Fremont County, Iowa

"Oilcloth Brightens the 1940-50s Kitchen"
by Sherry Perkins

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of 14 May, 2012

Remember oilcloth? It was much like the vinyl tablecloth of today, only it was heavier with more of a flannel backing, which didn't allow any slipping around on a table. Oilcloth was available in the five and dime stores such as Woolworth's. One bought it by the yard and it came probably 54 inches wide. I don't remember the exact cost per yard, but guess it was about 49 cents a yard back in the early 1950s. I know it took a bite out of Dad's weekly forty-dollar paycheck to purchase it.

In my growing up years, the kitchen table played an important part in our daily lives. Kitchen tables were usually round, square or oblong, and made of oak or pine or perhaps metal. Regardless of the material they were made of, the table became ugly with scratches, chips, dents, and watermarks made by small children and with metal lunch boxes, and cooking and canning projects.

Kitchen tables were even the location for the butchering of chickens and hogs. They were the counters where women rolled out noodles, prepared meals, did book keeping, wrote letters, and watched over the kid's school projects and homework. It is where they shelled popcorn, rolled up hair in curlers, folded laundry and where everyone congregated at night before television appeared in their lives.

Kitchens were wallpapered in various patterns and colors and the paper stayed on for years, so folks became tired of looking at the same thing day in and day out. With new, pretty, bright oilcloth, the kitchen became fresh and pleasing to the eye. In our family, we thought oilcloth was a miracle worker primarily because you didn't need to iron it.

I remember how we would go to town on Saturday night, and head first for the five and dime store. At the back of the store was a large rack holding as many as ten different patterns of the "wipeable tablecloth." One could pull down the roll to get an over-all view of what it would look like on a table. The patterns varied from time to time and it was always exciting to find new designs had been added to the selection. There would be red and white checks, colored backgrounds with fruit, vegetables, pretty dishes or flowers. Some patterns would boast of chicks, rabbits, spoons & forks, or any subject the creator thought would entice you to buy. Then one would need to look up a clerk to measure out the two or three yards that Mom wanted to buy and cut it off the bolt. It was always a difficult decision to make, but once done, it was with anticipation that we took the oilcloth home.

Once on the table, it transformed the drab kitchen table into a bright, exciting spot in the room. Never mind that the color or pattern of the oilcloth clashed with the wall paper or the linoleum on the floor. A new oilcloth lifted our spirits, made doing dishes in the dishpan more pleasant, chased away the winter doldrums, and made the iced tea or coffee taste better. Eventually, after many wipes with a soapy dishrag, the oilcloth would become faded, worn and ugly. Then it was time for a trip to town to check out the new colors and patterns and begin the cycle all over again.

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Page updated on November 1, 2020 by Karyn Techau