By Bonnie Fordham Hollingsworth
How many of us still around today remember the oil-cloth on the kitchen table? Now, I may not be that OLD, in theory, but we were just that poor. I had friends in high school that had never heard of oilcloth, and had never used an outhouse.
Dictionary description of oil-cloth: A fabric treated with clay, oil, and pigments to make it waterproof. It is used as a covering for tables or shelving.
Well folks, Mamas oil cloth was used as both of the above, and much more, depending on the degree of wear and tear.
Having very little opportunity to get to a hardware or department store, our oilcloth was usually ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The only swatches of material the magazine regularly had in it, was for dress fabric. One had to write and request swatches of oilcloth. Mama did, and it was then a big production to pick out the right pattern of available designs. It simply HAD to match the feed-sack curtains on the kitchen windows. Yes, I said kitchen, as we had no dining room. There were, however, TWO tables in the kitchen. One was the big table we ate our meals on, and the other was a smaller table that Mama called the cook table. It was on the cook table that biscuits were made, piecrusts and dumplings were rolled out, the souse meat (hogs headcheese) was put in the press, and wild berries were sorted for pies and jams. The sweetest and ripest berries went into the pies, and the lesser berries were set aside for jams.
OOPS! Sidetracked again! Back to oilcloth. I cannot remember the price per yard for oilcloth, but I know it was one of the more expensive things that we ever purchased for the kitchen. I always thought it was the most beautiful thing in the house. NOTHING was allowed to be put on the eating table except at meal times, and then it was quickly cleared and lovingly wiped clean by the hands of my mother. Other than that, a bouquet of wild flowers in a quart canning jar would occasionally appear on the table. She guarded her oilcloth zealously and always picked up the part that hung over the edges of the table to inspect and clean them. The only day of the week that the oilcloth was not visible on the eating table was on the Sabbath Day. On Sundays, Mama carefully placed the only good tablecloth we owned on TOP of the oilcloth. Sunday was the day for company to drop in.
As the oilcloth eventually got worn places in it and would no longer protect (or we should say COVER UP) the ugly old pine boards in the table top, it would get replaced. However, the old oilcloth was then recycled. Mama would carefully cut out the largest pieces she could get without using the extremely worn spots, and use them for smaller areas. She usually got at least two new cloths for the cook table and still had some left. If she could get a strip long enough, it went onto a shelf somewhere, with a little hanging over the front of the shelf. She used her pinking shears to cut little circles and squares out of some of what was left. These she used under the screw on lids of canning jars, when she gave others a jar of her homemade goodies. She said it dressed them up for a nice gift.
I think the neatest idea Mama came up with for used but good oilcloth came when a friend of hers had twin girls born. Mama had already set aside some old flour sacks that she had bleached and blued to give her for diapers. She wanted something more special, though, to give this dear friend, and she had no money to spend. Finally, she took and old Hoop Cheese box from Grandpas store, and started to make her gift. She carefully cut and lined the box with oilcloth, and laid the flour sack diapers in the bottom. Then, she decided on a pint each of pear preserves, pickled peaches, and blackberry jam. My sister and I thought it was really pretty. We did not really understand the entire hullabaloo about new babies, though. New babies came to our house all the time!
Finally, Mama came up with her great idea! She took out some more scraps of oilcloth, some quilting batting, and got busy on the old Singer treadle machine. I watched her as she went through scrap material, to find a color that would go with the design on the oilcloth. This she cut into long strips, to make bias binding. She made two little things that went under the breast when nursing a baby to protect the mothers dresses from dribble. Being extremely pleased with the way those turned out, she then proceeded to make a couple of bibs for the babies out of the same old piece of oil-cloth, with the same bright red binding. To complete this elaborate gift basket, Mama then added a slab of cheese, a small jar of cane syrup, a little bar of company soap, and a loaf of homemade bread. It was complete! Mama was happy!
Daddy hooked up the mule team that evening, and we all piled in and traveled the 7 miles down the old red clay road to deliver the prized gift to the new parents. All that work for what I personally thought was two really red and ugly new little baby girls!
I have often wondered if my Mama was the original creator of the Hospitality Baskets that one now gets in the hospital when new babies are born. Hmmmm? The basket that my mother gave this new young mother was still in use as her sewing box many, many years later.
Once again though, the giving, caring heart, along with her eye for beauty, and her creative talents (to make something from nothing), had served my mother well! She was, in the true sense of the word, a Pioneer Spirit!
Bonnie Fordham Hollingsworth