This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.
No surface suffers from more wear and tear than the floor, a long-challenging proposition for product manufacturers yielding an ever-changing array of material choices as technologies have made products more durable and environmentally friendly. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the period of time covered by the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), popular flooring choices ranged from traditional ceramic tile and hardwoods to composites like vinyl asbestos tile (VAT) and Zenitherm, a branded marble-like surface that also contained asbestos.
Flooring materials marketed directly to homeowners touted their design and performance. Catalogs with titles like the Decorating Answer Book, detailed below, pitched the floor as the centerpiece of the room, while catalogs like How to Create Your Own Designs in Resilient Tile Floors, also below, challenged homeowners to create custom patterns with their tile squares.
Sheets and tiles were available in a range of materials including linoleum, plastic, vinyl asbestos, rubber, cork, and asphalt. Sheet flooring, particularly linoleum and vinyl, were first produced with very figurative designs before shifting to geometric patterns. Resilient sheet flooring intended for use in children’s spaces and therefore printed with fairy tale or western motifs, for example, speak to the era’s pop-culture interests.
Alfred Meakin, Highgate Tile Works, c. 1870, Alfred Meakin
This colorful tile catalog from England is one of the oldest flooring catalogs in the BTL. Encaustic tile designs from the Middle Ages experienced a popular revival in the mid-19th century and are showcased in this catalog.
Decorator’s Answer book: Hazel Dell Brown, 1949, Armstrong Cork
Armstrong Cork, in Lancaster, Pa., got its start with cork flooring but moved into linoleum and other resilient materials in the 20th century, hiring professional interior designers such as Hazel Dell Brown to co-produce illustrated catalogs, like this one, showcasing new flooring materials and patterns. These catalogs also include views of complete interior residential room designs of the day.
Oak Floors for Everlasting Economy, 1922, Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association
Publications from product trade associations provide both technical details and testimonials. This catalog from the Oak Flooring Manufacturer’s Association, in Chicago, is typical of this type, touting specs and making claims as to the material’s extended life cycle that it is “good for a hundred years.”
Olson Duo-Velvety Rugs, 1930, Olson Rug Company
The Chicago-based Olson Rug Company sold its rugs nationwide, and the BTHL has the company's catalogs from the 1920s through 1963. Materials and styles vary through this period, but the illustrations provide a look inside the homes of the era, as the company's carpets were primarily marketed for residential use.
Zenitherm for Walls and Floors, 1930, Zenitherm
With the look of marble and the ability to be worked like wood, the branded Zenitherm flooring material was popular in the 1930s, particularly in New Jersey where the company's plant was located. It has proven to be quite durable, albeit containing asbestos fibers.
Terrazzo with Medusa, 1931, Medusa Portland Cement Co.
The durability of terrazzo, a type of decorative concrete, has long made it particular flooring choice for highly trafficked public buildings, as evidenced in this brochure from the Cleveland-based Portland cement maker.
The Idea Book of Tile, 1953, American Olean Tile
Ceramic tiles durability and moisture resistance made it a popular product for kitchen and bathroom floors. This brochure from the American Olean Tile company, in New York, shows their application in residential applications.
How to Create Your Own Designs in Resilient Tile Floors, 1957, Congoleum-Nairn
Tile makers typically offered customers the option to create their own flooring patterns by arranging the tiles in the matter of their choosing. This idea book engaged consumers in the design process. With an array of sample patterns to choose from and various material options, the potential combinations were virtually unlimited.
Floor and Wall Fashions by Sloane, 1952, Sloane-Bablon
Resilient linoleum sheet flooring is featured in this catalog from the 1950s. Traditional floral and geometric patterns are the most common, but the catalog also includes thematic designs for children’s rooms (shown above).