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Linoleum is a floor covering made from materials such as solidified linseed oil (linoxyn), pine rosin, ground cork dust, wood flour, and mineral fillers such as calcium carbonate, most commonly on a burlap or canvas backing; pigments are often added to the materials.
The finest linoleum floors, known as 'inlaid', are extremely durable; they were 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 invented by Englishman Frederick Walton. In 1855, Walton happened to notice the rubbery, flexible skin of solidified linseed oil (linoxyn) that had formed on a can of oil-based paint, and thought that it might form a substitute for India rubber. Raw linseed oil oxidizes very slowly; Walton accelerated the process by heating it with lead acetate and zinc sulfate. This made the oil form a resinous mass into which lengths of cheap cotton cloth were dipped until a thick coating formed. The coating was then scraped off and boiled with benzene or similar solvents to form a varnish. Walton initially planned to sell his varnish to the makers of water-repellent fabrics such as oilcloth, and patented the process in 1860. However, his method had problems; the cotton cloth soon fell apart and it took months to produce enough of the linoxyn. Little interest was shown in his varnish. In addition, his first factory burned down, and he had persistent and painful rashes.
Walton soon came up with an easier way to transfer the oil to the cotton sheets by hanging them vertically and sprinkling the oil from above, and tried mixing the linoxyn with sawdust and cork dust to make it less tacky. In 1863 he applied for a further patent, which read “For these purposes canvas or other suitable strong fabrics are coated over on their upper surfaces with a composition of oxidized oil, cork dust, and gum or resin... such surfaces being afterward printed, embossed, or otherwise ornamented. The back or under surfaces of such fabrics are coated with a coating of such oxidized oils, or oxidized oils and gum or resin, and by preference without an admixture of cork.”
At first Walton called his invention “Kampticon”, which was deliberately close to Kamptulicon, the name of an existing floor covering, but he soon changed it to Linoleum, which he derived from the Latin words “linum” (“flax”) and “oleum” (“oil”), and in 1864 established the Linoleum Manufacturing Company Ltd., with a factory at Staines, near London. The new product did not prove immediately popular, mainly due to intense competition from the makers of Kamptulicon and oilcloth, and the company operated at a loss for its first five years, until Walton began an intensive advertising campaign and opened two shops in London for the exclusive sale of Linoleum. Walton had a friend called Jerimiah Clarke who designed the linoleum patterns in particular the Grecian urn decor around the borders.
Other inventors began their own experiments after Walton took out his patent, and in 1871 William Parnacott took out a patent for a method of producing linoxyn by blowing hot air into a tank of linseed oil for several hours, then cooling the material in trays. Unlike Walton's process, which took weeks, Parnacott’s method took only a day or two, although the quality of the linoxyn was not as good. Despite this, many manufacturers opted to use the less expensive Parnacott process.
Walton soon faced competition from other manufacturers, including a company which bought the rights to Parnacott’s process, and launched its own floor covering which it named Corticine, from the Latin "cortex" "bark" or "rind". Corticine was mainly made of cork dust and linoxyn without a cloth backing, and became popular as it was cheaper than linoleum.
By 1869 Walton’s factory in Staines, England was exporting to Europe and the United States. 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, most notably Michael Nairn & Co., who had been producing floorcloth since 1847.
Walton opened the American Linoleum Manufacturing Company in 1872 on Staten Island, in partnership with Joseph Wild, the company’s town being named Linoleumville (renamed Travis in 1930). It was the first U.S. linoleum manufacturer, but was soon followed by the American Nairn Linoleum Company, established by Sir Michael Nairn in 1887 (later the Congoleum Nairn Company, and The Congoleum Corporation of America), in Kearny, New Jersey. Congoleum now manufactures sheet vinyl and no longer has a linoleum line.
Loss of trademark protection
Between the time of its invention in 1860 and its being largely superseded by other hard floor coverings in the 1950s, linoleum was considered to be an excellent, inexpensive material for high-use areas. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was favoured 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.
Other products devised by Walton included Linoleum Muralis in 1877, which became better known as Lincrusta. Essentially a highly durable linoleum wallcovering, Lincrusta could be manufactured to resemble carved plaster or wood, or even leather. It was very successful, and inspired a much cheaper imitation, Anaglypta, originally devised by one of Walton’s showroom managers.
Walton also tried integrating designs into linoleum during the manufacturing stage, coming up with granite, marbled, and jaspé (striped) linoleum. For the granite variety, granules of various colours of linoleum cement were mixed together, before being hot-rolled. If the granules were not completely mixed before rolling, the result was marbled or jaspé patterns.
Walton’s next product was inlaid linoleum, which resembled encaustic tiles, in 1882. Previously, linoleum had been produced in solid colours, with patterns printed on the surface if required. In inlaid linoleum, the colours extend all the way through to the backing cloth. Inlaid linoleum was made using a stencil type method where different-coloured granules were placed in shaped metal trays, after which the sheets were run through heated rollers to fuse them to the backing cloth. In 1898 Walton devised a process for making straight-line inlaid linoleum that allowed for crisp, sharp geometric designs. This involved strips of uncured linoleum being cut and pieced together patchwork-fashion before being hot-rolled. Embossed inlaid linoleum was not introduced until 1926.
The heavier gauges of linoleum are known as “battleship linoleum”, and are mainly used in high-traffic situations like offices and public buildings. It was originally manufactured to meet the specifications of the U.S. Navy for warship deck covering on enclosed decks instead of wood, hence the name. Most U.S. Navy warships removed their linoleum deck coverings following the attack on Pearl Harbour, as they were considered too flammable. (Use of linoleum persisted in U.S. Navy submarines). Royal Navy warships used the similar product “Corticine”.
Early in the twentieth century, a group of Dresden artists adapted the printmaking techniques for woodcut prints to linoleum, thus creating the linocut printmaking technique. Prominent artists who created linocut prints included Picasso and Henri Matisse.
Linoleum as a floor covering has been largely replaced with polyvinyl chloride (which is often colloquially but incorrectly also called "linoleum"), which has similar properties of flexibility and durability, but which has greater brightness and translucency and which is relatively less flammable. The fire-retardant properties of PVC are due to chlorine-containing combustion products, some of which are highly toxic. Dioxins are released by burning PVC. While the polymer itself is generally considered safe, additives such as plasticizers and unintentional impurities such as free monomers are considered a hazard by some: see the health and safety section of the main PVC article for more information and references.
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). Linoleum tiles can be made to various designs and inlaid with various colors to form patterns reflecting the shape and use of a room.
Linoleum is used in break dancing as an alternative to cardboard as it provides a large, slick and durable surface.
The largest present day manufacturer of linoleum is Forbo Flooring which is based both in Assendelft (the Netherlands) and Kirkcaldy (Scotland), which sells the material under the trademarked name of Marmoleum. The company, which is part of the Switzerland-based Forbo Group, is the oldest manufacturer of linoleum in the world.
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