Saturday, April 21, 2007

Linoleum and Touch of Tung Oil

This may not seem like it's about Florida at first, but bear with me.

Recently I read Linoleum, by Jane Powell and Linda Svendsen (Gibbs Smith, 2003). It's a coffee table book--oversized, glossy photos, not too much text. Yes, an actual entire book about linoleum, the floor covering of the hoi polloi. The photographs really make this book, transforming linoleum into abstract pieces of art. The text covers much the same territory as other books and journal articles on the topic, but with a welcome sense of humor. The last part of the book recounts the author's experiments to determine whether linoleum can withstand cat pee. (We're not to the Florida part yet.)

Frederick Walton, an Englishman, invented linoleum in 1855. It was basically canvas or burlap coated with oxidized linseed oil, cork dust, and resin. There have been variations on this over the years, but the key point is that linoleum uses natural products and is not vinyl.

Linoleum originally was made from linseed oil, which came the name. But later other kinds of oils were used, among them, tung oil. Tung oil comes from the nuts of the tung tree, which is native to China. The oil has other industrial uses, including as an ingredient in varnish.

Heading into the twentieth century, China was the leading producer of tung oil, and had cornered the market. So some Americans looked around for where tung trees might grow well in the United States, and came up with north central Florida. The first tung trees were planted in Florida in 1906, and the first oil was produced from their nuts in 1913.

Wars disrupted supplies of tung oil from China, which in turn encouraged increased production in Florida. The zenith of Florida's tung industry was during World War II. Jefferson County claims to have been the center point of this industry, with over 12,000 acres of tung oil trees in the 1950s.

But the tung trees weren't the only thing happening in Jefferson County at the mid-century mark. A young man named Homer Formby used some of that oil to make his own line of furniture finishing products. His first store was in Jefferson County, in the old Monticello Opera House.

Storms, freezes, and competition put an end to Florida's tung oil industry in the 1960s and 1970s. Formby made a pile of money, sold his company, and in the 1970s/80s owned some islands down in the Keys.

Florida just may be the Kevin Bacon of the 50 United States.

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