There’s always something under the floorboards. Or in the walls. Of all the different bones stitched together to make up a building, writers have perhaps gotten the most mileage out of the romantic—and horrific—possibilities of those sunless spaces between joists, beneath the planks.
Arthur Rackham, “Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination” (1935)
The one you probably remember from school is Edgar Allen Poe’s perennially unnerving short story from 1843, “The Tell-Tale Heart”: the story’s unhinged narrator struts around, confident that he’s gotten away with murder, having Tetris’ed away the grisly, dismembered evidence of his crime “between the scantlings” underneath the floor. That is, until some cops show up… as does the ghostly sound of his victim’s heart, “a low, dull, quick sound — much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton,” growing louder and louder until the narrator can’t stand it anymore and rips apart the floor in front of the baffled police to confess to his crime.
There are loads of others, though. Consider any number of iconic scenes from movies where someone discovers a secret world underneath their feet, like Mikey yelling, “We’ve got to the lowest point of the floor!” before they discover the hidden passageway in The Goonies or Indiana Jones absolutely wrecking that gorgeous library floor in The Last Crusade. (For my money, the creepiest and zaniest recent treatment of this theme—the labyrinth hidden under the house—is in Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 novel House of Leaves.)
In the world outside of books, many housewrights and carpenters have been equally attuned to the possibilities of these liminal spaces. (Or, if they’re lazy, they’ve certainly been aware that they’re a convenient place to squirrel away trash, as anyone who restores old buildings for a living can attest.) In many old Irish houses, horse skulls jammed with coins were stowed beneath the floorboards, “for the purpose of giving a fine hearty echo (macalla) to the house when people would be talking or walking inside the house. But, particularly, they put the head (with the coppers) in the floor so that their dancing would sound better, for the old people were all for sport.” Some Irish clergy allegedly installed multiple horse skulls below church pulpits as preindustrial microphones.
I, unfortunately, been doing more kneeling than dancing on our floors recently. We’re restoring the original one from 1913 in the kitchen of our little Sears craftsman bungalow here in Denver, Colorado. By “restoring,” I mean grunting and developing weird new callouses as I gradually scrape off four layers of old paint and linoleum adhesive currently entombing the gorgeous, original pine boards. (All the paint layers tested negative for lead, which was a huge relief.)
My wife and I weighed a few options for this decidedly unglamorous grunt work:
- A chemical or citrus-based stripper (too expensive considering how much we’d have to use, and with dubious human health and environmental consequences, even the less noxious varieties).
- Sanding it all off (spending grillions of dollars on aggressive sanding disks as they immediately gum up with old paint).
- Paying someone else to do it (also an expensive proposition, especially considering that the one sketchy guy who we did get out for a bid said “it’d be easier to just build a new engineered wood floor or install tile on top of the painted one.”)
It would, no doubt, probably be easier. But with a good scraper—the German company Bahco makes a nearly indestructible two-handed model that leverages your body weight and uses a carbide, resharpenable blade—I’ve been gradually exhuming the original floors. I’m under no pressure to get it done immediately, so I’m chipping away the floor for twenty minutes or so a day. I recognize this is a luxury, and if I were under a time crunch to complete the project, I might choose a different method. And, yes, I’ve discovered a couple boards will probably need to be replaced, since at some point they were heavily gouged and leveled with a bunch of flesh-colored putty. (Which is also why I’m guessing someone opted for linoleum and paint in the first place.) But the idea of slapping some Pergo over a solid wood surface that would probably cost ten times as much to install if I were to buy the material new right now makes me break out into hives.
Gustave Caillebotte, “The Floor Scrapers” (1875)
What’s more, I can take pride that I’m not contributing to our cultural default to throw away or immediately replace something simply because it’s old. Wooden floors, properly maintained, can last literally hundreds of years. Plus, I’m broadening my woodworking skillset by further developing my eye for aging and coloring replacement boards, along with making tongue-and-groove joinery. I’m getting a daily workout. And I might—just might—find something extra weird when I pry up a board.
Let’s hope it’s not a dead guy.