I've been surprised at how few how-to's regarding oil cloth are out there. It's not usually too hard to find various recipes, but hardly anyone walks you through the process. Modern recipes that utilize latex paint, coated with a boiled linseed oil, turpentine, and japan dryer mix produce great results, but I wanted to see what could be done with a safer period recipe. After lots of research in old books, manuals, and forums I settled on the trying the following recipe: equal parts linseed oil, turpentine, a tiny splash of Japan Dryer and lamp black to taste. I went with pure food-grade linseed oil (flax oil) to remove all the the toxins from modern boiled linseed oil found at hardware stores. For turpentine, I also did my research and found the purest stuff I could find. The pure turpentine I used is made traditionally from the proper Georgia pines. You can find various pure turpentine suppliers online. It was quite pricey compared to hardware store turpentine, though. The lamp black, I already had on hand since I use it in japanning. I did kind of wing it with the amount of lamp black I used. I think I used too much, however, since I had excess lamp black dry on the surface of the oil cloth. It wiped off easily, but I'd recommend testing as you mix. One thing I'm learning about lamp black is that a little goes a long way. The most notable ingredient missing from this "original" recipe is lead or litharge. Obviously that's bad for you and lead mostly added durability to the finish and sometimes a bit of coloring depending on the type of lead used. Lead salts were also common to act as drying agents for the linseed oil.
To try it yourself, you'll need to treat the material you plan on painting first. If you don't pre-treat the fabric, the paint will soak completely through the fabric. The most common way to do it is to wall paper sizing that you can buy online or at some hardware stores. Cpt. Whitehall figured out he can use clear paint with the same effect. If you want to try going old school with the pre-treatment, you'd want to use a heavy starch. Whichever method you use, you'll need to paint it on the surface that you will later paint with the oil paint. Let it hang dry completely.
With the fabric treated, you're ready to apply the paint. I was amazed at how thin the paint mixture was and how easily it applied. I used a foam brush. Once evenly applied, I hung it up to dry for a day. I was also impressed at how quickly everything dried to the touch. The next day, I applied a second coat and let it dry for another day. The biggest thing I noticed about the "original" recipe was how matte the finish was compared to painted cloth. Using modern latex paint is easier and safer (see Missouri Boot and Shoe's impressive write up on their website) but way more glossy than this recipe.
With the fabric painted, I was ready to make it into a poke sack. Almost every Civil War relic book I have has at least one image of an oilcloth/painted cloth poke sack. It was noticeably more difficult to hand sew than plain drill or canvas. My fingers got pretty black while sewing which I attribute to using too much lampblack. I figure that once the oil dried, the excess lampblack dried on the surface. It wasn't a big deal, since a damp cloth easily cleaned it up. Speaking of cleaning, I read a lot of 19th and early 20th century guidebooks and in "Audel's Household Helps, Hints, and Receipts," they recommend:
To Brighten Oilcloths: dissolve half an ounce of beeswax in a saucer of turpentine; rub on, then dry with flannel.
A dingy oilcloth may be brightened by washing it in clear water with a little borax dissolved in it; wipe it with a flannel cloth that you have dipped into milk and then wring as dry as possible. Soap should never be applied to oilcloths, nor, if it be desired to keep the color, should a scrubbing brush be used. Wash the oilcloth with a coarse sponge or a flannel dipped in tepid or clean cold water. Beeswax, with a very little turpentine, makes a fine polish, and will revive the colors of an oilcloth admirably.
Painted, oiled, and parquet floors, linoleum and oilcloth, are injured by scrubbing; wipe them with a cloth wet in borax- water and then with a dry one; milk on a cloth gives a good appearance to oilcloth.
Oilcloth must be wiped perfectly dry as it is washed. Use little soap and this in tepid water; change often. A good brush and a piece of dry flannel will make oilcloth look like new, especially if linseed oil or skim milk be well rubbed in after washing. If in addition to these precautions they are varnished annually they are almost indestructible.
Finally, I must close on the usual safety precautions of using oxidizing oils like boiled or pure linseed oil. Dispose of all rags safely. Improper disposal can lead to spontaneous combustion. This also applies to the item you make from the oil paint mix. Make sure you allow to dry and cure thoroughly before storing. When in doubt, let it hang or leave it out way longer than you think.
This was another great historical experiment and I plan to keep using and refining this recipe moving forward.