As you might have guessed, everyone here at Floor Coverings International of Lexington and Nicholasville, KY is passionate about flooring. We live and breathe floors and floor coverings, and as such we are always interested in the back stories of our flooring materials. Linoleum is an excellent flooring option that has been around for years, but today’s modern linoleum flooring isn’t your grandma’s 1950’s kitchen. As one of the most well educated cities in the nation, Lexington residents are aware of the benefits of sustainability, and have thus been turning to linoleum as an excellent, durable flooring option, which also happens to be renewable, biodegradable, and ecofriendly. We know you want to keep the Athens of the West beautiful, so with that in mind, we here at Floor Coverings International decided to take a peek into the history of this floor covering, and were surprised and pleased to find that linoleum has a rich and colorful back story, which we’re sure our customers in Lexington will find just as fascinating.

Frederick Walton and the Invention of Linoleum

The father of linoleum was an English gentleman named Frederick Walton. One night in 1855, he forgot to properly seal the linseed oil that he was using as paint thinner, and a skin of rubbery linoxyn, or solidified linseed oil, formed across the top. Walton, being an educated man (so he’d fit right in in Lexington), knew that the India rubber used during that period was expensive and hard to get a hold of, and saw potential in the material as a replacement for it. Unfortunately, for linseed oil to oxidize to the point where it might be of any use, it takes a lot of time. Walton began experimenting, trying to find ways to speed up the process by introducing other chemicals and heat. In 1860 (about 30 years after Lexington was incorporated by the way) Walton patented his first linoleum making method. But the material still lacked durability, and took too long to manufacture. Walton suffered in other ways as well, as the general public didn’t seem to see the value of his product and his first factory succumbed to the imperfect manufacturing process, ultimately burning to the ground.

The Second Generation and the Establishment of the Linoleum Manufacturing Company Ltd

After much tinkering, Walton’s work finally began to pay off. He found a new linoleum-making method that had the linoxyn applied to its cotton base vertically rather than horizontally, and added wood by-products like cork dust to the linseed mixture in order to help reduce tackiness. He patented this second process in 1863. Realizing that he needed a name for this new material, Walton settled on ‘Linoleum,’ a mash-up of the Latin words linum (flax) and oleum (oil), essentially meaning ‘linseed oil.’ With a new name and an improved product, Walton established the Linoleum Manufacturing Company Ltd., in 1864, in Staines, England. After a hesitant start, linoleum began to rise in popularity as Walton began advertising it heavily and opening exclusive linoleum shops in London. By the time 1869 rolled around, Walton’s product had become so popular that he was exporting to the rest of Europe, and even the United States. Linoleum flooring had finally reached Lexington!

Competition and Trademark Issues

With the increasing popularity of linoleum, Walton also found himself facing an increase in competition. Other manufacturers began to tinker with the material and create their own linoleum brands. One example is William Parnacott, who in 1871 patented a process that used hot and cold air to speed up linoleum manufacturing, although it reduced the quality of the material produced. This new, inexpensive, and quick linoleum making method soon began to gain popularity over Walton’s slower, more expensive process. Despite this, Walton expanded; opening the American Linoleum Manufacturing Company on Staten Island the year after Parnacott’s patent. While he had a short monopoly on the American linoleum market, in 1887 Sir Michael Nairn, an established floor covering manufacturer in Scotland, opened the American Nairn Linoleum Company in New Jersey, bringing the competition stateside. Seeing the success that Nairn was having with his product, Walton decided to sue him for trademark infringement for the use of the word ‘linoleum,’ which Walton had invented. Unfortunately for Walton, he had not actually patented the name and, in a historic decision, the courts ruled against him, determining that the term ‘linoleum’ was so prevalent as to be generic. Barely two decades after its invention, linoleum was the first product ever, whose name became a generic term.

The Navy and Linoleum in Art

Linoleum as a floor covering was valued for its resilience, durability, and water resistance. The US Navy noted these advantages and began to replace the wood decks of their ships with heavy gauge linoleum, which came to be known as ‘battleship linoleum’. This practice was picked up by the Royal Navy as well; who used linoleum deck coverings that went under the product name ‘Corticine’. Linoleum was faded out from US Navy warships after the events of Pearl Harbor though, as Linoleum was determined to be too flammable a material. Despite this, many Navy submarines continued to use linoleum floor coverings. Showing it’s variety of uses, around the same time as linoleum was picked up by combatants, it was also being discovered by artists. A group of Dresden based artists, who had traditionally stuck to woodcut printmaking, began to experiment with linoleum as a printing replacement. This lead to the invention of the linocut printing technique, which is an incredibly popular artistic medium, and has been used by artists ranging from Matisse to Picasso. Many modern day artists in Lexington use this technique.

The Invention of Vinyl and the Decline of Linoleum

Invented in the 1920’s, and introduced as a floor covering in the 1930’s Vinyl, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) began to gain popularity following World War II. Vinyl was slightly cheaper than linoleum, and was less flammable. Just as linoleum flooring was reaching its peak popularity, vinyl began to take over the market. Unfortunately, vinyl is a synthetic material made from non-renewable resources such as petroleum and natural gas. It off gases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and can release toxic gases when it is burned. Furthermore, vinyl flooring manufactured before the 1980’s contained high levels of asbestos. Despite these qualities, vinyl came to generally replace linoleum as a flooring material for a number of decades. Armstrong stopped producing linoleum flooring for a 25 year period, and many companies let their linoleum manufacturing patents lapse.

Linoleum Today

Those companies who didn’t value their linoleum patents are surely kicking themselves today though, as linoleum is facing a surge of renewed interest. Coming in a huge variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, linoleum can match any home’s décor. For Lexington residents on a budget, linoleum is much cheaper than tile, stone, or hardwood, linoleum is an incredibly cost effective flooring option. With a life span nearly double that of a floor covering like vinyl, linoleum is a great investment in both your home, and the environment. If you feel like linoleum flooring is right for you, contact Floor Coverings International of Lexington and Nicholasville, KY today!