Turning the pages of this 1939 Armstrong pattern catalog brings me back to when I first moved into my apartment. The floors in every room were covered in old-fashioned linoleum, with well-worn paths marking where people had walked over time. Of course, this all had to go, so I started tearing up the old linoleum only to uncover layer upon layer of different linoleum patterns and colors. Frustrated—but fascinated—it was déjà vu… the floors in my grandmother’s house, childhood visits running through the rooms in the homes of family and friends.
A “vegetable motif” pattern, geometric design, and a kitchen design using Armstrong linoleum flooring
First invented by Frederick Walton in 1860, linoleum is oxidized linseed oil mixed with ground cork dust, gums, and pigments. It was one of the most fashionable and widely used floor coverings from the 1870s through the 1960s. It was used everywhere from battleships to bathrooms.
The Armstrong Cork Company started manufacturing linoleum in 1908, and produced an amazing variety of patterns. By 1918, Armstrong advertised 380 available designs. These included mosaics, tiles, parquetries, granites, marble, and “carpet” patterns. This trade catalog from the Library’s collection documents the trends of styles and interior design of the 1930s and 1940s, and features modern geometric patterns along with traditional “homey” motifs and floral designs. The catalog shows patterns for every room in a house, and for anywhere else that linoleum might be the preferred flooring material.
Linoleum has remained fundamentally unchanged for one hundred years. Made from recycled materials and sustainable content, its “green” composition makes it as popular now as it was back in 1939. For years, linoleum was considered something to rip out in order to get down to the “real floor.” I know, I did it myself! I certainly never imagined these old flooring patterns would return to fashion as part of the popular “retro” look, or that linoleum would make a comeback.
Elizabeth Broman is a Reference Librarian at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library.