Say the word “linoleum,” and you might conjure up images of old hospital rooms and cold office building lobbies for some. For others, the association might summon memories of their grandmother’s kitchen floor. And for younger millennials, this 20th century staple might not spark any reaction at all. Linoleum, once a trendy floor option for mid-century American homes, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongues of twentysomethings.
But to say linoleum has retired into the past completely isn’t quite right, either. It may have fallen out of fashion in favor of more modern materials, like vinyl and engineered wood, but linoleum has been here all along. It’s just waiting for the masses to remember its appeal.
That linoleum grew to be synonymous with institutional flooring is not much of a surprise, considering its beginning.
In 1855, rubber manufacturer Fredrick Walton supposedly left a can of linseed oil open overnight. He’d been using it as a paint thinner, but when he found the open can, a film of solidified oil had formed on top. The layer of flexible and rubbery film got Walton thinking.
Five years later, Walton filed a patent for a new material: linoleum. As a rival to oilcloth floor covering, which was fabric that was treated on one side to be waterproof, his invention was thicker, more durable, and equally (if not more) waterproof. Walton chose to call it “linoleum” from the Latin words linum, meaning flax, and oleum, meaning oil. By the end of the decade, Linoleum Manufacturing Company, Ltd. was mass-producing this natural floor covering.
But in true capitalist form, Walton’s linoleum was not without competition. Scottish oilcloth manufacturer, Sir Michael Nairn began producing his own linoleum, after realizing that the material was a far superior product to oilcloth. Walton sued for trademark infringement, but the courts ruled against Walton for two reasons: He had not registered linoleum as a trade name, and the use of the word “linoleum” had become so widespread that the courts felt it had become a generic term.
Linoleum is made in a process that involves boiling melted tree resin with linseed oil, then adding powdered flax, cork, wood flour, and pigments. Eventually this thick mixture is pressed between heavy rollers onto a jute or canvas backing. It takes several weeks for the linoleum to dry and become properly hardened. There are no chemicals or synthetic ingredients added, making it a family- and environmentally-friendly flooring option.
For the first half of the 20th century, linoleum was the choice for flooring. Durable, easy-to-clean, and naturally resistant to bacteria, linoleum was even used as a material for the Titanic and U.S. Naval ships! It was also well marketed, and sometimes even oversold with exaggerated claims like it offered a look similar to parquet and marble.
After World War II, plastics began to be manufactured at a larger scale and vinyl became a cheaper, though otherwise comparable, flooring alternative. The steady decline of linoleum led Armstrong Linoleum, one of its largest manufacturers, to stop production in the 1970s. Many other manufacturers let patents lapse and got out of the linoleum business all together.
Though it was ditched for vinyl, linoleum didn’t just disappear. It continued to be a reliable and faithful flooring option in hospitals and healthcare facilities, thanks to its antibacterial and non-allergenic properties. Corporate offices and schools continued to use linoleum, too, as it lasts for years and is easy to maintain.
In the 1990s, thanks to advances in coloring and perhaps a growing shift among consumers for less synthetic options, linoleum began to see a resurgence. Not only is linoleum more eco-friendly, as Sue Walling of SW Design Inc. in Minneapolis points out, “it’s comfortable, you can get it wet, and you don’t have to worry about dropping knives on it, the way you do with most vinyl.”
Unlike ceramic and hardwood, linoleum offers a slightly cushioned feel underfoot, which is why it’s often used in preschools and daycare centers. It’s even used by some break dancers as a soft, slick surface on which to practice!
If well maintained, linoleum will last longer than almost all other flooring. Modern linoleum comes either sealed or unsealed, but the unsealed version needs to be refreshed with a buffer or liquid polish every five-to-eight years. Otherwise, linoleum requires little maintenance other than regular cleaning. One drawback is that lighter shades of linoleum may turn slightly yellow through a process known as “ambering.” You can buy a small square and check to see if it has this effect before covering your entire floor.
Best of all, linoleum is inexpensive. Most estimates put the cost of linoleum at $4 to $8 per square foot. It can be purchased by the sheet or as square panels.
And the last thing to note is that linoleum is better than ever. The available colors are more varied and brighter than before, and even come in interesting patterns. With some planning, multiple colors of solid-hued linoleum can be laid out in stripes, a checkerboard, or even a pretty pattern. You can also choose darker linoleum for a dramatic look, or more neutral hues for a subtle finish.
As it turns out, linoleum can now conjure visions of chic and elegant spaces. Spread the word — and let your friends know you heard it here first. Linoleum may just become the new hardwood.