The Slippery History of Linoleum

This week’s video looks at the word “Linoleum”:

The real subject of the video is trademarks, as linoleum is the first example of genericide, when a trademark name loses its trademark status and becomes the generic term to refer to the product category rather than one particular maker of the product. And as such it completes a series of videos we’ve made about intellectual property, first “Bug”, which also told the story of the history of patents:

And then “Freebooting”, which also told the story of the history of copyright:

If you haven’t seen those earlier videos, do go back and check them out. As for this blog post, there are just a few tidbits that didn’t make it into the video. Of course the other major use that linoleum has been put to is linocut, a kind of more modern version of woodcut printing, in which an image is carved into a sheet of linoleum which can then be inked and pressed onto paper to reproduce the image. Linocut became popular with artists in the early 20th century, but it had also been used to produce wallpaper.

And speaking of wall coverings, Frederick Walton, the inventor of linoleum, also invented Lincrusta, a wall covering similarly based on linseed oil, but instead embossed to produced its decorative effect. In addition to being used in many Victorian era buildings, it was famously used in the White House, and as with linoleum there’s a nautical connection here, as it was used in the staterooms on the Titanic. As for the name, Walton initially called his new invention Linoleum Muralis, literally “wall linoleum”, changed it to Lincrusta-Walton, still reflecting the crucial linseed ingredient with “crusta” to reflect the embossed nature of the product, and notable attaching his own name to the product, having seemingly learnt from his previous problems with genericide.

You may also be wondering about the word linotype by the way. In fact it has nothing to do with linoleum or linseed oil, but is instead a typesetting technique that produces full lines of type at a time instead of letter by letter, so is literally a contraction of “line o’ type”.

As one helpful commenter (Frahamen) on the video points out, the Manet painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” was painted with linseed oil based paint, so there’s another nice connection. According to art historian Kenneth Bendiner, the inclusion of the English Bass ale instead of German beer is a nationalist and jingoistic reaction against Germany, as the French had recently lost Alsace to the Germans after the Franco-Prussian War. (Another interesting outcome of the Franco-Prussian War is that it led to the invention of Bovril, a story I tell in the video “Beef”).

The Krupp company has come up before in our videos, in “Rune”, because of their logo and manufacturing of the famous gun Big Bertha. As another helpful commenter (Zheeraffa1) on the video points out, the modern incarnation of the company, ThyssenKrupp, is a major escalator manufacturer, tying it back into another one of those genericided trademarks.

And finally on to what is probably the most interesting etymological story in the video, that of gasoline. It had previously been assumed that gasoline simply came from gas, a little odd given that gasoline is a liquid not a gas, that is until researchers at the Oxford English Dictionary uncovered the evidence about John Cassell and his Cazoline, about which discovery you can read more in the Oxford Dictionaries blog. Still, it seems likely that the word gas still had some influence on the form gasoline, not to mention the common North American abbreviation gas. And as per the video, we have Jean Baptist van Helmont’s Flemish pronunciation of Greek chaos to thank for that word. Here’s van Helmont’s actual quotation on the subject (quoted from the OED):

‘halitum illum Gas vocavi, non longe a Chao veterum secretum’, ‘I have called this vapour gas, not far removed from the Chaos of the ancients’

Here is the passage from Hesiod’s Theogony that introduces the Chaos, that is the void before creation, that van Helmont was referring to (quoted from Wikisource):

“Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.”

And for comparison, here is the Ginnungagap from the Norse story of creation, as told by Snorri Sturluson:

“Ginnungagap, the Yawning Void ... which faced toward the northern quarter, became filled with heaviness, and masses of ice and rime, and from within, drizzling rain and gusts; but the southern part of the Yawning Void was lighted by those sparks and glowing masses which flew out of Múspellheim”

And one last detail. I mentioned that the British term petrol is short for petroleum. Specifically it came to the British idiom from the tradenamed product of the appropriately named company Petrochem Carless Ltd, one of the first oil companies. The company tried to register the name Petrol as a trademark, but this attempt failed presumably because the word had already been used to refer to a lamp oil in French. I say appropriately named because this petrol was initially intended as a solvent for removing nits, that is the eggs of lice, not as a fuel for cars. It was only later with the advent of the internal combustion engine that the petrol was found to be an ideal fuel. The company was actually called Petrochem Carless because it was founded by one Eugene Carless in 1859, coincidentally the same year the first oil well was drilled (in Titusville Pennsylvania), kicking off the first oil boom in the United States. Here’s a picture of that historic first oil derrick, Drake Well.