If your MCM home is older than 1954, you may have a surprise in store. There might be original wood flooring lurking under tatty old wall-to-wall carpet! Today let’s learn the history of Mid-Century Hardwood Floors and find out if you might have some in your home!
Mid-century design is all about simple, natural materials – often wood. Wood floors, wood panel walls, wood trim, and wood furniture abound.
Keep reading to learn the history of how our MCM forbears accidentally ruined builder grade housing forever with the invention of cheap, mass-produced wall-to-wall carpet. If you just want to get to the good stuff (the How To) skip down using this handy table of contents!
All about Mid-century hardwood floors
First of all, lets be clear. The idea of a hardwood floor is not an inherently mid-century idea. In fact the early mid mod period (late 40’s – early 50’s) is about the last time that hardwood floors were common in builder grade houses.
Originally, Mid-century hardwood floors were for every house – large and small
Wood floors may not have originated in the MCM period, but they were appreciated then. High-end homes throughout the period showcased stunning expanses of hardwood floor along with their wood panel walls, beautiful wooden furniture and general glorification of natural materials.
But hardwood floors were for regular people, too. Up to the wide release of synthetic wall-to-wall carpet in 1954, every house had hardwood floor in most of the main spaces, just like my modest little ranch does.
Mid-century hardwood floors in golden oak go hand in glove with the MCM ethos of appreciating the beauty and simplicity of low-cost, natural materials. (Hardwood floors were a lower cost option back before we’d cut down all our hardwood!)
Here’s the dirty secret: Wall-to-Wall carpet was an MCM trend
Mid-century home builders innovated a number of alternate “modern” flooring materials including linoleum (and then vinyl) floors for kitchens and bathrooms. They went wild with the concept of wall-to-wall synthetic carpeting. There had been wall-to-wall before then, but it was made of cotton or wool and was extremely high end. Synthetic wall-to-wall carpet became widely available around 1954.
And … it all changed forever. Once builders had a cheap and appealing surface they could toss right over the subfloor in a day … they immediately stopped offering hardwood floors as standard.
So how do you get at the hardwood floors that are hiding under your carpet?
If your ranch (or MCM house) is was built before 1954, you’re in luck. You almost certainly have hardwood under the carpet in your main living areas.
Getting back down to your wood floor can be as easy as this:
Step 1: Confirm what’s down there
Peel up an out of the way corner. Make sure you really do have hardwood floor under your wall-to-wall carpet. You may want to check in several places to make sure there’s hardwood everywhere there is carpet!
Step 2: Pull that carpet
Start at the corner and pull up the carpet. Unless you have some alternate use planned for the old carpet, pull it back in 4 foot segments. Fold each new part back onto the existing carpet area and slice it off with a box cutter in 4 foot lengths. Roll each one up and tie it with twine for easy disposal.
Note: wear gloves and a DUST MASK because this can be a little bit of a dirty job. Also, I recommend knee pads. I may be a millennial but my joints need love, too!
Step 3: Pull the carpet pad, too
Pull up the carpet pad. Ditto on the 4 foot segments and rolling it up to carry out. You’ll likely find that it is stapled to the floor at the edges (which won’t align with the carpet above) but just rip it up carefully past the staples. We’ll get them next.
Step 4: Pry out carpet tack strips and staples
Then come back and pry up the staples and carpet tack around the edge of the room. You can easily yank out the staples with a sturdy pair of pliers. Use a prybar (or even my beloved mini prybar) to get under the edges.
Step 5: Clean up that floor
You’ll be left looking at pretty, mid-century hardwood floors, hiding under a dirty, scummy surface of everything that has drifted down through your carpet and pad over the decades. (Side bar: carpets are disgusting).
At this point it will either need cleaning or re-finishing.
If you’re lucky, you can just scrub it up and treat it with a floor cleaner. I used kitchen soap and then a non-toxic (ish) hardwood cleaner on mine.
I hate the idea of covering my floor with chemicals – both on general principles and because my pup, Roxie, licks it – so here’s something I like even better than what I bought then: a great all natural “Floor Restorer” recipe by adventurous home project maven Bren Did. She also invented a recipe for a similarly non toxic DIY floor cleaner.
