Museum project to uncover Fife Town tales that have struck the world

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For more than a century, the sweet aroma of linseed oil has hung over the Lang Toon, where generations of workers created the smooth, long-lasting product that would coat the world.

From towering factories dotted around Fife’s coastal town of Kirkcaldy came thousands of rolls of linoleum intended to bring color and comfort to the hardwood and stone floors of humble homes and stately homes, tall ships, public buildings and smart offices.

At their peak, the “lino” factories in the heart of the city provided work for over 4,000 people – many of them women – and ignited a vibrant community scene of social and sports clubs, fueled by the music of the bagpipes. factory.

Eventually, however, the demand for lino waned; while there were once seven large factories employing one in ten of the city’s population, in 1963 only one remained, and memories of the lino-producing powerhouse began to fade. blur.

Now a major new project aims to bring the story of how Fife became the lino capital of the world to life, through the memories of the workers who helped make it one of the most enduring industrial success stories in ‘Scotland.

Fife museum curators have appealed to all who played a part in building the county’s reputation as a world center of linoleum production to share their memories as part of a £115,000 mission aimed at exploring the impact of the everyday product on the city. and people.

The Flooring the World project is also urging people to submit any work-related artefacts they may have, which could be added to the Fife Museums world-renowned linoleum collection.

Among the most coveted is a curious elephant-shaped promotional briefcase created by Leith-born sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi for pioneering lino company Nairn’s of Kirkcaldy.

Only 3,000 of the plastic elephants were created in 1973 and are known to fetch four-figure sums at auction.

One of the original elephants is in the collection of Fife Museums, along with a piece of linoleum that once furnished Paul McCartney’s childhood home in Liverpool.

Project engagement curator Lily Barnes said the linoleum industry had a major impact on life in the city, with generations of workers from families employed in production and offices and a social scene bustling which saw people mixing outside the factory walls.

“The two biggest were Nairns, originally Michael Nairn and Company, and now Forbo, and Barry, who was originally Shepherd and Beveridge.

“Each of them had several factories around the city, and the social side was an important part of the identity of the factories. There were sports clubs, social clubs, football teams.

“Barry had a particularly good pipe band and Nairns had his bowling team.

“Our collection is strong on the first century of lino production, but contains fewer objects from the 1960s. next two years.

Lino products made in Kirkcaldy and the nearby villages of Falkland and Newburgh have put the Kingdom on the map as a global hub for linoleum production – thanks to the remarkable vision of a single entrepreneur.

Michael Nairn was a canvas trader in Kirkcaldy who saw demand rise for mops to cover hard, cold stone and wooden floors.

Despite warnings he would fail miserably, he borrowed £4,000 to set up Scotland’s first factory to produce mops – nicknamed ‘Nairn’s Folly’ by those who mocked his vision.

It opened in 1847, and by the time of Nairn’s death 11 years later, business was booming.

The arrival of another material would capitalize on its success and transform the city.

English bookmaker, Frederick Walton, invented linoleum in 1861 after examining a can of oil-based paint and discovering that the linseed oil had oxidized to leave a firm, rubbery top coat.

He devised a method to speed up the oxidation process, creating a hard-wearing floor covering he named linoleum.

Demand for the new product skyrocketed just as the patent on its manufacturing process expired, paving the way for Michael Nairn & Co.

As lino took off, the race was on to meet demands for more intricate patterns and colorful patterns.

“The pattern books have fantastic patterns, some of which use six or seven colors and are very elaborate,” adds Lily.

Standard linoleum was made by creating a slurry called cement by mixing linseed oil with resin or gum and a substrate, often cork, which would be colored with pigments and spread over a canvas backing.

It could then be printed with different patterns on top of the base color.

Lily adds: “Alternatively, the designs could be composed by combining shapes of linoleum in different shades and colors – called inlaid linoleum.

“This had the advantage that the designs didn’t wear out with use but took longer to make.

“The linoleum made in Kirkcaldy these days is fully marbled, but it is still available in many different colours.

“It’s still made much the same as it was in the 19th century.”

The only remaining factory built by Michael Nairn & Co is now owned by international flooring company Forbo. The Swiss-based company recently donated its historic archive, dating back to Nairn’s founding in 1847, to cultural charity OnFife, which runs the area’s museum service.

Treasures from Forbo include a striking set of linoleum marquetry images, banners carried by workers on summer excursions and the Nairn factory’s own fire engine. The new project, which is supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, seeks in particular the memories of working women and all those who have participated in industrial action. They also want to know more about production in Falkland and Newburgh.

The project will also explore the wider social impact of linoleum on people’s lives. The team looks forward to hearing from anyone who remembers having linoleum in their home or workplace.

Gavin Grant, OnFife’s Collections Team Leader, said: “We would like to know as much as possible about the day-to-day experiences of people working with linoleum – not just manufacturing, but retail, marketing, linoleum. administration and all other associated roles. .”

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