The History of Terrazzo
Story provided by The National Terrazzo & Mosaic Association
Terrazzo, from the Italian word for “terraces,” was created several hundred years ago in Europe when Venetian workers discovered a new use for discarded marble remnants. Since that time it has become a logical, practical solution for contemporary design and construction.
The beauty and versatility of terrazzo offers today’s architects/designers a contemporary flooring and wall material for interior and exterior design use. Fifteenth century Venetian marble workers began to use odd-size marble pieces, remaining from the custom made marble slabs, to surface the terraces around their living quarters. The uneven, rough surfaces created when the spells were set in clay to anchor them, convinced the workers that flattening the surface would produce a smoother surface more comfortable for walking. And so they began to rub the surfaces with hand stones achieving a smoother, flat surface.
The workers soon advanced their technique for rubbing the surfaces by designing a long handle with a weighted end to which they could fasten their rubbing stones. Now they were able to rub the terraces in a more comfortable stand-up position, using their body weight to provide the pressure to abrade the surface faster. This tool was named the “Galera.” With this crude equipment and back-breaking labor they achieved a smoother, flat surface but still lacking the true marble color that only resulted when the surface was wet.
As years passed, workers discovered that the milk from their goats brought out the true color of the marble when applied to the surface. The true color of the marble was retained in its dry condition. This was the initial terrazzo sealer! Gifted craftsmen brought the terrazzo concept with them from Europe in the late seventeen hundreds, and terrazzo was used extensively in monumental structures. (Our first president, George Washington, designed his Mt. Vernon home and selected terrazzo floors for many of his important rooms!)
Soon American terrazzo was created from the wealth of marble in the United States, and American ingenuity advanced installation techniques. This made terrazzo materials available for all concepts of construction. Ingenious individuals devised a method of using wood strips to divide different colors of marble. These strips would be removed and this void would be filled with another material. These same people learned that by adding marble dust to this material, it resulted in various colors. Thus, they could now create a design to this material. In later years 3/4″ inch colorful marble cubes, known as Mosaic Tessarae, were used as the division strips for separating colors. These became a permanent part of the floor and added further aesthetics.
Marble strips 3/4″ x 3/4,” one to three feet in length, were developed, providing another permanent dividing strip….
Brass divider strips became available in the mid- twenties of this century replacing or offering a second choice to the marble cubes or strips. In the thirties white metal strips were developed, and during World War I I, due to the essential need for metal, plastic strips were developed. Not only were these strips designed to separate colors, but they played an essential role in the control of localizing shrinkage in the terrazzo topping, preventing cracks from marring the aesthetics of this beautiful surface. Soon advanced technology gave this industry various gauges of all these strips, resulting in the creation of elaborate and intricate patterns and designs.
In 1924 improvements on the Galera concept of rubbing the terrazzo smooth led to the development of electric grinding equipment to achieve a fine finish. The technology of Carborundum stones on a rotating head, aided in advancing the grinding and polishing procedures to today’s standard. When white Portland cement was introduced into this industry, it expanded the horizon of terrazzo colors with the mineral color pigment additives. Now, the spectrum of color for terrazzo was unlimited. During this time, numerous chemical companies were developing cleaners and sealers to enhance the beauty of terrazzo. In the last 40 years, new developments were achieved with the discovery of epoxies, polyesters, latex and acrylics.
Another concept of terrazzo also emerged during this period known as Rustic Terrazzo... This system creates a unique surface especially designed for sidewalks, plazas, terraces, pools and stairways with unlimited use for decks and wall surfaces. You can choose from nature’s color palette of stone created millions of years ago. The unique difference of this concept is the texture created on the finished product. Thus, from thick to thin, terrazzo is now available to fit all requirements.
Today, the flooring “meant for kings and queens” is available to everyone! Terrazzo is considered by today’s architects and designers to be a contemporary flooring and wall material, both for interior and exterior use. Terrazzo has been proven itself throughout history as the sensible choice for floor surfaces that require resistance to heavy abuse, while still retaining beauty and low maintenance costs.