"Linoleum" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today, I’m hoping my “trademark” approach can “floor” you with just how fascinating “Linoleum” can be!

Linoleum, a type of  durable yet flexible floor covering made from linseed oil and various other materials such as rosin, powdered cork, and pigments pressed onto a burlap or canvas backing, takes its name from Latin linum meaning “flax” and oleum meaning “oil” or “olive”, the main source of oil in the ancient world. Flax is the plant that produces linseed oil, and linum, which comes through Greek from a Proto-Indo-European root referring to the plant, also gives us the words linen, referring to the fabric made from the flax plant, and line, as rope was also made from flax fibres, as well as other such fabricy words as lint, crinoline, lingerie, and, metaphorically, lineage from line. The Latin oleum also comes from Greek and ultimately probably from a non-Indo-European word for the olive. That Greek word elaia also gives us the English word olive, and it’s the importance of olives in the Greek and Roman world that gives us a hint as to what line this story of linoleum is going to take. You see olives and olive oil were highly prized in the ancient world, and though oil could be locally produced, the highest quality oils from regions that were famous for their oil production became even more highly prized, like vintages of wine or, for our purposes, almost like product brands. Just as well-thought-of brands are sold under a particular trademark so the consumer knows the quality of the product, so too olive oil from particularly famous regions would be of known high quality. And olive oil was crucially and culturally important for many aspects of ancient Greek and Roman society, not just for culinary purposes, but also as fuel for lighting, for cosmetics and bathing, in medicine, and for religious ceremonies. 

But getting back to linoleum, this floor covering was invented by one Frederick Walton, who in 1855 noticed that the linseed oil in an unsealed oil paint container formed a rubbery film and had the bright idea of using this substance as a replacement for India rubber as a waterproofing material for things like flooring and oilcloth (think tarpaulin). After tinkering with the process (and having his factory burn down along the way), he patented his process for producing it in 1860. As it happens, Walton was originally going to market his product under a different name, Kampticon, which he initially picked because it was similar to a well-known rival floor covering made with India rubber called Kamptulicon, but he eventually decided on his own more original name, Linoleum. So though he never registered it, Linoleum was a brand trademark that he sold his product under. As it turns out, it was perhaps a mistake not to register his trademark because by 1887, the rival American company Nairn Linoleum  started marketing their own version of linoleum under Walton’s coined named, and though Walton tried to challenge this he lost both because of his lack of registration and because by that point it was judged that the word linoleum was already commonly used as the product category, in other words it had become generic.

Let’s backtrack for a moment and consider the history of trademarks. A trademark is any word or symbol that is not intrinsic to a product but is used to identify it as made by a specific company. The use of  makers marks on pottery goes back to ancient times, and there are mentions of such marks in the bible. Roman sword makers are said to have used identifying marks as well. The first legislation having to do with trademarks was from the reign of Henry III in England in 1266, in which bakers were required to use distinctive marks for their bread. You see trademarks are not just for the protection of the maker of a product, but in fact perhaps more importantly for the protection of a consumer so that the source of a product is readily identified to assure quality. The lion logo of Löwenbräu beer, which originates from a 17th century fresco in the brewing house depicting the biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den, is an example of an early trademark that is still in use today. And as a historical footnote it’s another beer trademark that has the earliest registration. Though the US was the first off the mark to enact a trademark registration law in 1870, it was struck down and only reinstituted in 1881, so the United Kingdom’s 1875 trademark act is now the oldest such legislation, and the first company to register its trademark was Bass Brewery, with its distinctive red triangle logo. In what might be lightheartedly described as the earliest product placement, therefore, the famous Bass logo appears in the iconic Manet painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”. Presumably Manet didn’t get a kickback from the brewery. But in another movie related parallel, author Edgar Rice Burroughs was clever enough to trademark his Tarzan creation in 1923, so that even after the copyright on his stories had lapsed, his estate could still defend his creation much like a modern media franchise, because there’s no temporal limit on a trademark as there is with other intellectual properties like copyrights and patents. By the way, the first trademark registered under the US’s second attempt at trademark legislation was, once again following the ‘line’ of this story, for a rope manufacturer which used an image from another leonine Old Testament story, Sampson wrestling the lion. And the oldest German trademark is the three circle logo of the German steel company Krupp representing the seamless train wheels they manufactured, registered in 1875 under the German Trade Mark Protection Law. But we’ll return to Krupp in a minute.
Getting back to Linoleum, though Walton tried to retroactively defend his unregistered trademark, it was by then too late. It had fallen into the trap many such products do. While his invention was itself protected temporarily by its patent, he was the victim of his own success, as linoleum came to refer to the product category, not the commercial source of that product, so once the patent lapsed, the name became generic. It’s a fine line companies have to walk, associating their brand with their product, but not too much, and there are many other examples of this phenomenon, called genericide, such as aspirin, escalator, brassiere, and yo-yo, and in more recent years companies like Xerox and Google have had to fight against their trademarks being used too generically.

