Table Linens and the Tides of History
Monday, July 20, 2009

While few of us would want to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, our ancient ancestors might be fairly alarmed if they found themselves in our modern world. The idea of eating a full course meal at a table rather than munching nuts and berries on the go would seem like a pretty daunting change in itself, especially once you add the concept of utensils. But then the custom of placing a covering over the table in order to keep it clean might seem like we're just making things complicated for fun. It would get worse if they noticed that these cloths come in innumerable designs for innumerable occasions and that there is a huge, worldwide business in both bulk retail and wholesale table linens, sold for both ridiculously high prices and as cheap close-outs with deep discounts. At that point, time traveling cave-folks are going to have a pretty good idea of how complicated civilized life can really be.

Indeed, the history of tablecloths and linens goes at least as far back as eighth century Europe, when the Emperor Charlemagne is said to have employed an asbestos tablecloth to persuade foreign guests he had magical powers. A few centuries later, tablecloths were universal among the aristocracy for more conventional reasons or protocol, and by the fifteenth century we commoners were using not only table coverings, but napkins and the like. (The common male habit of using a paper towel in place of napkins took a few more hundred years to achieve.)

In the modern era, dining tables have been covered in all manner and variety of material and include a vast array of designs which, naturally, reflect changes in history and fashion. As this excellent and rather exhaustive 2003 article by Joan Kiplinger describes, the printed tablecloth has gone through innumerable alterations and evolutions over the last few centuries. The untimely death by typhoid of Queen Victoria's husband, the beloved Bertie, resulted in a sort of fashion chain reaction as the monarch's ensuing preference for somber colors made semi-funereal colors popular around the world. The trend was reversed when the Art Noveau movement led to far more elaborate and colorful designs in table linens. Then history put a damper on the fun through the World War I Allied blockade of Germany, which had been producing the lion's share of dyes. A "dye famine" ensued, making long lasting dyes difficult if not impossible to find for a time. And so it went through the depression, World War II, and the post-war economic boom, which saw many of the kind of elaborate and sometimes humorously kitschy designs we now celebrate with just a touch of irony.

Today, of course, table coverings run the gamut of materials and styles from hardy plastic coverings made of vinyl with flannel back, to fine lace doilies. Like any other medium, table linens can celebrate just about anything --- though food, animals, and rural life remain popular perennial themes. Place mats are another popular variation on the theme, particularly with busy parents whose spill-prone offspring who might prefer eating on a mat celebrating their favorite cartoon characters or musical performers.

Like everything else human and creative, table linens and other coverings reflect in a significant way on how we human beings look at the world. And, just as that inevitably changes over time, so do the kind of products we make and sell, either as homey products sold as wholesale table linens at discount or the more elaborate and high toned products sold (often for a good deal more than they're actually worth) at world famous department stores. At times, it really does get overwhelming enough that we forget tablecloths actually can prevent furniture stains.