The original mud floor was made with a straw floor covering. When the floor required cleaning, new straw was strewn atop the soiled straw. A simple cleaning job -- but the pile-up of dirty straw, and discarded gnawed bones, made for rather unsanitary surroundings.

According to Johnson Wax's "Floor Care" manual, the first man-made flooring appeared in 1763 when Nathan Smith adapted "waxcloth" as floor covering. Up till then waxcloth had been used as bookbinding. Soon after, Frederick Walton developed the process for manufacturing linoleum.

Today's floors require a bit more effort to clean than the early mud and straw floors but the outcome -- the floor's appearance, longevity and smell, or lack thereof -- is well worth it.

Waxing floors became common, continues the floor care manual, in 14th-century Europe, where crude beeswax was melted and poured onto wood and stone, then worked into the floor with hot irons and rubbed with rags. "Sometimes," says the manual, "the servants polished the waxed surface by 'skating' around the floor on rag-bound feet. This produced an even wax film which sealed and protected the floors."

Wax is still being used to polish all kinds of floors -- even no-wax floors, as discussed in an earlier article (LIVING, Jan. 4, 1981). But the type of wax depends on the floor covering. Resilient floors (vinyl and linoleum) require different care then natural coverings such as wood and stone.

Resilient floors should be cleaned and polished, as well as waxed or finished. Start with a daily sweeping to remove the dirt before it has a chance to cling.Mop up spills at once.

To clean, use a water-base floor product -- one in which water is the carrier for tiny particles of wax and/or polymers. These particles protect the floor and provide the shine. But as the maintenance guide "Interior Repairs and Decorations" (Petersen Publishing Co., 1977) says "don't flood the floor. Water won't damage this type of floor like it will wood, but it can dull the finish."

Application is easy: apply to a clean floor, dry to a shine without buffing and strip periodically. Once the water-base product is applied, the water evaporates and the particles of wax and polymers blend together, forming a protective layer of polish that reflect light and looks glossy.

One thing to remember about resilient flooring, says Diane Thomas, consumer-information specialist at Johnson Wax, "never use sealers on resilient flooring." Sealers, also known as finishes, leave a protective though removable coating that is made mostly of synthetic ingredients such as vinyl or acrylic polymers. "If you use a sealer," continues Thomas, "the flooring will crack, curl or dry up.

Linoleum is one type of resilient flooring. As one of the first man-made flooring materials, it "was hailed as a great advance in flooring, gracing many a home during the years of the First World War and for decades thereafter," according to the maintenance guide "Interior Repairs and Decorations." But in 1974, after being produced for 114 years, the last linoleum plant was shut down, says the guide -- "the 'wonder' product having been replaced by the more durable vinyl, vinyl asbestos, asphalt and no-wax resilient floor coverings." Although many people still call sheet flooring linoleum, this is a misnomer.

Existing linoleum flooring requires wax protection to prolong its life against scratches and foot traffic. But certain strong detergents may soften it or cause its colors to run, so test the cleaning product in a small, out-of-the way place first.

Vinyl is another type of resilient flooring. It has proven more durable than linoleum and comes in an endless variety of designs and colors. The thicker the vinyl, the better it will wear. It has a strong resistance to stains and can be cleaned with almost any cleaner. Regardless of whether the vinyl is high or low gloss, waxing is recommended.

Wax gives a floor a protective covering that often provides some degree of gloss. Floor wax is made of natural waxes, synthetic waxes or a blend of both.

When waxing resilient flooring, use a water-base liquid wax. Do not use a paste wax or waxes containing petroleum solvents, since these may erode the vinyl. Spread the wax thinly and evenly with an applicator -- using long, straight strokes in one direction only, as if you were painting. Wait a half hour before walking on the floor and another two hours before applying a second coat. Then buff with a floor-polishing machine once the second coat has dried. If you buff by hand, use a clean cloth, pressing down hard. Remove any built-up wax with the solvent suggested by the wax manufacturer.

