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Linoleum

Linoleum is a floor covering made from solidified linseed oil (linoxyn) in combination with wood flour or cork dust over a burlap or jute backing. The name comes from latin linum for linseed, and oleum meaning oil. Mineral pigments may be added to the materials used. In moderndlay parlance, linoleum is often incorrectly used to describe vinyl flooring.

Linoleum is made of linseed oil, pigments, pine rosin as a binding agent, and wood flour and sometimes cork flour to bind and to ensure colorfastness. In its manufacture, oxidized linseed oil and other ingredients to form a thick mixture called linoleum cement. The linseed oil is exposed to the air in a succession of thin films until it is rubbery, or it is thickened by heating until it becomes a spongy mass. Then it is ground to form linoleum granules, mixed with the wood flour applied to the foundation and rolled smooth between two cylinders, a process called “calendaring” The linoleum sheets are hung in drying rooms to cure for 14-21 days. Today, some manufacturers also bond a high performance coating to the surface to make cleaning and maintenance easier.

The finest linoleum floors, known as 'inlaid', are extremely durable; they are made by joining and inlaying solid pieces of linoleum. Cheaper patterned linoleums came in different grades or gauges, and were printed with thinner layers which were more prone to wear and tear. Good quality linoleum is sufficiently flexible to be used in buildings in which more rigid material (such as ceramic tile) would crack. Linoleum was considered to be an excellent, inexpensive material for high use areas. Its durability is generally lasting 25-40 years.

Linoleum's popularity was finally superseded in popularity by vinyl flooring after World War II as vinyl was cheaper and had a wider range and more vibrant colors. However, there is currently a renewed interest in linoleum for a few reasons: new types of linoleum offer more vibrant colors; it is a “green” flooring source as it is made from all natural materials available in abundance; some homeowners want accurate copying of original flooring; colors go all the way through the product, not just on the surface; durability; it makes a design statement; its natural fire retardancy; it is warm and comfortable under foot.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was favored in hallways and passages, and as a surround for carpet squares. However, most people associate linoleum with its common twentieth century use on kitchen floors. Its water resistance enabled easy maintenance of sanitary conditions and its resilience made standing easier and reduced breakage of dropped china.

Linoleum was invented by Englishman Frederick Walton probably around 1860; he patented his formula Dec. 19 1863. Walton was inspired to invent linoleum as a cheap substitute for more expensive rubber composition (Kamptulicon). Walton apparently got the idea for linoleum by observing the skin produced by oxidized linseed oil that forms on paint. He mixed the skin of he paint with ground cork, poured it on canvas, spread it and invented the first rendition of linoleum. In 1864, he formed the Linoleum Manufacturing Company and by 1869 the factory in Staines, England was exporting to Europe and the United States. However, linoleum was made famous by Michael Nairn in Scotland, who developed the inlaid patterning that linoleum became best know for. In 1877, the Scottish town of Kirkcaldy, in Fife, became the largest producer of linoleum in the world, with no fewer than six “floorcloth” manufacturers in the town. The first U.S linoleum factory was built in 1872.

The best grades of linoleum were called " battleship linoleum", as a common use of this material was in warships. Actual battle experience showed this was an inappropriate material due to its flammability. Because it is made of organic materials and is purportedly non-allergenic in nature, high quality linoleum is still in use in many places (especially in non-allergenic homes, hospitals and health care facilities). The design and inlaying of various colors to form patterns reflecting the shape and use of a room is a highly respected craft.

For further information on the history of the industrial uses of flax in the United States go to Whitman Eastman's History of the Linseed Oil Industry in the United States , Chapter 5: "Uses of the Products of the Flax Plant"

 

Kathie Richardson
NDSU Library
Fargo, ND 58105
701-231-8879

Last updated: 04.03.2008

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The NDSU Library Agriculture Network Information Center Flax Institute of the United States

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