For the women of the Fifties and Sixties, they were a bold fashion statement, perhaps a little uncomfortable but a small price to pay as they quit the kitchen for a new world of work.

But for some chaps, the women’s choice of chic footwear was a dagger straight to their hearts.

The stiletto heel, they feared, was about to create chaos across the country’s floors, leaving indentations in precious workplace linoleum as the ladies sashayed by.

To combat it, the advertising 'mad men' from Kirkcaldy’s booming linoleum factories mounted an attack, not just on the high heels but one which seemed to strike at the very idea of women having the audacity to seek lives outside the humdrum of the home.

How women’s choice of footwear played a role in the battle of the sexes was spotted by curators of a new project and exhibition that aims to tell the story of how Kirkcaldy became the nation’s powerhouse for linoleum production.

Stashed away in rarely viewed archives, they found adverts and other material that on the surface warn of the risks stiletto heels posed to linoleum floors.

However, it was the use of a particular kind of ‘battle of the sexes’ imagery and language which appeared to depict women as threatening which, viewed through a modern lens, really struck them.

“Manufacturers began to fight back with advertising," says Lily Barnes, curator of a new exhibition which explores the linoleum industry and its impact on Fife.

"Theoretically, these stressed improvements to linoleum in the face of the new challenge of stilettos. In practice, while demonising the shoes they also laid the blame squarely at the heeled feet of the women who wore them.

“Damage done by heels then, was damage done by women. Linoleum under attack from not just a shoe, but from an entire gender.”

The Herald: Linoleum portrait of the Queen made in Kirkcaldy in 1955Linoleum portrait of the Queen made in Kirkcaldy in 1955 (Image: OnFife)

The mid-20th century adverts appeared at a time when women were working in larger numbers, and in more diverse roles than ever before.

“At the same time as many were becoming concerned about the impact of shoes on linoleum, others were worried about the impact of this social change on the established order of things,” she adds.

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One poster hints at the battle of the sexes in workplaces and homes, with talk of fighting back and to “stand up to them.” 

Another shows a woman wearing strappy, open toe sandals with short, thin heel and the slogan:  'Deadlier than the male'.

On its reverse are tips to protect floors from the ‘femme fatale’, among them one which suggests banning the shoes completely.

Lily adds: “Was the desire to have no stilettos in the workplace also partly a desire to have less women in the workplace too?

“These adverts can be seen as artefacts of a general perception of gender which – though it did not raise eyebrows at the time – now seems both dated and problematic.”

The adverts and posters are part of a huge collection of material associated with Fife’s linoleum industries kept by OnFife, the region’s museum’s service, recently examined as part of a major project which has unravelled its impact on the area.


The Herald: Late 19th century Kirkcaldy linoleum pattern, part of a new exhibition exploring the industryLate 19th century Kirkcaldy linoleum pattern, part of a new exhibition exploring the industry (Image: OnFife)

Much of the industry was rooted in the daring decision by canvas trader Michael Nairn who spotted rising demand for floor cloth and poured £4,000 into setting up Scotland’s first factory of its type.

It opened in 1847 but was dubbed ‘Nairn’s Folly’ as most people thought it would not be a success.

His vision set down the foundations for the industry: at their peak ‘lino’ factories in the heart of Kirkcaldy alone brought work for more than 4,000 people, many of them women.

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It also had a social impact, sparking a vibrant community of social, sports clubs and factory pipe bands, while the distinctive smell of linseed oil used in production became embedded in the town’s make up.

Eventually, however, demand for lino dwindled; where once there were seven large factories employing one in ten of the town’s population, by 1963 just one remained, and memories of the powerhouse of lino production began to fade.

The Herald: Promotional elephant created for Nairn’s by the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi.Promotional elephant created for Nairn’s by the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. (Image: OnFife)

Key parts of the museum service’s archive of than 5000 objects, documents and photographs linked to the linoleum factories will be shown in a new exhibition, Flooring the World, due to open next month at Kirkcaldy Galleries.

They include a rare 1973 promotional elephant document holder created by pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi for flooring company Nairn’s.

There is also piece of linoleum that once furnished Paul McCartney’s childhood home in Liverpool, and examples of patterns including a 19th century example adapted from wallpaper designed by Arts & Crafts artist Walter Crane, produced by the Kirkcaldy Floorcloth Company.

Museum staff exploring the archive also uncovered unexpected material, including photographs showing a group of striking French workers.

The Herald: Photographs of French linoleum company strikers found in the museum archives Photographs of French linoleum company strikers found in the museum archives (Image: OnFife)

They eventually discovered they were employed by Barry, Ostlere and Shepherd of Kirkcaldy, at their Rouen factory, and had taken strike action in 1923 over pay and having to make do with out of date equipment.

The exhibition is the culmination of a two-year project into the history of the Fife linoleum industry funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, which is run by the Museums Association. 

It opens at Kirkcaldy Galleries on Wednesday 15 November.