Between three and four times a year -- use a mild cleaner, containing no harmful solvents, harsh alkalis or abrasives on resilient floors. "Never use a strong detergent," says Robert Ellis, author of "The Complete Book of Floor Coverings" (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980). "Only the mildest type should be employed. If the manufacturer has one, use that." Then rinse the floor with warm water and dry it with a clean mop. Rinse thoroughly, says Ellis, "any detergent residue on the floor will act as a magnet and attract dirt."

Wood floors are mostly hardwood, such as oak, northern walnut, pecan and chestnut; but sometimes softer woods or close-grain woods -- such as maple, birch, Douglas fir and yellow pine -- are used.

All wood floors should start with a good finish. Wood is porous and needs a finish -- either a penetrating seal or surface finish -- to provide resistance to wear and spills.

The Oak Flooring Institute's "Wood Floor Care Guide" suggests finding out what kind of finish you now have on your floor, before restoring it. (Call the builder or floor finisher if possible.) The finish recommended for most residential floors is the penetrating seal. This finish soaks into the wood pores, then hardens to seal the floor against dirt.

The other finish, a surface finish, comes in four varieties: polyurethane, varnish, shellac or lacquer. They are top coats, and are effective only as long as they remain on the floor in an unbroken film, warns the Johnson Wax guide.

Polyurethane is a blend of synthetic resins and plasticizers that combine to form a durable and moisture-resistant surface -- a good choice for a kitchen where the floor is exposed to spills.

A varnish finish can be high, medium or low in gloss. It dries slowly, provides a durable surface but if poor quality varnish is used, it often becomes brittle and shows white scars.

Shellac finishes dry quickly but the friction created by footsteps sometimes softens the finish, allowing dirt to enter.

A lacquer finish requies some skill in application since it dries so quickly. Its high sheen is tough, but scuff marks show up easily.

Once the sealer/finish is applied, the wood floor should be waxed 2-3 times a year, depending on wear.

Before waxing, the floor must be cleaned with a wax-base cleaner. A damp cloth can be used lightly, but be careful -- water raises wood grain particularly if the water is allowed to stand for any length of time.Whenever waxing or cleaning wood, be sure the product is designed specifically for wood, i.e. no water. For stuck-on materials such as chewing gum, rubbed-in food particles, etc., scrape off and then scour the area with a fine (3/0) steel wool.

Solvent-based waxes -- liquid or paste -- are recommended for wood floors since they dry-clean the floor with solvents, eliminating the use of water. (The solvents -- turpentine, petroleum or naptha -- loosen the previous coat of wax as the new one is applied.) If used correctly, this type of polish doesn't build up and floors will never need stripping.

Paste wax is often preferred, but as the "Interior Repairs and Decorations" guide says, "Floors are generally just too big for practical use of paste wax." When selecting a wax look for a liquid one, but make sure it's the "buffing" type. Apply the wax with a cloth or a long-handled applicator. After 15 or 30 minutes, the guide suggests buffing with a soft cloth or lamb's wool buffing attachment on an electric drill. It may pay to rent a 12-inch floor-buffing machine from time to time -- some of the machines are equipped to apply the wax as well.

Apply several thin coats of wax the first time you wax your wooden floors -- allow one hour drying time between coats. Thereafter, apply only one coat each time you wax. Do not apply wax in thick coats since this will gum up the wax and make buffing more difficult.

After a number of years, the wax will build up to a point where it can no longer be buffed -- too much dirt will have become embedded in it. Remove the old wax with turpentine, naptha or mineral spirits, suggests the repair guide. Then start over again with two or three thin coats, buffing in between.

In this instance, the Oak Flooring Institute recommends using a combination liquid cleaner/wax -- again, making sure it has a solvent rather than water base. Spread it with a cloth or fine steel wool. Rub gently, apply wax, then wipe clean. Let dry 20 minutes, then buff.

Between applications of wax, the only cleaning necessary for wood floors is dusting or vacuuming.