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Oilcloth and Oilcloth Floor Covering (Floorcloth).

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Traditional Oilcloth in the Home.

The Many Traditional Uses of Oilcloth.

A colourful Oilcloth Rug lying on a floor.

Photograph: An Oilcloth Rug hand made by Joe Bosher for The Friends of Beamish Museum.
With alternative description for non graphics or blind users.

Oilcloth was used even as late as the mid fifties when I remember it as the material of our kitchen tablecloth. Earlier, amongst its many other uses, it was sold as a cheap floor covering and was also referred to as floorcloth. Before delving into the story of Oilcloth or Floorcloth here are a few of the many uses of the material as it was used in the past.

  1. Floorcovering: oilcloth or floorcloth as it is sometimes called.
  2. Waterproof bags and wrappings for your valuable possessions, clothing and documents. This would protect them and keep them dry during hazardous journeys by stage coach for example.
  3. Table covering: oilcloth used to make cleaning the table easier and because it looked nice and colourful. It would be covered by the best linen table cloth on a Sunday when the Vicar came for tea.
  4. Place mats: to protect the table linen when the Vicar called on a Sunday. And looked good.
  5. Washstands and cupboards: Oilcloths for these items are mentioned in a letter written in 1899 by Sarah Young (Billy Graham Archives).
  6. Shelf covering: oilcloth; perhaps made from good pieces cut from worn table oilcloth.
  7. Roofing material: old and worn floorcloth for the garden sheds and pigeon loft.
  8. Covering work surfaces: old oilcloth used to hide the rough wooden surface and make cleaning easier. Work benches and scullery working surfaces.
  9. Crumb catchers: When food was served from sideboards oilcloth rugs were used beneath the sideboard to catch spillage.
  10. Anything that could be covered: In earlier times it is said that chests and anything that didn't move had an oilcloth cover.
  11. Anything else: Seems like one could find oilcloth in homes as curtain material, wall covering, hats and other waterproof garments etc.

What's in a Name?

I was in the Co-op at Beamish when I noticed the rolls of floor covering standing against a pillar in the hardware department. It was mostly feltbase and linoleum. I mentioned to the woman behind the counter that I spent a short period helping to sell floor covering, as a youth of fifteen, in the Lino Department of Smiths the Furnishers Ltd on Bridge Street North, Sunderland.
It certainly brought the memories flooding back. In 1952 most customers would ask for oilcloth or lino whereas my mother would enquire about "New canvas for the bedroom." Oilcloth, lino, canvas or feltbase were all common names for cheap floorcovering which was feltbase (or Congoleum). The more wealthy customers would ask for linoleum so Smiths sold a small amount of proper linoleum but mostly Congoleum; the later being described as feltbase. I remember selling the 3ft wide simulated wood grain Congoleum that was very popular as a border area for rugs, carpet squares and linoleum squares.

(I remember some criticism at the time about the declining quality of linoleum. It seemed prone to cracking and this was said to be because there was less linseed oil used in the manufacture than there had been in the past.)

What is Oilcloth?

Just what it says: cloth, usually canvas, painted with oilpaint. Originally the canvas would be from ships sails.

Is Oilcloth (Floorcloth) Hardwearing?

From all the information I have seen there is no need to doubt that oilcloth is quite tough in normal use. Said to last for thirty years. Naturally, nailed boots would not be tolerated. Even if it got damaged you wouldn't throw out a valuable canvas just because the paintwork was cracked or disfigured; you would get it touched up or repainted by the local house painter or do it yourself. Companies that sold large expensive oilcloths would repaint the surface for you when required as part of the sale agreement.
Oilcloth is as tough as the canvas it is made from and as durable as the paint.
Note: It was necessary to use old newspaper under the floorcloth to protect it from floorboards (splinters and nails) and uneven floor surfaces and sharp objects of any kind.

How can I tell Oilcloth from Linoleum?

Although there are very few examples remaining anywhere in the World unpatterned samples of oilcloth are to found at Beamish Museum attached to the backs of pattern books.
Beamish also has many Linoleum Sample Books so you can come along to the Beamish Museum Resource Centre andcompare both types of floor covering. Otherwise linoleum has a cork mixture in it's construction which would perhaps need chemical analysis to determine.

