Thursday, May 18, 2006

It’s All Very Interesting

I have an on-going debate with a few friends about what was the original floor coverings in my house. They blindly say, in an almost knee-jerk reaction, that the house would have had wall-to-wall carpet on both the first and second floor. I disagree. It just so happens that I have reason, logic, and a mountain of evidence on my side.

While it is possible that there was wall-to-wall carpet, because that was a popular style, it was not en vouge for many designers and critics in the1890s. Charles Eastlake and others thought the epitome of style in floor coverings would have been polished hardwood floors and oriental carpets. A lot of people couldn’t afford hardwood floors and oriental carpets so they opted for the less expensive wall-to-wall carpeting. This was a very popular and very common floor covering in the decades following the Civil War.

Of course, without electricity that meant no electric vacuums. Without electric vacuum cleaners it must have been a constant chore to keep the carpets clean. Here is a quote from an 1898 catalog of The Wood-Mosaic Company

How To Treat Soft Pine Floors

If very bad use it for kindling wood. Most soft pine floors are very bad. If in fair condition cover it with thin parquetry or wood carpet. Or, if it must be scrubbed or mopped like a barroom or butcher’s stall, cover it with linoleum or oil cloth. In this case don’t cover with parquetry. Don’t cast pearls before swine. Or it may be painted. Paint adheres well to pine. Don’t cover it with dusty, dirty, disease disseminating carpet”


As I said, this is from The Wood-Mosaic Company, so it is biased. I’m sure they made the wood carpet and thin parquetry, along with other wood flooring products, they are suggesting people put down over their soft wood floors. Wood carpeting and thin parquetry where inexpensive ways to make a house look like it had high-end hardwood floors with hand laid parquetry inlays. Normal wood floors will be 7/8-inch thick, tongue and groove boards, and will blind-nailed through the tongue during installation. Wood carpeting was 3/8-inch think and glued to a backing material like linoleum is. It was rolled out and face nailed in place.

I won’t go in to all the evidence I’ve uncovered to date that I think proves my house did not originally have tacked down wall-to-wall carpeting in it, but new evidence found on the stairs only seems to have cemented my claim even more. To recap the stair coverings: there was green carpet and padding. Then a lovely layer of glued on foam crap. Followed by the cemented on rubber non-stick tread covers – with utility knife slash marks. Finally there was brown paint, and in some areas there was shellac under the brown paint. “Some areas” being the operative phrase here.

The stair treads are each 45-inches wide. Only the outside 8 to 10-inches of wood had shellac on it. The inside 25 to 30-inches was bare wood until it was painted brown. I’m willing to bet the brown paint was put down in the 20s when the linoleum was put on the 2 landings. Also, take in to consideration that early carpeting was produced on narrow looms that produced 27-inch wide carpets. These would then be stitched together to produce wall-to-wall carpeting. I think it’s obvious then that there was a 27-inch wide carpet runner going up the stairs and that they were not fully carpeted as my friends have insisted all along. Since only the outsides of the treads would be visible that was the only area that was shellacked. There’s more to the story, though.

Up under the end of each tread is the scotia molding. It is nailed to the tread and hides the gap that may appear where the tread sits on the riser. I had to pry off each piece of molding so I could fully strip the paint off the riser, and to get the paint off the molding. In each case the tread and riser where a very tight fit. The tread rested firmly on top of the risers and the riser actually helped support the tread.

Four things were odd about the last tread and riser at the bottom of the stairs. First, the tread was cracked. I actually had to remove the last 4 inches that had cracked off, clean it up a little, and then glue and nail it back on. Second, there was no scotia molding. Third, unlike the other risers that were only shellacked on the outside visible edges, the entire riser was shellacked. This is the riser that comes in contact with the foyer floors. Finally, there was a half inch gap between the riser and the tread. The other treads all sat firmly on the riser. In fact, I think this is the reason the tread broke is because of this gap.

So we have many questions about that final riser. Why was there a gap? Why no molding? Why all the shellac? I’m sure everyone realizes now that the runner did not go all the way to the foyer floor. It curled up under the last tread and was shoved in to the gap between the last tread and riser. There were probably a few small shims to keep the runner in place and support the tread. This would indicate that maybe there was not carpeting in the foyer. Once the runner was removed in the 1920s, the end of the tread lost some of it’s support and the crack was inevitable. Because I don’t have a runner right now, I’ve added shims to fill the gap so it won’t crack again.

More solid evidence to beat my friends over the head with. I can’t wait to have them over.


That is the bottom tread with the broken piece I took off for repairs. I was able to feel around under the stairs and sadly I found no hidden treasure.


Here’s what they look like now. As soon as the glue sets – tomorrow sometime – I’ll sand and oil the final step. You can see the discoloration in the center where the wood was painted without the protective layer of shellac under it. Because of the fresh oil and the flash of the camera, it actually shows up better in this picture than in real life. Even so, it will be covered under the runner. The rest of the stairs no look like hell because of all of the sawdust.

I wonder if I can still get a 27-inch runner.

5 comments:

Angus said...

sadly I found no hidden treasure.
Damn! That's what I was thinking of through the whole post. :)

Anonymous said...

Our stairway looks much like yours. At about the 4th step up, we put a landing and turned the stairs to the side. We left the old stairs under the landing and put a time capsule in there for someone to find someday. So, we didn't find treasure, but we "buried" some!

Greg said...

That's a good idea. I have hidden a few treasures myself, but I didn't do it this time. I'm not sure why. I could have tossed a newspaper under there pretty easily.

merideth said...

wow! i had no idea that wall to wall carpet would have been a thing! i enjoy your holmsian stack of clues and research, though, that rebuff the idea that it was in your house...and the stairs are looking great!

Jocelyn said...

We have hidden magazines, photos of us and our dogs, and newspapers and other odds and ends in walls etc... I don't want the next people to come up as empty-handed as we have assuming there will be "next people." I hope so someday!