Scanning Around With Gene: Linoleum Love
A recent challenge to help a friend choose retro floor covering for a 1950s kitchen sent me to my magazine archives, particularly old issues of Better Homes and Gardens and Good Housekeeping. What I discovered was a treasure trove of great ads and great floor patterns. Styles have certainly changed over the years, but I must say I'd take a number of these looks as is.
A host of companies are bringing back "classic" linoleum, though much of it is made of new materials. True linoleum is made from more-or-less organic materials and in addition to its retro look, it turns out to be much greener than many flooring alternatives. So it's enjoying a bit of a resurgence at the moment.
Click on any picture for a larger version. Here are two examples from 1937.
Linoleum also holds another interesting distinction: It's the first example of a trademark that was ruled to be a generic term by the courts. That ruling was made in the 1870s, approximately 14 years after its invention. The images below are from 1939 and 1940.
It was Englishman Frederick Walton who first patented the process of using linseed oil combined with various fillers to produce a hard floor covering. The term "linoleum" comes from the Latin linum ("flax") and oleum ("oil"). Here's linoleum in action circa 1947 and 1952.
Quite a few firms began manufacturing linoleum and many came up with interesting ways to add colors and patterns. Some of them involved adding color crystals, which were then smashed through rollers, leading to the popular "confetti" look I came to know and love as a kid.
Other processes involved stencils, which produced more predictable patterns, and even inlay processes, which could make for very hard lines and distinct geometric shapes. Here are two beauties from 1934 and 1937.
Some very early linoleum was painted with a pattern only on the surface, but one of the hallmarks of true linoleum is that the color goes all the way through, which makes for better wear and tear. Modern plastic or vinyl floor covering has the pattern screened on, and though durable, you can see worn spots much easier. From 1955 and 1941.
We seem to have gotten away from making a floor the centerpiece of a room, thanks to bolder paint colors and the desire to be able to change a room's look more easily. But as you can see from many of these ads, the floor made the room back in the heyday of linoleum products. Here are three from 1937, 1934, and 1947.
Linoleum wasn't limited to the kitchen or bath. It was great for playrooms, dens, and even bedrooms, as these pictures from 1960, 1954 and 1952 demonstrate.
One of the selling features of this miracle floor covering was that you could glue it down yourself, in squares, as shown here in 1952. That was before the self-stick variety.
By the early 1960s, floor covering was being made of poly vinyl chloride (PVC), which was shinier and easier to care for. You can certainly see the difference by the time these ads appeared in 1968.
And by 1970 when the ads below ran, floor companies had ushered in my least favorite period of floor styles: the fake brick and fake wood look. And that horrible cork look.
I took my first steps on linoleum. I can remember when the new "no-wax" plastic floors came into style. I'm sure they were a boon to the housewife, but they sure lost some style, compared to floors like these, all from 1953.
My friend in search of a retro floor covering ultimately decided on Marmoleum, which is an old-style material made to modern specs that snaps together. I think it will look pretty good, actually, though it's just solid colors arranged in a pattern, such as these from 1952.
But really, if you could have you pick of kitchen floors, wouldn't you choose this one from 1954? I certainly would.