Linoleum was a floor covering patented in England in 1863 by Frederick Walton - and the composition has stayed virtually unchanged today. He apparently got the idea from seeing the oxidised linseed oil that forms a skin on the surface of a tin of paint.
Linoleum (or lino for short) is a mix of oxidised linseed oil, resins, ground cork, wood flour, and pigment pressed onto a backing of woven jute through calenders, pairs of powerful rollers that flatten the raw linoleum onto the backing. The sheets are then hung in a seasoning room, and left for two to four weeks for them to toughen. Walton named his invention after linum, Latin for flax (source of the linseed oil) and oleum, Latin for oil.
Linoleum is durable, resilient (according to one badly-translated pamphlet I read: "resists to diluted acids, oils, fat people, alcohol, acetone, etc."), nonflammable and easily maintained. Don't use ammonia to clean it though! Alkalis, and solvents will eat into lino if left in prolonged contact. Staining from rubber can also happen, from tyres, rubber castors or rubber heels. No driving in the kitchen.
Lino fell out of favour after the introduction of vinyl flooring in the 1950's; it was perceived to be old fashioned, and because it was hard to control colour consistency during manufacturing, and because colours tended to fade over time. But recent advances make linoleum colours varied and bright. What's more, linoleum is considerably more durable than vinyl, becoming harder and more durable with age as the linseed oil oxidizes.
Linoleum seems to be making a comeback - advantages over vinyl include that it is made from natural products (a plus for the environmentally conscious), it doesn't mark as easily as vinyl, the pattern is all the way through, not only on the top like vinyl, and it now has a huge array of different colours - one manufacturer makes it in 147 different shades, both marbled & plain. Lino is also naturally bactericidal, which is why hospitals were great users of it.
Disadvantages of linoleum include the strong linseed oil smell when first laid; the smell can take months to dissipate, and some people have been known to be allergic to it. It also recommended that a coat of sealer be painted over the lino every year, to keep it looking good.
Here are a couple of other ways of keeping your linoleum looking good:
When rolling, roll with the pattern on the outside, to prevent cracking. Stand the roll on end, never leave it lying lengthwise. If hard to unroll, put in warm place, or the sun, and let it get soft. Gradually open out the roll.
Occasionally rub in linseed oil mixed with a little vinegar.
Do not throw away old linoleum. Cut into pieces and use as fire-lighters.
A cleaner, to bring up the pattern. One cup vinegar, 1 cup turpentine, 1/2 cup raw linseed oil. Shake well, and bottle. Rub on with a cloth and polish with a clean cloth. Shake bottle frequently.
To renovate: To patch, put the new piece on top of the old, and cut through both pieces at once with a sharp knife. This ensures a perfect fit. Then scrub well, rub with turpentine, and paint all over with floor enamel. To make a mottled pattern, paint all over with basic colour. Then fill a sponge with contrasting colour and dab all over. This hides lines of patching.
from: The Aunt Daisy Cookbook with House hold Hints
Linoleum is also used by artists, to make linocuts, a printmaking process simular to woodcuts.