The History of Oilcloth

table cloth

Oilcloth, or oiled cloth, is a material that has been around for centuries and was originally used to make waterproof clothing. It is made by treating the fabric with linseed oil, creating a water-resistant coating on the surface of the fabric. Over time it has become an incredibly versatile material, being used to create everything from tablecloths and shower curtains to bags and even furniture. This article will explore how this unique material came about, its uses throughout history up until today as well as some tips on how you can use it in your own home projects.


This material has been around since the mid-1800s when it was developed to waterproof furniture, bedding, and clothing. One of the most famous forms, still active today, is oilcloth tablecloths that protect your dining table from getting damaged from any spills that occur during a meal. It continued to find a variety of uses as material improvements were made. 

For example, cotton and volatile oils were added for more protection. Later, plastic coatings and synthetic fabrics were used to make the oilcloth less flammable. Even today, the material is still found in many households around the world due to its durability and waterproofing capabilities. It’s safe to say that this unique fabric will be appreciated for generations to come!

What’s It Made Of?

Oilcloths have a unique history that lends itself to their current status. Even though the material is often used today for decorative purposes, it has a long past as a useful fabric. 

Traditional oilcloths are made from cotton muslin or canvas fabric that is treated with boiled linseed oil or another type of drying oil, before being coated with paint or vanishing. This process makes the cloth waterproof and resilient – qualities that have been used for generations in the production of rain gear, tablecloths, and even wall coverings! It is no wonder that this practical yet attractive material has endured the test of time!

Early Forms

Long before it was used as an alternative to the fabric on tables and floors, oilcloth had an illustrious past. Here are some early forms you should know about:

  • Linseed oilcloth
  • Patent leathercloth
  • Enameled cloth
  • Pyroxylin-coated cloth
  • Oilskin
  • Mackintosh

While times have changed drastically over the centuries, one thing is certain: no matter its form or use, the oilcloth has been around for a very long time and continues to serve a variety of needs with its durable and functional properties.

Initial Use 

Early forms of this protective medium were seen in ancient Egypt, where they fashioned waterproof capes and cloaks to insure their first inhabitants against the elements. During medieval times, oilcloth saw many uses, including protection for leather shoes from the elements, floor coverings for naval ships, and even outerwear for royalty. 

Throughout history, the oilcloth has been used as a multi-purpose material, finding another huge use in sailing ships of the 1700s. Sailors valued this strong and flexible fabric that could be easily waterproofed. It enabled better sail efficiency on their vessels and provided protection against hard winds, dampness, and salt spray. This pioneering use of oilcloth helped to shape the material into what we know today: an incredibly durable surface that is waterproof, attractive, and relatively easy to clean.

19th Century 

In the 19th century, the decades-old practice of covering linen or canvas surfaces with paint and oil to protect them from water, dirt, and everyday wear was popularized as an oilcloth. The decorative material was a remedy for many households due to its affordability and easy upkeep. 

The popularity continued during the 19th century, giving people access to durable materials for furniture, clothing, outdoor activities, and more at a fraction of the cost required for buying new products all the time.

For example, as homes became larger and more entertaining, more frequently, oilcloth was used to protect furniture, upholstery, curtains, and other surfaces from everyday wear. By the end of the 19th century, Oilcloth had become a standard in households across Europe and America due to its various uses and low cost. It was no longer just an alternative to

20th Century 

Oilcloth began its journey in the 20th century as a functional yet stylish material for use on furniture, floors, and other surfaces. Originally used as a way to waterproof furniture, oilcloth proved to be incredibly durable and long-lasting, making it perfect for homes throughout the last century. 

It has come to stand the test of time within many homes and continues to be an attractive and resilient fabric that is used in today’s modern homes. Whether it’s covering tables or chairs from rain or simply as a stylish addition to any room, there’s no denying the usefulness of oilcloth in home decorating during the 20th century.

Oilcloth vs Synthetic Materials 

The invention of the oilcloth in the 19th century revolutionized the textile industry – and introduced a sturdy, reliable material as an alternative to traditional fabrics. But with the emergence of synthetic materials in the early 20th century, oilcloth found itself competing against new options, such as vinyl and glazed cotton. 

While modern production methods have improved the durability of synthetic materials, they still may not match up to oilcloths’ combination of performance and ease of use. Both afford great protection from water and general wear and tear, but when it comes to sheer longevity and flexibility, some would say that the oilcloth is still king.

The Use Of Oilcloth Today

Oilcloth has been used in various ways throughout history, most notably in the form of outdoor furniture coverings and flooring. Today, it is making its mark in design circles with crafters and DIYers transforming it into an array of products that range from aprons and totes to stylish table linens. 

With modern versions of oilcloth being waterproof, durable, and colorfast, it’s no wonder why so many are turning towards this traditional material for their creative endeavors. From both a functionality and design point of view, it’s clear that the oilcloth has come a long way since its humble beginnings — proving once again that great things can come from the past.

Oilcloth has come a long way since its humble beginning, and it is clear that this traditional material still offers many advantages over synthetic materials. From waterproofing furniture to creating stylish table linens, oilcloth can be used for so much more than just outdoor protection. Its durability, flexibility, and ease of use make it an attractive choice for any home decor project or DIY endeavor. Whether you’re looking to protect your furniture from wear and tear or simply add some style to your space with unique items made from oilcloth – the possibilities are endless!

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