(Spoiler: The ingredients include VODKA!)
Step 6: (Maybe) refinish the floor
If you’re not so lucky, you may have to have the whole floor re-finished. But, really, you’re still in luck.
An older hardwood floor can only be re-finished so many times (the process involves sanding or scraping off layers of the finished surface) and at some point it can’t be done again. Owners of victorian homes run into this issue sometimes and have to REPLACE their old floors.
YOUR hardwood floor has been hiding under carpet all these years and has probably never been refinished. Whether you DIY or hire this out the whole process will go better that first time!!
If you’re refinishing, you can consider changing the color of your mid-century hardwood floors.
MCM lover and house updating expert Adrian Kinney (find him over here on Insta) points out that you aren’t limited to that lovely honey colored oak that is the default for mid-century hardwood floors. For example, if you want to put in walnut furniture, panelling or built ins, you can re-finish your existing oak floors and stain them towards another tone. More of his excellent MCM renovation tips here at Curbed!
Et voilà: beautiful carpet-free floor.
Extra step: treat yourself to some fun area rugs!
Ironically, I recommend that you then go find some fun area rugs to cover your floor back up. That may seem counter-intuitive. But a few beautiful rugs to define your key spaces and keep your toes cosy are a totally different animal than nasty old wall-to-wall carpet sitting there, un-cleanable, for ever!
Here’s what to do if you don’t have lovely mid-century hardwood floors under your carpet
I have plenty of design clients who don’t have lovely hardwood under their existing floor surface. I advise them to choose any of the materials I would personally put into an MCM house.
ALTERNATE mid-century flooring options:
I recommend one of several options that are Mid-Century appropriate, pleasing to the modern eye, and both comfortable and hard-wearing.
Cork – either in tile or plank format – because it is easy to install, long lasting, relatively inexpensive, and SO NICE ON YOUR FEET.
Slate tile – the bigger the better – because it is durable as hell, DIY-able, classy, and good for wet-rooms like bathrooms, kitchens, and mudroom entries.
Linoleum – or marmoleum for the vintage lovers among us – because it is practical, natural, and unassuming. It may not be exciting, but it stays out of your way visually, and makes room in your eye (and budget) for other design.
Note: My go-to source for all of the above is Green Building Supply. They are committed to non-toxic and eco-friendly practices, and I like them a lot. If you don’t have a great local flooring business – and you live in the midwest – check them out.
Don’t despair – Inspiration is OUT THERE
Atomic Ranch is the natural authority on all things MCM. Here’s their hot take on Mid-century Hardwood Floors (and MCM flooring options, generally).
If you pull up the carpets and find … subfloor … you could always just leave it! That’s what these folks with a house tour in Apartment Therapy did:
“Biggest Embarrassment: After buying the house, we pulled up 2,000 square feet of original wall-to-wall carpet and discovered a poured gypsum subfloor. Other home improvements became a priority, so we bought 10 gallons of Lowe’s cement paint, rolled it on, and have lived on the subfloor with area rugs ever since. We don’t even notice it anymore and most people just think it is concrete.”
They describe it as their “biggest embarrassment,” but I’d call it a pretty great achievement in MCM remodeling/restoration. As they themselves point out in the profile (seriously, go read it!), floors weren’t really a priority in an MCM house. A floor was a working surface – allowed to be practical – so that the homeowner could splurge on things like futuristic, state-of-the-art kitchen appliances
Don’t do what I did with my Mid-Century Hardwood Floors!
That is … don’t leave them languishing under carpet.
It took me over a year to get around to unearthing my own mid-century hardwood floors. Getting down to the wood floor was a REVELATION. I love my living room floor (and my pup, Roxie, makes out with it daily). I wish I could time travel back and do it sooner!
Don’t be like me. If you have lovely hardwood just waiting to be un-earthed under your icky, old carpet … GET RID OF IT. What are you waiting for. Tag me on Insta with your before and after photos!