Was there ever a time when table linens did not have a feminine appeal? From the de rigueur of fine damasks and laces, the fascination has now turned to the common print tablecloth. This month’s guest columnist, tablecloth author and collector Pamela Glasell, takes us on a memory trip decade by decade from origins to rise in popularity of these cloths. Printed tablecloths.
Beautiful tropical designs, quaint cartoon figures, bold geometric, abstract designs and luscious fruit and flowers. Who would have thought even a few years ago that the printed tablecloth, so enjoyed by the families in the 40s and 50s, would make such a stunning comeback as a popular collectible. There is now great demand for these classic kitchen textile treasures from the past.
More and more collectors are drawn to these wonderful cloths, bringing delightful memories from America’s glorious past to their present kitchen tables. Just as fashions changed and evolved thorough the decades, so did the styles of the vintage tablecloth. Knowing the history of the printed tablecloth allows collectors to date their treasures and have fun assembling a collection spanning the hundred or more years of tablecloth production and designs.
A wonderful heavy 1890s Turkey Red Victorian fringed damask, several 1930s faded fruit and gray leaf tablecloths, many 1940s floral printed tablecloths, and 1950s quirky “space age” geometric shaped tablecloths all have a place of honor in my vintage printed tablecloth collection.
Victorian – 1865-1899 Tablecloths have always played a rich part in Americans’ daily lives and family traditions. During the 35 years between the Civil War and the end of the century, America was changing rapidly. The country was in the midst of widespread industrialization. New inventions not only revolutionized the American textile manufacturing industry but also lightened the load of the average housewife.
Her new freedom resulted in more time for artistic endeavors such as the incredibly detailed embroidery and lacework on tablecloths from this era. During most of the late 1800s, Queen Victoria, who had lost her beloved Prince Albert, made it fashionable to be a widow. The fashion became the dark, somber, and opulent Victorian colors and styles that characterize the textile fabrics from 1850-1900.
Table linens of this period were dark heavy tapestries, fringed Turkey Red and white damask cloths, and heavily decorated plush and velvet table toppers. The dark, somber crimsons, browns, and gold found in Victorian table linens were soon succeeded by the less dramatic but more spirited bright color schemes made possible by the creation of new chemical dyes from Germany.
1940s adverstisement for Simtex Tablecloth
1875 homestead kitchen
1887 Turkey Red jacquard tablecloth
1890 felt table cover- an example of early Perkins mauve dye American manufacturers could now use aniline dyes to produce a vast array of new colors. These peacock greens, blues, magentas, violets and raw pinks were popular until the so-called Aesthetic Movement of 1899 subdued everything, and olive greens and grays and dull blues became accepted as evidence of artistic morality and good taste.
Art Nouveau: 1900 The beginning of the 20th century was a period of remarkable change and new found prosperity. There was a new style in visual arts and architecture that was first shown at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.. Art Nouveau, which literally means new art, was developed by a brilliant and energetic generation of artists and designers who believed that all the arts should work in harmony to create a total work of art. Buildings, furniture and household textiles all conformed to this principle.
Tablecloths from this era have a crisp Art Deco styling and are characterized by geometric prints, squares, circles, stylized florals, good luck symbols, horseshoes, wishbones, laurel wreaths, and ribbon and animal prints. Art Nouveau fashion brought flat, pastel colors; silver gray, pale greens, and blues, muted turkey reds, dim orange, pink, mauve, and violet. These must have seemed fresh and charming to the Victorians so long accustomed to the stodgy, gloomy dark colors of the earlier Victorian age.
1900s Art Deco fringed silk jacquard tablecloth
Photo of formal parlor – c1900 World War I: 1910s The United States entered 1910 as a rapidly emerging industrial giant. It was a prosperous early beginning to a decade that would later find itself embroiled in a world war. By 1914 Germany was producing about 85% of the world’s supply of dyes and dyestuffs. There were only seven firms in America which produced dyestuffs during this time.