Congoleum was used extensively as a cheap substitute for linoleum or oilcloth from the late twenties. It can be recognised because it has a bitumous coating on a felt backing instead of the more expensive linen. If you rub your fingers along the back of congoleum they will usually be slightly stained black because of the bitumen, but best test of all is that congoleum cracks very easily and tears . If it cracks and tears - it is congoleum but is it only tears it's probably one of the more modern floorcoverings such as vinyl.

How Many OilCloth Patterns Are There at Beamish Museum?

Over Three Thousand is the amazing answer. Many oilcloth patterns may be inspected at the Public Record Office in their Department of Trade Design Registers but I believe that the only pattern books and samples of oilcloth for the 1890's to the pre-world war two period are to be found at Beamish Museum Resource Centre.

Can One Recognise Oilcloth from its Design?

We must really study old paintings and look for possible oilcloths in the pictures. The clue to whether you see a carpet or an oilcloth may be that an oilcloth will most probably be of a tile pattern designed to reproduce the tiled floors of the very wealthy; the stately homes, the palaces and the public buildings of the time. Carpets may have larger patterns encompassing the whole carpet area. Just an idea to get you searching - when in a bookshop- spend a few moments in the historical art department. Visit the local art gallery!

Early Design.

After the Great Exhibition of 1851, the old-fashioned methods of floorcloth production, and the rather crude appearance of the patterns on offer had been under attack. The printing technique for floorcloth had remained more or less unchanged since it was first adopted by Nathan Smith nearly a century earlier.
A comment from this period tells us that "At that time floorcloth was made by printing or stamping a number of small dots, arranged in patterns in various colours, upon a neutral ground. Thus, not above two-thirds of the printed surface were actually covered with the paint of the patterns. So that floorcloth painting , unless seen from some distance , was at best but a rough affair".

From Sailmaking to Oilcloth and Linoleum.

It was during the mid-nineteenth century, that Michael Nairn of Kirkcaldy, Scotland expanded his family's successful sailcloth business into the manufacture of painted floorcloths. Local skeptics called the new enterprise "Nairn's Folly."
But people stopped laughing when Nairn's painted floorcloths quickly became a popular item, as they were a practical and inexpensive way of covering the swept dirt floors that were the standard in working-class homes of that period.

Linoleum, the precursor of contemporary resilient floors, was a hard, smooth flooring made from a solidified mixture of linseed oil and ground cork laid on a backing of canvas or burlap. It was more durable than the canvas floorcloths and was easier to keep clean. For many people, linoleum made it possible to maintain a consistently tidy appearance in the home for the first time. Linoleum was a practical choice for a majority of people of that period, as only wealthy families could afford the luxury of wood, marble and ceramic flooring.

The Nairns continued to manufacture linoleum through the early 1900's, and their business flourished. In the early 1920's, the family joined forces with a supplier in Erie, Pennsylvania, which manufactured a three-foot wide simulated wood grain product used to border area rugs and linoleum. This product was known as Congoleum, because the asphalt materials used to make it came from the Belgian Congo in Africa. The new company called itself Congoleum-Nairn.

Congoleum-Nairn continued to sell Congoleum Gold Seal Rugs and Nairn linoleum through the late 1930's, until its researchers started experimenting with a new material called vinyl. However, further research into developing vinyl flooring was interrupted when World War II began. Following the war, the company continued to grow in the rapidly expanding housing market of that period."

End of page.


Text Equivalent of the Photograph of the Oilcloth.

Screen Reader version for people who cannot see the image for what ever reason.

The Oilcloth is of a basically rectangular shape with a chequerboard centre containing alternating yellow, green and red diamond shapes. The border consists of a narrow band of small white and purple alternating triangles. TEXT.



Learn More about Oilcloth.

Much of the information used in this section of the Website is thanks to Sophie Sarin. Sophie is an expert on the history of floorcloths and linoleum. She has published an M. Phil. dissertation on the subject.

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