Over the past few years, I’ve been very curious about two mundane materials: linoleum and rayon. Both fascinate me because while they seem like products of the post-wwII plastics manufacturing revolution which made materials like polyester and vinyl commonplace, both actually originated in the mid 19th century. They are also both materials which, if they were invented now, would probably be marketed as “green.” In fact, just a few weeks ago I was at a green building conference where one speaker passed around some samples of a somewhat pricy green flooring option called Marmoleum, which as far as I can tell is the same as linoleum but German.
Rayon comes from wood. Rayon also goes into some of my most beloved sweaters. It was the first synthetic fiber, and today in the context of ubiquitous polyester, it’s sometimes referred to as “semi-synthetic,” due to it’s more-naturally-fibrous-than-petroleum cellulose origins.
It was first developed as an artificial silk. The cellulose fiber was first created in 1855, but a practical manufacturing method wasn’t developed until about 30 years later. Rayon is used in a lot of different contexts and made to resemble a huge range of other fibers, like cotton and wool. It sometimes goes under the alias viscose. Tampons are made out of rayon. I can’t say for sure, but I would bet that those textiles made out of bamboo are made through the rayon process.
Linoleum comes from linseed oil. It was also invented in 1855. The story of linoleum is that the guy that invented it left a can of paint open, and became interested in the film that formed at the top of the paint. He invented it as a cheaper alternative to the popular rubber-and-cork flooring Kamptulicon. Kamtulicon is sort of interesting in itself, because it enjoyed a very short-lived heyday, cut short by the end of the rubber boom making its manufacture impractically expensive. Linoleum from linseed oil fell out of fashion in the 1960s, replaced mostly by vinyl flooring that people still referred to as “linoleum.” So if you’re going to go buy some linoleum, make sure it isn’t actually just vinyl. Because pvc will kill you, and linoleum will be easy to clean.