Now is one of those moments when we could follow a number of different lines of connections. Linoleum became quite popular to use on sailing ships due to the fact that it’s waterproof, and both the British Royal Navy and the US Navy adopted it, that is until the bombing of Pearl Harbour, when it was found that linoleum’s highly flammable nature was a downside, and soon after its use on ships was superseded by vinyl flooring, also known as PVC, a petroleum product. And it’s petroleum that we’re headed to next, but first let’s follow an alternate line of connections. You remember Kamptulicon, which initially Walton named his linoleum to sound similar to? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly it made a big splash at the World’s Fair in 1862 as a new and innovative floor covering. Of course many manufacturing innovations made a name for themselves at  World’s Fairs — that was their point. Another name that hit it big at World’s Fairs is Krupp, for their record-breakingly large steel-cast cannons — you remember the Krupp company were also known for their railway wheels. Well they also turned their metal working expertise to building engines and were one of the first companies be licensed to manufacture diesel engines. And if I’m allowed one last tangent, the Krupp company, in its weapons manufacturing capacity, supported the Nazi regime in WWII, and as it happened Adolf Hitler’s earlier coup attempt before he came to power, the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, was launched from the Bürgerbräukeller, an old beer hall which at the time was owned by none other than the Löwenbräu company.

But instead of beer, we’re now going to look at fuel, specifically petroleum, which can be a source both for diesel fuel and gasoline — and don’t forget, oil was important as a fuel dating all the way back to the Greeks with their olive oil lamps. In this case though, petroleum comes from the ground as the name indicates, from Greek petra meaning rock, literally “rock-oil”. Evidently the ancient Greeks knew of crude oil, which is mentioned by Herodotus. Though not literally from the rocks themselves, petroleum is produced by ancient organic matter from dead organisms buried beneath sedimentary rock and thereby subjected to immense heat and pressure, transforming it into highly flammable hydrocarbon molecules of various types. This can then be refined into the various petroleum products that are so important to our modern world, such as gasoline and plastics. And this may bring to mind the oil rigs and oil derricks necessary to extract the petroleum from beneath the rocks.

The word derrick, by the way has a surprising etymology. You see the word started out as the name of a person, what’s called an eponym, specifically the surname of Thomas Derrick, during the Elizabethan era, who was coerced into the job of executioner, since such a job would always earn you enemies, after having been convicted himself of rape and then spared the death sentence by the Earl of Essex in exchange for his cooperation. Derrick’s great innovation on the job was to invent a new type of gallows which allowed him to hang more people than ever before, more than 3000 over his career, including the same Earl of Essex who got him into the job in the first place. That’s gallows humour for you. His name first became synonymous with the job of executioner, and then with the hoisting system he invented. Similar rope and pulley systems for loading ships came to be called derricks as well, and from that the word was also applied to the framework that supports the drilling equipment used for extracting crude oil, adding a perhaps not inappropriately sinister element to the apparatus of the fossil fuel industry.
Even more surprisingly, the word gasoline may be an eponym as well. It all started with John Cassell, the 19th century English publisher who founded Cassell & Co. publishing house and had a number of other side businesses it seems. Cassell was also a well-known coffee and tea merchant and perhaps unsurprisingly an avowed teetotaller and supporter of the temperance movement — well, all the more tea and coffee to sell. The word teetotaller, by the way has nothing to do with tea the drink, but is short for the emphatic capital T of  “total”. Cassell’s publishing focussed a lot on educational books, and one of his other causes was campaigning against what were called “Taxes on Knowledge”, in other words taxes on paper and publishing. He saw bringing culture and knowledge to the masses as a way to improve the lives of the working class. Another of Cassell’s sideline businesses was selling a new petroleum-derived lamp oil which he dubbed Cazeline, seemingly based on his name, hence an eponym. But in an instance of trademark infringement (yes we’re getting back to trademarks), Irishman Samuel Boyd began selling a counterfeit product under the same name. When challenged with this trademark infringement, Boyd simply added a stroke to the C on the labels rendering it Gazaline.
That this was the version of the name that stuck to become our modern gasoline, and not Cassell’s Cazeline, probably has something to do with the fact that the first part of the word sounds like gas, the state of matter, though gasoline is a liquid not a gas. It all goes back to when Jan Baptist van Helmont was writing about the state of matter that he compared to the Chaos before the world was formed in the ancient Greek creation myth as described by the poet Hesiod, and thus due to his Flemish pronunciation coined the word “gas” from the Greek word “chaos”. Though in modern English we think of the word chaos as meaning “disorder”, that sense didn’t arise until the 17th century, and the word originally meant “void or gap”, coming from a root that means “to yawn or gape” and also gives us the word gap, as well as the Old Norse word that describes the gap before creation in their version of the creation myth, Ginnungagap, which by the way Cassell’s Dictionary of Norse Myth & Legend, put out by that same publishing house, translates as “beguiling void”. So from the spark of creation to the spark plug, the history of the word gasoline.

But getting back to petroleum itself, gasoline is the North American term for British English petrol, obviously a shortening of petroleum. And this fact brings us to the end of the line, with the company known as BP, short for British Petroleum, which tried to shed its bad environmental reputation and the sinister associations of the fossil fuel industry in general by what’s called “greenwashing” its trademark, changing its old shield logo to the flowery green logo of today, and suggesting a new slogan associated with their initials, “Beyond Petroleum”, showing that while sometimes you need to promote your trademark, you don’t want it to become too well known, and sometimes you need back away from your trademark altogether.

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