I just wanted to say that you have one of the most interesting websites about wood floor finishing around. Very interesting and informative, thank-you!

  2. C Brown says:

    Never ran into this before but I have a customer that wants her gmothers 60 yr old 2 1/4 parquet waxed. They really need to be refinished. I know they wont be maintained properly. But is there a Hardwax system you know of thats compatible with 60 yrs of buffed on paste wax?

    • Hi C Brown,

      Sorry but I don’t know any product that is compatible with past wax. Sounds like they will need to be stripped and sanded which will not be a fun job.

      Good luck.

      Tadas

  3. Helen Johnson says:

    Hi Tadas,

    I wanted to ask you about the floors that are in my brothers house.
    The house is old. 1920. The floors I think is oak???
    I want to removed 4 layers of tile and stripped and stain
    the floors. ( Which I think would turn out very, very good )
    My brother is not a happy person. He thinks I should just cover the floor up and leave things the way they were before
    I got there.

    I still think that the floors would look great if I sanded and stain, and put a high gloss finish to them.

    I wanted to find out if I go this route would it be a lot of
    work ahead of me.

    Thanks
    Helen Johnson

    • Hi Helen,

      Wow, you’re very fortunate to have floors from the 1920’s. Yes… it will be a lot of work removing all those layers of flooring. It will also be a lot of work restoring the floors. But… I imagine they will look wonderful once done! It will also bring the floor level back to original.

      Are you looking to do it all yourselves as DIYers or get professionals in?

      If cost is a factor, maybe you could carefully do the removal and disposal of the 4 layers yourselves, saving a lot of money, and hiring a pro to restore them for you.

      Please let us know what you decide. And good luck with your brother 🙂

      Tadas

  4. I Meyer says:

    I own a Posell waxer/buffer that looks identical to the one in the advertisement. We rewired it and it works wonderfully on my parquet floors.

    Visitors always comment on our beautiful floors.

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