Linoleum Resurfaces

To most people, the skin that forms on top of pudding or over oil-base paints is a nuisance, something to discard before it taints the contents below. To a science-oriented mind, that rubbery film is merely the result of a chemical reaction called oxidation. To a young Englishman named Frederick Walton, though, a dried layer of linseed oil was the seed of his 1860 invention: Linoleum.

Two practical objectives inspired Walton to pursue the flexible film’s potential: the need for a durable and washable flooring surface and the quest for an affordable substitute for India rubber, the main ingredient in a flooring product called Kamptulicon. The rubber/cork blend of flexible flooring had been patented in 1844 as a hopeful improvement for oilcloth, a decorative flooring product that had been the popular choice for a couple hundred years. (Oilcloth, although beautiful, was labor-intensive and expensive to make and delicate to maintain.)

After experimenting with linseed oil’s characteristics and testing production methods and additives (cork dust, resin, pine flour, limestone and others), Walton applied for a patent in 1863. A year later, the 34-year-old opened the Linoleum Manufacturing Company Ltd. factory in London.

Oilcloth manufacturers noticed the new competition, and one in neighboring Scotland, Michael Nairn, began to produce linseed-oil-base flooring during the 1870s. He even called his product linoleum, a name that by then had become a generic term (similar to the way we use Kleenex, Crescent wrench and Skilsaw) for the linseed-oil-base flooring (see Handy Facts, below).

In 1872 Walton expanded his business overseas, opening the American Linoleum Manufacturing Co. with New York manufacturer Joseph Wild. The company and the demand for linoleum grew quickly in North America. In fact, the factory’s Staten Island home base became a true company town called Linoleumville. (In 1931, the company changed locations, and following a lively campaign and vote, the town’s name was changed to Travis.)

Linoleum’s essential features — durability and washability — soon became secondary to a less utilitarian virtue: design. To suit trends and architectural styles, manufacturers created flooring in artful patterns and colors, enhancing formal Victorian homes, modern Art Deco offices and Arts-and-Crafts bungalows. Some HANDY readers may recall linoleum’s heyday of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, when the flooring’s lively patterns defined and dominated a room’s style. And some may even live in a home, attend a school or work in a building where linoleum is still underfoot. The material was, after all, designed for durability.

As with many good ideas, linoleum eventually lost ground to a shiny newcomer: vinyl. The bright, new flooring material of the 1960s was easier to install and care for, it was less flammable, and it appealed to the modern preference for understated design. But as it turns out, the original linoleum was a step in the right direction. Because of its natural composition, durability and sustainability, linoleum has always been (and still is) green.

In 1908 the Armstrong Cork Co. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opened a linoleum factory, partly out of a vision for the future of the flooring market and partly as a way to utilize its waste, cork dust. Like some of the other half-dozen American linoleum manufacturers of the day, Armstrong promoted its flooring to consumers through print advertisements.

Handy Facts:
Frederick Walton patented the process for making his durable flooring material in 1860, but he didn’t trademark his choice of name, Linoleum (from Latin words for linseed and oil). During the 1960s, linoleum was stretched beyond its accurate meaning and used to describe vinyl flooring. To this day, linoleum (with a lowercase L) is a generic misnomer for any resilient flooring, whether its ingredients are linseed oil or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The difference is that true linoleum is made of renewable ingredients; vinyl flooring is not.