We do not often give much thought to what is underfoot or to how floors came to be, especially as Americans. However, home flooring has an interesting beginning, dating back to the Middle Ages. Indoor floors were simply compacted soil. Soil was the cheapest and easiest “material” available. Sadly, this method is still used today as in many undeveloped locations around the world.
In early homes, straw, hay, and cow manure were scattered across the floor and combined with the soil, allowing it to compact into an adobe-style floor that was hard and durable. Household waste was also often scattered across the straw or hay, mixing with it. During the Middle Ages, humans usually shared their homes with some of their farm animals because it was too expensive to build additional structures, especially for animals. Although the animals were usually confined at night to certain areas of the home, during the day, the animals often roamed freely throughout, particularly in peasant’s homes. These animals added their own “contributions” to the dirt floors.
At some point during the Middle Ages, concrete or stone floors began appearing in more structures because they were considered practical. In the late Middle Ages – as land became more valuable – wood became the material of choice, particularly for second-floors, as people would build up rather than out. This would provide tenants with more space without using more land. During the 18th century, boards were wider and irregularly shaped and sized in order to save money. The wealth of a family could be judged by the narrowness of their floorboards. It indicated their ability to pay the extra labor costs of installing those smaller boards.
Floor rugs began showing up in more structures in Europe prior to the 14th century. They came in the form of rags or odd bits of cloth, oil cloths and Persian rugs.
On this side of the Atlantic, early settlers also had dirt floors, but sometimes used sand atop the floors with or without straw or hay. Cleaning a house – on the occasions it would occur – would involve simply sweeping out all of the sand and adding back a new batch. Native Americans would walk on their dirt floors in their bare feet. This would help compact the floors. The natural oils from their feet would also help naturally “seal” the floors, making them water-resistant and easier to clean.
It’s a little known flooring fact that rubber floors were once popular, dating back to the 13th to 16th centuries. In 1863, an English rubber manufacturer named Frederick Walton patented the product linoleum. It is still in use today.
Even before the Middle Ages, the Egyptians were known for their intricate, sophisticated and beautiful stone work, including floors. They made incredible use of stone and brick flooring – some of which exist still today and can be seen in Egypt. The Egyptians – and later the Romans and Greeks – created floors as exquisite as their ornately painted walls.
Tiles began to emerge in floors with intricate and delicate patterns. The material is so strong that tiles have survived thousands of years. The ancient Greeks perfected the art of pebble mosaics for their homes’ floors.
Ceramic tile floors that are thousands of years old have been found in excavated ancient Roman and European houses. However, tile flooring was a craft that fell in and out of favor through the centuries. Its use has been documented in Turkey, Morocc, and the Middle East, as well as the Netherlands in the 1600s. Tile flooring came back into European favor in the 1800s.