Guest writers Gavin Grant and Lily Barnes from Fife Cultural Trust continue their well-researched trilogy celebrating Kirkcaldy's floor covering industry.
With the development of linoleum, we begin to inhale the "queer like smell" that identified Kirkcaldy for 'The Boy In The Train' and accompanied a unique manufacturing process.
This story follows on from Object No 24 - on floorcloth - and describes in fine detail the growth of a business which came to dominate Kirkcaldy and enabled the town to 'floor the world'.
A lasting by-product of linoleum's heyday was the Nairn family philanthropy that we covered under Object No 13.
From Floorcloth to Linoleum
This month sees the welcome return of Gavin Grant and Lily Barnes from Fife Cultural Trust with Part Two of their trilogy on the Kirkcaldy linoleum industry. In Part One, floorcloth, the precursor of linoleum, was covered and now the story moves onto the transition from floorcloth to linoleum itself. It was one of the names forever linked with the town which led the charge into the production of the product most associated with Kirkcaldy. That name is Nairn and many generations of them!
Linoleum has played a major part in the town's industrial history offering employment to thousands and introducing “the queer like smell” which cemented its relationship with Kirkcaldy, ultimately creating the maxim that the town “floored the world”. Both the town and the smell were immortalised in Mary C. Smith's poem - “The Boy in the Train”.
The legacy of linoleum remains in the consciousness of those employed in the industry and is also demonstrated by some fine public buildings which sprang from the benevolence of the manufacturers. The Nairn family were at the forefront of this philanthropy providing an art gallery, a museum, a public park and the town's first hospital, amongst many gifts.
Linoleum is synonymous with Kirkcaldy and its story demands to be told, and added to, whenever possible. Fife Cultural Trust keep the history alive and their Linoleum Collection is yet another legacy. The Collection provides a rich fund for both research and stories relating to the industry which carried the town's name worldwide.
The Trust does not rest on its laurels and in 2022 instigated the project Flooring the World - The Fife Linoleum Industry. The purpose is to build on what is already a substantial collection by engaging with people and their memories. This two year project is driven by Gavin and Lily and that, plus their deep knowledge, makes them the outstanding candidates to relate linoleum's story.
The Object which was chosen by Gavin and Lily was for a particular reason, in that it encapsulates so much of the narrative. This advertisement for Michael Nairn and Co., belongs to the 1890s and almost tells the story in itself. It incorporates all of the firm's huge sprawling factories into one picture giving an indication of how large the industry became. It also includes the harbour which highlights its importance as the method by which the raw material arrived and the finished product often departed. Where Nairn led others followed with the story making mention of many of the other firms involved, most notably Barry, Ostlere and Shepherd.
Being written in French demonstrates the firm's global reach and the plethora of winner's medals reflects the high quality, varied patterns and durability of their linoleum. The poster simply portrays Kirkcaldy as what it once was, an industrial powerhouse.
A detailed, interesting and informative, narrative has been produced guiding the reader through linoleum's story. It answers questions such as: why Kirkcaldy? who were the manufacturers? how was it made? Is it still made?
The narrative also examines the success of linoleum and how it was advertised both at home and abroad. It explains in detail the expansion of the factories and warehouses throughout Europe and beyond.
The working and social lives of those employed in the industry are also brought into sharp focus. While it is only correct that the decline after the Second World War is examined, overall the story conjures up a great pride in what Kirkcaldy achieved through foresight, industry and a quality product. Kirkcaldy truly was a world leader and remains Britain's only producer of linoleum through its Forbo factory in Den Road. Forbo are a major player in both the Trust's project and collection.
The story is augmented by a host of photographs from the Trust's archives covering the people, the places, the designs and the adverts. It is a must for anyone interested in, or with a family connection to, linoleum. This is part of Kirkcaldy's industrial history and will bring back strong memories for those involved. Please enjoy the full story, which contains the magnificent photographs, by clicking the icon on this page.
If you would like to find out more about the Flooring the World linoleum project currently underway, then please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Engagement Curator Lily Barnes on 07548 777008.
The Summer we will see the final part of the trilogy which will provide a full update on the discoveries and stories brought to light by the project. Meantime we have to thank both Gavin and Lily for another detailed, interesting and informative story.