The war in Europe suddenly created a huge problem for American tablecloth manufacturers. The Allied blockade of German shipping caused a dye famine in the U.S., forcing American textile research facilities to rush to create new sources of dyestuffs. In an attempt to deal with the dye famine, dyestuffs that had been abandoned for years were taken from warehouses and mill storerooms and used.
Even colors intended for tinting of paper were sold to textile mills. These dyes were unstable and not color fast, resulting in dyes that washed out or faded. There are very few examples of tablecloths produced between 1914 and 1920 that are still in good shape or retain their original colors.
World War 1 table topper souvenir
1915 one color stamped Art Nouveau-inspired design linen tablecloth.
As Americans sent their boys off to the Great War, there was an increase in popularity of sweetheart-printed table covers and other related textiles. Popular styles were human forms with insect wings, butterflies, peacocks, women with flowing hair, the Iris flower, and fantasy type prints and moon and stars. These could be found in the rich damask tablecloths and stamped, small tablecloths made of linen.
Higher standards of cleanliness added new housekeeping burdens, and tablecloth manufacturers responded with paper labels advertising fast colors, and promising cloths that were durable with repeated launderings. The printed, colored tablecloth became more accepted and fashionable as a luncheon cloth and as a cloth for informal parties.
Art Deco: 1920s The decade of the 1920s often is characterized as a period of American prosperity and optimism. Several years had passed since the end of World War I. People felt free-spirited and wanted to have fun. As a result, kitchen textiles became less formal and more adventurous in color and style. The discovery of the treasures of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 sparked an interest in the East and this became incorporated into the emerging art deco styles of design.
The Orient basically meant anything in what we now call The Third World, so styles derived from the Middle East, Asia, African and Latin (tropical) cultures were also considered chic. Floral prints began dominating tablecloth designs. Roses, lilacs and morning glories were some of the new flowers that were in vogue. 1920s colors were the softer, more pastel hues, although you will find some brighter colors towards the end of this period. The number increased from one to two colors by the end of the 1920s.
After the mid-1920s red became lighter and dusty rose and other pinks were extremely popular. Some of the newly created dyes – purples, greens and some pinks from this era were fugitive, leaving a faint ghost color when they faded. True greens were still not possible to produce successfully, and gray, yellow and even pink leaves were used in the tablecloths of this period and up until the mid-1930s.
1920s Prohibition tablecloth
1920s charming Dutch children tablecloth
Pale blue 1920s tablecloth with evidence of fugutive dark blue dye Blues, purples, and greens were the first colors to fade. There are many tablecloths on the market today that show faint areas of missing colors while still showing other bright colors and designs. I find the tablecloths of the 1920s and 1930s to be the most interesting: flowers which seem to be floating above their stems, pale blue or oddly colored gray fruits, and vegetables with faint outlines of other “ghost” colors giving them an almost surreal design and appeal.
These are some of the oldest printed tablecloths and have a special character of their own. Prohibition was in full effect by January 1920, leading to the establishment of speakeasies and elaborate cocktail parties at home featuring alcoholic drinks and tidbits of food. It was still polite and correct to use a white or lightly colored damask tablecloth for formal dinner parties, but with the wild home parties and dignified ladies luncheons, bold fun prints on small lunch cloths were now in vogue.
The Depression: 1930s This period was a time of grim determination for most. The harsh realities of daily life took a tremendous toll on the American spirit. Reckless spending was a thing of the past. The autumn 1930 Sears Catalogue admonished, Thrift is the spirit of the day.
The beginning of the decade saw women sewing and cooking more. Bolts of wide kitchen fabrics and home yard goods were offered in department stores and by mail order catalogues for housewives who made their own kitchen tablecloths and aprons. Gaily printed feedsack cloths were recycled into tablecloths, aprons and other kitchen necessities. Grinning is a characteristic printing technique found in the 1930s. Halos of white were used to separate motifs and multiple colors.
This technique enabled textile printers to produce yards of fabric more quickly with less chance of an accidental overlap of colors. You can find many tablecloths where this printing technique is evident, and it is a good way to date your tablecloths.
