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Flooring over time

When doing some DIY, pulling up an old carpet to replace it or renovating your house you may discover some old flooring gem left over from a bygone era. Domestic flooring has a long and perhaps surprising history. As such, there’s plenty to discover about how it has evolved over time…

The first carpets

Persian carpet making dates back more than 2,500 years. These floor coverings initially existed to give some protection against the cold and damp ground in the tents of nomadic people, then started to become more intricate in design over time. Wool was the most obvious choice, thanks to its natural warmth and plentiful supply from the goats and sheep kept by nomads. Still being produced today with almost the same techniques and materials, these rugs have become very desirable and, due to their cost, are a bona fide status symbol. They really do look cracking over a real or engineered wood floor.

The Romans were of course great fans of colourful and intricate mosaic tiled floors, complete with advanced underfloor heating systems; a ‘hypocaust’. They weren’t adverse to the odd rug either, as well as woven tapestries, curtains and cushions. Interior design was certainly very important to the Romans! 

Middle ages

Rushes, usually reeds from the riverbank, were used on indoor flooring in the Middle Ages. These were woven into mats in the formal rooms of stately homes and castles, or likely scattered loose on the floor of servant areas to soak up spills and keep in warmth. These rushes would have also been used loose in peasant huts to give some protection from the dirt floor, as well as some comfort to sleep on for those not privileged enough to have a bed.

Reeds such as these would probably have been changed in the spring, with owners purging a year’s worth of stale reeds and grime. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that this flooring was far from beneficial to health. Of the rushes, Dutch scholar Erasmus was quoted saying that they were: "occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned.” How delightful!

Herbs were often scattered on top of the rushes in a vain attempt to improve the smell. Thank goodness those days are gone. Now as a nation we love to take pride in our flooring whether it be shiny engineered wood or soft, luxurious carpet.

Victorian design

Move forward several hundred years and flooring had changed somewhat. The Victorian era saw a penchant for parquet floors and pretty tiling.

Flagstones or unglazed tiles were normally used in kitchens; these were durable, easy to clean and most importantly fire-resistant. However, wood was the flooring of choice in many homes. Much quieter under feet and chairs, it was used in many kitchens and dining rooms, as well as bedrooms and various other locations throughout the house. This wood was often arranged in intricate patterns known as parquet, and brought to a high shine.

In an era where status was everything, keeping your house spotless was a top priority. Of course, the well-to-do had a plethora of servants to worry about this for them, but this wasn’t the case for everybody. Plus, those servants had quite the job on their hands, as housework was certainly harder back then. Just one method for cleaning wood floors involved scrubbing with sand before rubbing with a stiff brush and lye caustic soda – which was only the first part of the directions. Vacuum cleaners were non-existent, so getting out the dirt and dust out of rugs and carpets was pretty labour intensive. This involved taking the heavy article outside and beating it firmly with a carpet rod – a very dusty job that took some serious arm strength.

Some hallways, kitchens and paths still bear remnants of the colourful geometric tile flooring popular with Victorian designers. The fact that so much original flooring is still visible from this era is testament to the quality of workmanship and choice of materials. The Victorian style remains popular today and the vintage style of home décor has seen a resurgence of late, with natural and stripped-back floors a popular choice in British homes even in the 21st Century.

Linoleum revolution

Englishman Frederick Walton invented linoleum in 1855, initially as a way to market his new varnish to makers of oil cloth. However, the fabrics fell apart quickly so he instead turned his attention to floor coverings, using similar techniques to create a strong surface using oxidized oil, cork dust and gum or resin. As an inexpensive material, linoleum was used extensively in hallways, passages and kitchen floors thanks to its water resistance and impact resilience.

Sadly for linoleum its heyday has now been and gone; its usage declined after the invention of vinyl flooring in the 1920s. Rubber, cork and clay tile were also popular choices for flooring in the 1920s and 30s.

The 1930s brought innovations in machinery, which made mass production of carpets and other types of flooring much easier. Despite this, the textiles industry in Britain suffered as export trade saw a decline.

Post-war homes

After the Second World War, materials were in short supply and this lead to many homes being built with solid concrete floors, set with a damp-proof membrane. Parquet was popular for those who could afford it, while vinyl floor tiles began to make a regular appearance in the 1950s. The durability, versatility and smart styles on offer makes luxury vinyl flooring a favoured choice for homes even today.

Technological innovations, often brought about as a result of the war, meant new materials for the textiles industry, as well as new chemical technologies. Nylon – the ‘miracle fibre’ – was invented in America in the early 1930s and was being used in the carpet industry by the end of the 1940s.

Polyester fabric was commercialised in the 1950s, a decade which also brought leaps forward in engineering and chemical science, meaning fabrics were becoming more durable and colour fast – an important factor for carpets.

1970s - Carpet era

Patterned carpets and shag pile rugs really found their footing in the 1970s. Strong colours and psychedelic patterns were all the rage and some of these trends are even seeing a resurgence in a retro revival right now.

Vinyl flooring was also a popular choice for 1970s homes, although worryingly some vinyl tiles from this era and earlier contained asbestos. Happily, nowadays, flooring does not pose a hazard to your health!

The invention of laminate

Laminate revolutionised the flooring industry. Invented by a Swedish company and introduced to the market in the 1980s, laminate brought the shiny, smart look of natural wood favoured by Scandinavian-style interior designers, but with increased resilience and durability. Interlocking systems introduced in the 1990s made installation even easier and laminate remains one of the most popular floor choices in Britain’s homes.

Flooring today

Trends in flooring have seen an increased focus on greener materials and sustainability in manufacturing, as well as a spotlight on augmenting comfort and style.

Consumers want quality, whilst knowing that the environmental impact has been minimised. Manufacturers are taking these concerns on board and working on more efficient ways to create synthetic products, while looking at the manner in which natural materials like cotton and wood are sourced to make them sustainable. Thanks to environmentally conscious consumers, natural, eco-friendly alternative flooring choices such as sea grass, sisal or coir are now readily available at affordable prices.

Photo technology has improved, allowing for even more realistic vinyl and laminate flooring – while in carpets new blends of fibre combinations mean that softness and durability can go together. Stain-free carpets are today a reality, and manufacturers continue to strive for advances to help busy families tackle the fear or red wine and raspberry jam on their lovely carpets.

Consumers are spoiled by the huge variety of materials now available for flooring; from laminate to engineered wood flooring, natural, synthetic or blend carpets, in piles of all kinds and in a rainbow of colours and shades - there really is something to suit every home and budget.