A History of Vinyl

A History of Vinyl

Vinyl is basically a plastic. Raw material goes through a process to become a synthetic material which is in form a polymer.

Resilient Floors

Vinyl flooring is in a class called “Resilient Flooring” because the material isn’t rigid, but can bend, or roll, or otherwise react to the environment in a flexible manor. There were other kinds of resilient materials used as flooring before vinyl was invented in the 1920s.

Around the 1100s to 1200s we see rubber tile style flooring start to come into use. They mostly fade away by the end of the 1600s. In 1845 came the invention of linoleum. It was industrially manufactured in Scotland 12 years before a linoleum plant first appeared in the United States in 1872. Linoleum would be a staple in flooring for the next 70 years.


Cork Tile Flooring

Rubber tiles came back in 1894, when a locking system to keep the tiles together was invented by an architect in Philadelphia, Frank Furness. The ease of laying these in place enabled homeowners to create different patterns and designs by the way they positioned the tiles. As you can imagine, a big, rubber floor is going to kill a lot of sound in a room. These floors were also durable and, counter-intuitively, easy to clean. They could not be put into basements because of the alkalinity of the moisture that can appear down there. Chemicals seem to have been the Achilles’ heel all around, as these floors could corrode with exposure to cleaning solvents, ozone and even oxygen.

In 1904 cork became a flooring product that would become the best selling of all resilient floors within 20 years. It was pretty expensive, and was limited in how it could look. The same was true of the next resilient floor in line, asphalt tiles, developed in the 1920’s. They were good and tough, but styles were pretty limited.

Asphalt Tile


Its use as a floor will begin in the 1930’s, but the substance itself, just “vinyl”, came around in the late 1800’s. Using vinyl chloride, which is actually a gas, researchers in Europe developed a material for which no one could find a use, practical or commercial. In 1872 chemist Eugen Baumann developed Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) in Germany. In 1913 another Friedrich Klatte came up with an alternate method of getting the substance to polymerize, and he got a patent, the first for PVC. It remained little more than a patented chemical for roughly the next 20 years.

In 1926 vinyl as a useful substance was invented by accident. In Akron, Ohio, Waldo Lonsbury Semon, a researcher, was trying to develop an adhesive to bond rubber to metal for The BF Goodrich Company. Showing serendipitous resourcefulness, he experimented with the materials generated by his failures and created a plasticized polyvinyl chloride. Unlike the rigid materials generated by Baumann and Klatte, this appeared as a gelatinous substance similar to unprocessed rubber. He got patents, but his work with the PVC remained relatively unknown. It was popular industrially, where it was used for tubing, wire insulation and gaskets, but the public first encountered it in golf balls, shower curtains and the heels of shoes, and finally in 1933, when, at a Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, Vinyl Composite Tile as a kind of flooring was presented.

While it was an easily installed floor, and vinyl production had become well industrialized, its market penetration had to wait until the late 1940’s for a very important reason. World War II. In December of 1941, Japan invaded southeast Asia. This depleted supplies of shellac, which almost halted the production of records (you know, for music!) until vinyl began to be used in record production. Vinyl’s unavailability for flooring was increased by the war effort in general, covering for an acute natural rubber scarcity, and increasing in use to insulate wiring on military ships. The Germans developed PVC piping when their metals began to be in short supply.

The 1933 Century Of Progress Exhibition

Vinyl Flooring in 1958

Vinyl manufacturing was reintroduced after the war ended, boasting some of its newly discovered properties, versatility and flame resistance. Vinyl flooring was shown to handle heavy foot traffic, and to be relatively inexpensive, so it quickly took off in commercial spaces, then in residential homes’ high traffic area, and finally as a  home flooring in general. It became a solid competitor other resilient flooring.

In the 1960’s there were further advancements in vinyl flooring technology. Vinyl which didn’t need wax made maintenance easy, and cushioned flooring made walking more comfortable. Vinyl became the second most popular kind of flooring to carpet.

In the 1970’s the first  vinyl plank flooring was introduced to the market. These are made of vinyl, but cut into planks designed to look like wood. It was a durable, cheap alternative to real hardwood flooring. The beveled plank cuts made it more realistic looking than sheet flooring.

Today these planks have a deal sealer. Vinyl plank is now available as a 100% waterproof floor. Top to bottom, inside and out, now they are 100% waterproof, and benefit from the same technologies that have made laminate flooring become so increasingly realistic looking.

Workmen drill holes with compressed-air drills for blasting asbestos ore in Québec, Canada. No masks. Don't pull up old vinyl!

Special note.
Before you remove any pre-existing vinyl flooring, make sure you know when it was originally installed. Before the mid 1980’s most vinyl tile flooring contained asbestos. The tiles were thin, 1/8″ or less, and usually came in 9×9″ or 12×12″ sizes. These you do not want to remove yourself. The danger with asbestos is inhaling it, and pulling these up is likely to create a cloud of the stuff.
Unless you’re sure that your old vinyl floor has no asbestos content, call a professional for this task.

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David has written and made videos about flooring products and installation since 2011 at Floors To Your Home (.com), where he is also the PPC Manager, a Researcher, a Website & Marketing Strategy Team member, Videographer, Social Strategist, Photographer and all around Resource Jito. In my spare time I shoot and edit video, put together a podcast, explore film history, and mix music (as in ‘play with Beatles multi-tracks’). Connect with  W. David Lichty


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