Concerning Oil Cloth

This is the final article in March of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on March 28, 1909, and is an article on the importance of using oilcloth in the kitchen to protect floors, walls, shelves, and the table.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

Concerning Oil Cloth

THEY call it American cloth in English talk and writings, and a plebeian flavor clings to every such mention of it. It belongs to stories of squalid lodgings and shabby-genteel eating houses in the rural districts and at the seaside. It cannot be denied that, in our own country, this native product of inventive genius has lost caste within a quarter century. Middle-aged women recollect when the dining table was covered between mealtimes with a square of painted oilcloth, bound with galloon or tape. In some households it was not removed when the damask went on. The oilcloth, if or good quality, was lined with heavy canton flannel, and reversed in spreading the glossy linen over it, serving the double purpose of protecting the mahogany from hot dishes and splashes of liquid and deadening the impact of crockery and silver against the polished surface.

We use the “silence cloth” of quilted muslin or of felt, now, to protect the table and to make the damask lie smoothly, at the same time gaining the effect of a better quality for the linen. A thin, well-laundered table cloth laid over the felt takes on the look of a heavier weave than if spread on the bare boards. It wears longer, too, and keeps cleaner. I have explained repeatedly to the young housewife that a creased and limp cloth “catches dirt” sooner than a smooth, thereby increase the laundry bills.

Zinc Versus Oilcloth

But to our oilcloth, which still has its uses. I might add—and its abuses. For a long time it held its own on the kitchen work-table. It was easily cleaned; it did not absorb grease, and it was impervious to unholy drippings which would have soaked into the wood but for intervention. Zinc drove oilcloth out of housewifely favor on table-tops. Let me say, digressively, at this point, that my vanity as a kitchenly authority had a hard blow in the discovery that I was not the first woman to discover and utilize the value of zinc as a tablecover in laundry, pantry and cookroom. I verily believed that nobody else had ever thought of superseding oilcloth by nailing a sheet of zinc upon the deal boards and tacking the edges neatly under the projecting top of my kitchen work-table. My pride had a fall a year later when I read a recommendation of the plan in a cooking magazine, written by one who certainly had never seen my “invention.”

Oilcloth had a way of curling up at the edges, and one dared not set down a hot saucepan upon it for a second. Carelessness in this respect was registered in discolored rings and crescents, which presently wore into bare spots, through which the foundation of the fabric showed forlornly. Zinc is heat-proof as well as water-proof.

Dubious Economy

The stouter floor oilcloth held its ground longer. In fact, it is still extensively used in halls and kitchens, especially in the country. The gorgeously impossible flower and fruit patterns that pleased our childish fancy have passed away, with the monstrous deigns of carpets affected by our grandmothers. Neat, geometric figures, in imitation of tiled pavements and other “conventional” designs, show an advance toward just artistic taste that is gratifying.

In buying oilcloth never lose sight of the truth that a cheap article in this line is the dearest in the end. Likewise, that the end is not far off for the housewife who lays the “bargain” upon hall or kitchen floor. Within a few weeks there will appear little lanes and alleys, criss-crossing one another, where the mother’s busy feet and the boys’ brogans have trod into the soft lacquer, which is the best the manufacturer can afford “at that price.” The coating is thin, and the cotton web it overspreads is also of poor quality.

The number of distressful letters I receive from housekeepers begging for some method of making oilcloths last long enough to pay the buyers for putting them down are abundant proof of the false economy of laying cheap stuffs upon floorings where there is much passing. “Much traffic,” one housewife styled the going to and fro of many hurrying feet. It was an apt word for the rush of the day’s occupations in an American home.

If you can possibly afford it, buy linoleum—the aristocratic cousin of oilcloth—for the kitchen and bathroom. It outlives the usefulness of the best oilcloth by an incredible term of years. The “inlaid” linoleum of fair quality is the next best thing to a tiled floor.

Some years ago I visited a friend who had hung the walls of her kitchen with oilcloth. The pattern, an arabesque design in green and white, matched the linoleum on the floor, and the effect was most pleasing.

She expatiated upon the merits of the material for covering the side walls with all the zeal of an inventor and benefactor. It was easy to keep clean. A little soap and water, a soft brush, a soft cloth—and presto! a wall as good as new. It as not injured by smoke and steam, as paper would be. It did not scale off and crack after the manner of painted walls. It was tacked smoothly to the wall and finished at the top with a pretty frieze. I heard from my friend last summer a tale of disappointment that was affliction. The vaunted oilcloth had proved a harbor and breeding ground for roaches and croton bugs—for black and red ants that equaled Pharaoh’s plagues in degree if not in variety. It was necessary to tear down the beautiful screen to unearth the pests. The walls behind it were literally black with the hordes.

“I am having the walls and floors painted!” wailed the disconsolate victim. “But shall I never get rid of the infliction I invited so ignorantly?”

Other housemothers tell me of similar experiences with the pinked shelf oilcloths that have superseded paper in most of our pantries, storerooms and china closes.

“There are so many hiding places for vermin of all kinds,” writes one. “Hereafter I use papers and look under them every week.”

I answered that she would find it an easy to look under the oilcoths. They are prettier, firmer and not susceptible to dampness; more easily dusted and altogether preferable to shelf papers, provided they are lifted frequently and search made for the intruders. If the shelves are treated once a month to a hot bath plentifully dashed with red pepper, the tiny pests will not take refuge under them.

I am surprised that so few housewives supply themselves with kitchen aprons of oilcloth. A light and flexible quality should be selected for this purpose. The apron must be made with a bib, kept in place by shoulder straps. It should be ample in size, furnished with a couple of pockets and bound with galloon. It may be slipped on over the dinner dress at the mistress’ flying visit to the kitchen to see that all is in proper trim, or to put the finishing touch to some peculiarly delicate dainty. A pair of oilcloth sleeves, buttoned at the cuffs and shirred above the elbows with a “drawstring” would complete her defensive armor.

Marion Harland

Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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