Linoleum production was once big business for New Jersey and for neighboring Staten Island. Production boomed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Kearny, NJ proved to be the center of production for decades.
Production on an Epic Scale
In the December 15, 1940 issue of The Star-Ledger, author Edward J. Mowery wrote, “if there ever was an epic in manufacturing genius, you’ll find it at the 48-acre Kearny plant of Congoleum-Nairn, Inc.”
So how did this epic tale begin? Immigration and innovation. According to The Observer, linoleum production came to Kearny from Scotland. Beginning in 1886, the Nairn Linoleum Company purchased property that eventually “became a 63-acre complex that stretched along Passaic Avenue all the way from Belgrove Drive to Bergen Ave.”
Michael Nairn was behind it all. First, he sent a salesperson to rack up American orders of the flooring and shipping them from Scotland. Linoleum became so popular that he realized he needed to open a factory to keep up.
Later becoming Congoleum-Nairn, by 1939, 164 million square yards of linoleum were being produced in America. After a series of mergers, Kearny’s own Congoleum-Nairn was the largest producer of linoleum in the world.
“Hollywood would have a tough time setting the stage for this drama,” wrote Mowery. “The props are from all corners of the earth. They take linseed oil (from Argentine), jute (from India), cork (from Algiers), fossilized resin (from New Zealand), burlap (from Scotland), pigments (from everywhere), place them in plain American gyratory gadgets…and you get linoleum.”
This indeed is a story that only could have begun in the 19th and 20th centuries. Only after world trade became a true possibility. After all of these ingredients from all over the earth could be brought together.
Linoleum: An Economic Boom
An article from the Newark Sunday Call, March 2, 1941, continues the story:
“Fifteen hundred persons in the Kearny-Newark area owe their jobs to the fact that an Englishman, 80 years ago, made the startling discovery that he could walk on oil.”
After spilling the oil, the story goes, it solidified. Frederick Walton discovered he could walk on it, thus giving him the idea for linoleum.
The number of jobs created is staggering. Just consider that in 2008, out of 5,930,132 businesses in America, only 8,283 of those companies had more than 1,500 employees. Then consider that we are talking about 1940.
The scale of production is also amazing. Congoleum-Nairn had more than 100 buildings in Kearny, occupying more than 48 acres of land in 1941. Even the ovens, according to the Newark Sunday Call article, were “six stories high.”
After Congoleum-Nairn swelled to 68 acres, and after America entered World War II, the company shifted much of its production to military supplies. Which included, according to The Observer, “aerial torpedo parts and grenades.” The company still produced linoleum, but it was no longer its main product.
In 1943, tragedy struck when 13 people died in an explosion at the Congoleum-Nairn plant.
Linoleum Production: A Changing Industry
Throughout the following decades, Congoleum morphed, innovated, and invented a number of new products. But in 1986, the company was sold to Hillside Industries. It was exactly 100 years after Michael Nairn began purchasing property in Kearny.
In 2015 NJ.com reported that many factories had been demolished, and that “New York-based DVL, Inc. is constructing a retail development at the site, which once housed a Congoleum-Nairn manufacturing plant.”
Like so much of American history, it has been buried by new development and by demolition.
But linoleum lives on, especially with the development of products like Marmoleum. Just as Americans are turning more to organic foods, they are considering the health, environmental, and safety aspects of their flooring. Linoleum-based products are a viable option for many.