Updated: Apr 19
When looking at historical photos of military encampments, sailing vessels, family campsites, and more, it is fairly common to spot a canvas tarp in use. But why canvas? Why was this material so commonplace throughout history, and why do people still use it today?
First of all, the first tarps invented were canvas tarps. In fact, the word itself comes from a longer term "tar palling," which referred to heavy cloth or canvas called palling waterproofed with a coating of tar. In the 17th century this term evolved into the word "tarpaulin," from which we get the word "tarp." So it's to be expected that the oldest examples of tarp usage would involve canvas tarps.
In fact, the plastic tarp as we know it today—woven from strands of HDPE and coated in LDPE—wasn't invented until the 1970s. Even the earliest poly tarps, which didn't include the inner woven scrim, had only been invented a decade earlier. So while canvas tarps have been around for hundreds of years, the modern plastic tarp cover has only been around for 50-60 years.
So is that it? Are canvas tarps still around only because of their long history? Not exactly. The traditions evoked by the material certainly plays a role in its popularity, but not its continued existence on the market. No, that is because canvas still has some benefits over polyethylene.
While they have some drawbacks, such as being only water resistant instead of waterproof, canvas stands out for remaining breathable. This allows any moisture in the air beneath the tarp to evaporate through it after a rainfall, while still causing the droplets of water from the rain to roll right off. This feature of the material also means that a canvas tarp won't trap heat underneath either. Canvas is also quite durable, allowing for rugged use. It can also withstand UV radiation from the sun for longer than most poly tarps.