Mama’s Oil-cloth

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
August, 1992

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