Architectural finishes of all kinds are well represented in the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL). No surface suffers from more “wear and tear” than the floor, which meant a great challenge to producers and a plethora of choices for consumers.
Traditional flooring materials such as stone, ceramic, and wood predominated in the 19th century, but in the 20th century a plethora of new materials made their way to the marketplace, a trend that continues today. The earliest flooring catalogs in the BTHL are for ceramic clay tile, a material with ancient origins and endless design variations. The use of small mosaic tile might be used to create figurative designs, but geometric patterns were the most popular patterns illustrated in these early catalogs. Despite its ancient origins and popularity, there are very few early documents related to stone as a flooring material as most stone catalogs featured more structural applications.
Wood flooring in residences was one of the most popular materials and would be a marketed in most millwork and lumber catalogs. One of the earliest wood flooring catalogs in the BTHL was a company that made “wood carpets,” which were essentially thin wood strip flooring mounted on a flexible backing for application over a substrate. These “wood carpets” could be customized for the room and were available with decorative parquetry patterns. The publications from various wood floor trade associations are useful with both technical and design content. Cork flooring was another popular wood flooring product that was not generally found in millwork catalogs but marketed by specialty producers.
Linoleum is the earliest composite flooring material, which originated in the mid-19th century. It is one of the first products we now identify as “resilient flooring” for its softer cushioning effect. Resilient flooring was produced in both sheet form and as individual tiles. Tiles designed to simulate stone such as marble were common. The use of tiles meant a virtually unlimited number of flooring patterns and many of these catalogs featured hundreds of pattern options. Linoleum flooring catalogs sometimes featured large full color plates to show the patterns. By the mid-20th century, linoleum sheet flooring was available in very detailed and figurative design often inspired by foliage and marketed much like “area rugs." The Art Deco design movement produced a whole generation of bold geometric patterns, which were frequently illustrated in kitchen applications.
There are several trade publications about concrete floors, which were popular for industrial uses but uncommon in most residential and commercial buildings. The exception to this was terrazzo, a thin concrete floor topping that used a custom mix of stone aggregates and a polishing system that produced a patterned surface with great durability. Terrazzo is still in use today for locations with high foot traffic such as lobbies and airports.
Resilient flooring in the form of sheet materials and individual tiles could be found in a range of materials other than linoleum such as rubber, asphalt, and vinyl. Floor tiles were generally produced in plain colors or with patterns that simulated stone. Vinyl was the last of the new resilient materials and dominated the flooring market after WWII. The introduction of asbestos to asphalt and vinyl floor tile improved the durability of the flooring but had unfortunate environmental consequences. The BTHL can be used to help identify asbestos containing-materials for a range of building products. One specialty asbestos flooring material was Zenitherm, a composite tile that was very durable and produced with a cork-like appearance.
Flooring, because of its constant use, has challenged manufactures to create durable products that stand up to constant maintenance and retain their design characteristics. The move to less durable materials such as carpets that are replaced more often is a topic for a future history of flooring.
Alfred Meakin Ltd., Tunstall, England
This colorful tile catalog from England is one of the oldest flooring catalogs in the Building Technology Heritage Library. Encaustic floor tile patterns from the middle ages experienced a popular revival in the mid-19th century. There are 24 colorful plates in this volume with several hundred different floor patterns.
Boughton & Terwilliger, New York, NY
Parquetry was a method of inlaying small pieces of wood in decorative patterns for both furniture and flooring. The products in this catalog were offered in two thicknesses, 3/8” called “wood carpets” and 7/8” called “thick parquetry floors.”
George W. Blabon Co., Philadelphia, PA
Linoleum flooring was offered in more than 315 patterns in this extensive “pocked edition” catalog. The designs were presented to scale and represented an 18” square design segment, mostly of geometric patterns. There were 15 different grades included and an additional brand of thicker linoleum marketed as “battleship linoleum.”
Seaman Kent Co., Toronto Ontario, Canada
Oak, maple beech, and birch floors were featured in this Canadian catalog from the 1920s. The oak floors were illustrated in both quarter-sawn and plain-sawn versions. There are technical details for wood grading, installation, and finishing.
Armstrong Cork & Tile Co., Lancaster, PA
Cork flooring has been popular through many different eras and is admired for its character and durability. It is also noteworthy today for its positive ecological qualities as a renewable and natural resource. The Armstrong Cork Co. got its start with this material but grew into a leading flooring company as it moved into linoleum and vinyl flooring in the 20th century.
David E. Kennedy Co., Brooklyn, NY
Marble flooring was popular in ancient Roman and therefor a popular material for classical buildings. Rubber floor tile that replicated marble in design but was less expensive and competitive on price with linoleum. The catalog illustrated twelve different marble styles and the text notes the availability of four wooden patterns and ten solid colors. There are also many photographs showing completed illustrations.
Zenitherm Company, Inc., Kearny, NJ
Zenitherm was a composite material that was marketed as having the look of marble but the ability to be worked like wood. It was popular in the 1930s, particularly in New Jersey where the plant was located. It’s has proven to be quite a durable material, albeit one that had asbestos fibers.
Medusa Portland Cement Co., Cleveland, OH
Terrazzo, a decorative form of concrete, is one of the most durable flooring materials, which made it particularly popular for public buildings with lots of “foot traffic.” The Medusa company made a white cement that proved to be a perfect binder for more than 23 domestic and imported decorative marble chips.
Lloyd Floor & Wall Tile Company, Kansas City, MO
One-inch square ceramic tile in several dozen different colors could produce a plethora of floor pattern designs. There are extensive illustrations of floor patterns as well as wainscoting, fireplace mantels, and even kitchen countertops.
Sloane-Bablon Corp., New York, NY
Resilient linoleum sheet flooring is featured in this catalog from the 1950s. Traditional floral and geometric patterns are the most common, but thematic designs like “western bunkhouse” were perfect for the cowboy fan of the 1950s.
Flintkote Co., New York, NY
Vinyl as a flooring material rapidly gained in popularity in the 1950s and starts to replace linoleum as the most popular form of resilient flooring. By the 1960s there were a wide variety of vinyl composite flooring materials, including those with asbestos. The catalog from 1961 has both vinyl and asphalt-asbestos floor tiles in color patterns that simulated wood, marble, and terrazzo as well as abstract designs .