The Joy of Floorboards

I did not intend to take a break from my sojourn quite so soon, but there are some calls that must be answered, and for now, it is strictly temporary.  This is for Yetismith, who inadvertently set the challenge, and for everybody else that reads this tosh and makes it all worthwhile …

Early floors were nothing more than patches of dried, compressed earth covered in a layer of straw and excrement which set like concrete, but smelled like the back end of a cow.  It was not unusual for European homes to be shared with animals and I think we are probably all aware of the skill with which some of them can hide their toothsome little gobbets behind curtains and doors, where they cannot be reached without moving the furniture and dislocating a sizeable length of vertebrae into the bargain.  Generally the little jobbies which were deposited in the more frequently transited sections of the floor were merely ‘trodden in’ to the existing surface, eventually forming a waterproof and durable surface – although not one that you’d want the baby to eat off.  It is believed that mint was actually introduced into Europe as a kind of ‘Shake ‘n’ Vac’ deodorizer: the leaves being scattered onto the hardened effluvia and trampled throughout the house, releasing their scent and lightening the atmosphere considerably – although almost certainly contributing to a certain sphincter-loosening sense of foreboding amongst the sheep in the scullery.  A similar effect is often reproduced in UK public houses with the liberal addition of Zoflora to the gentle collation of sawdust, blood, spit, vomit, pork scratchings and whatever-it-is that constantly seeps out from under the door of the gents.  This has a mildly hypnotic and aphrodisiac effect on hen and stag parties after thirteen bottles of Becks and a Vindaloo, resulting in a flood of tears, snot and recriminations the next morning, although seldom ritual whipping (except in certain Home Counties postcodes).

Early America settlers often covered their floors with sand which could be easily swept through the door with accumulated straw and dung and deposited against next-door’s fence.  Ancient Egyptians used stone and brick to decorate floors and add to the durability of surfaces from which the consumed whatever-it-was that made them presume that seeing giant cats with human heads was in any way normal.  Romans used tiny ceramic tiles to create mosaic floors of stunning complexity which slowly degraded leaving a surface not unlike a box of Lego on the kitchen tiles and is possibly why Italians have a tendency to wear sandals indoors to this day.

The earliest wooden floors were seen in the Middle Ages and were initially nothing more than wooden planks laid across the floor.  As houses became more sophisticated, this principle was adopted for ‘upstairs floors’ where it became an increasingly important way of stopping people falling straight back down after they reached the top of the stairs.  These ‘floorboards’ allowed upper floors to be traversed without the use of rope and pulley and meant that it became very much less tricky to chase the cat out of the bedroom at midnight.  Initially boards were hand sawn, split or axed and were consequently of differing sizes and thicknesses, resulting in a surface that can only otherwise be reproduced by allowing me to fit your kitchen laminate.

The invention of the steam engine led to new mechanical cutting methods and it became possible to produce planks of consistent and uniform size – ideal for the builder to hack about after you have reminded him that he has forgotten to allow space for the inglenook fireplace.  Tongue and grooved planks resulted in floors that were not only elegant and flat, but which no longer had gaps down which buttons or coins – or, in some of the hotels I have stayed in, children – could be lost.  This superb, flat surface has incredible durability and may last for decades, or until you have a leaking pipe, whichever comes first, because once lifted, tongue and groove boards never refit properly, although the consequent ‘creaking’ sections are known to enhance home security immensely.  A midnight trek across my own landing to the bathroom results in an under-carpet rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in creaks at a volume that would probably have woken the deaf old composer himself.

In the years following the Second World War, fitted carpets became increasingly popular and floorboards were generally hidden beneath acres of wall-to-wall florid nylonette shagpile.  Consequently the appearance of the wooden floor became less and less aesthetically important and large panels of chipboard began to replace the elegant wafers of oak and elm.  Such sawdust slabs had a super-flat, creak-free surface that dissolved like dampened rice-paper at the first childhood leakage and bowed alarmingly as it dried, often pinning the wardrobe up against the wall and ensuring that the doors could not be opened without a rubber mallet.

Good quality, original floorboards are now sanded, polished and left bare as a much treasured feature of period houses, yet by far the most interesting thing I can find about these architectural gems is what they occasionally have concealed below them: plumbing, wiring, proceeds of crime, bed bugs, builder’s fag packets, ‘Daz 4 Eva’, long deceased hamsters, grandad’s stash of porn, illicit love letters, priest holes, secret passages, witch marks, Aunty Hilda’s long-lost ‘friend’, grandma’s stash of porn… the greatest joy of floorboards is found in ripping them up in order to see what’s beneath – in the case of my own home, mostly woodworm, which I believe hardly ever bother burrowing into hardened straw and shit.  Just goes to show that progress is not always what it’s cracked up to be, doesn’t it?

NB – some of the above ‘facts’ were liberated from ‘A not-so-boring’ history of flooring’ by Sharon J. Huntington, who really should be rather more careful about what she says: the Trade Description people are very keen these days and ‘not-so-boring’ is a very subjective term…

18 thoughts on “The Joy of Floorboards

  1. Hi Colin, superb retelling of history! Honestly, having lived in industrial towns all my life, I only saw marble chip floors meant to create equal opportunity living space for cockroaches and rats after marbles chips away after first year. I also came across white marble floors with shiny finish meant to do away with unsuspecting wives via fall and broken necks.
    But I know for a fact that in villages, cow dung and straw is the preferred cement for all housing establishments. I believe that is why cows are revered in India–they hold houses together like a true mother! I am unsure why goat/buffalo dung is not offered the same respect. Probably, it doesn’t smell as good 🤣

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  2. Ah, spit and sawdust… memories of my ‘butchers boy’ beginnings of paid employment, ahem years ago. Although, like many pubs, it was more blood and sawdust.

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  3. A couple of years ago I had to learn about tongue and groove planks because my wife didn’t like carpet. Sorry, I don’t have any more interesting comments than that but I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet and yours is one of the first blogs I check. I was happy to see you had posted, though.

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  4. Thank you, Colin! When I was at boarding school with the humourless and not so holy nuns in Bideford, I was once given detention for making faces out of a window at a fellow student in another classroom. I was given the task of writing about the sound grass makes when it grows. I think I was even more unpopular when I turned in a great essay!

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  5. Good stuff. I’ll never forget the house I visited in Colombia with meticulously swept dirt floors. I would also note that it is possible to saw wood with wind power, circa 1321. (That’s a sensational date, not a factual one.)

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  6. Of course, this is where we get the word ‘Threshold’. The piece of timber at the foot of the door frame that originally stopped the ever increasing pile of straw, dry dung, bugs, dried herbs, dead things and general efluvia from spilling out onto the street. Not that it would have mattered, as at the point in time, the outside environs would have matched the indoor environs for squaller and smell. Much like my own home!

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