Fun 1930s farmer and athromorphic veggie tablecloth
1930s overprinted fruit tablecloth – note the grinning on the edge
1930s bold tablecloth with colors opposite the color wheel Another of the distinguishing features of this time was the use of bright, intense, multicolored prints. Pastels were not as common. Bright colors in contrasting combinations seemed to be the rule of the day. Prints normally included color schemes composed of the opposites on the color wheel, blue/orange, dark green/orange, or aqua with red, yellow, gold, orange and green.
The true greens, which were not possible prior to the mid-1930s, are distinctive: Nile green, mint or moss green were used on tablecloths of the era. The favorite designs of the time were exaggerated and profuse. The prints were larger in scale, and you can find wonderful tablecloths with large distinct roses and huge bouquets of flowers gracing the corners of the tablecloths. The rich, lush designs such as tropical island themes, fragrant island blossoms and elegant florals helped bring Americans out of the grim years of the Depression.
Women’s club lunches, afternoon teas, church socials and county fairs were all popular ways to socialize in the 1930s, and were all enhanced by using gaily-printed small tablecloths. The use of larger, colorful printed tablecloths was also in vogue for the family dinner table. This was a big change from the earlier strict etiquette of the 1920s, which had dictated the use of the plain white damask or lace tablecloth.
World War II: 1940 Although America was not yet in the war when the decade began, many resources were already being directed towards the nation’s eventual allies. The resultant fabric and dye shortage had a tremendous impact on the tablecloth manufacture. Percales, white broadcloth, batiste and cotton all “went to war” and the fabrics that were available for sale were of poor quality and not colorfast.
New techniques and advancements in the printing process created new roller- printed cloths. Prior to 1940, tablecloths had featured larger corner prints or smaller prints around the edges of the cloth, usually on a 54″ x 54″ or smaller cloth. However, early 1940s tablecloths still featured a more one-dimensional or flat design. It was not until around 1948 that the tablecloths showed a more three-dimensional look, with multi-faceted colors and more complex shading in the leaf and flower prints.
Woodsy themes incorporating pinecones, aspens and forest designs were in vogue briefly after the war. Also popular were plaids with a wide band of color and picnic checks. Cartoon prints were also popular, and tablecloths rich in figural imaginative regional images featuring cute children and Carmen Miranda-type prints. Western, Mexican, farm-inspired and Black Americana designs flooded the market.
Bold 1940s floral pattern tablecloth
Late 1940s mint in original package Wilendur Cherry tablecloth
1940s whimsical butler and Maid pattern tablecloth Tablecloth manufacturers began to produce coordinated kitchen lines of items for the kitchen. There were utensils, containers, tablecloths, tea towels, curtains and even stick-on decals for the cabinets. Tablecloths were produced and boxed in Luncheon and Tea Sets for the smaller tables, and in larger sizes for the family dinner table. It was now fashionable to use these brightly printed tablecloths for elaborate dinner parties and other formal social gatherings.
Prosperity: 1950 When the 1940s ended and the1950s began, America was entering a prosperous time in history. This is reflected in the excitement and exuberance of tablecloth designs from this era. The decade was a time of enormous growth, energy and variety. Manufacturers responded with witty, fun and sometimes surreal designs. Neighborhood barbecues, cocktail parties and other social gathering were popular ways to entertain. Tablecloth designers offered fanciful tablecloths depicting quirky themes and designs which featured household items like bowls, teapots and glassware all artfully arranged around the tablecloth.
Tablecloths also pictured quaint home interiors -hearths, living rooms and kitchens. Whimsical garden themes with an abundance of fruits and vegetables and jubilant farmers were also fashionable.
1950s BBQ patio cloth – narrow and made of canvas
1950s Simtex’s flower vendor tablecloth
Whimsical 1950s calorie- themed tablecloth Following World War II, a number of factors combined to foster a new direction in home products and textiles. Designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Verner Panton responded to the new open-plan architecture of the modern home with furnishings that were seen as functional, free-standing art forms. When most people think of the 50s, they think “kitsch,” items that can be flamboyant in their design, but have a fun appeal to them.
The attraction of the 1950s for the tablecloth collector is the sheer variety of fun patterns and bold prints that were available during this prosperous time in America’s textile history. Kitchen textiles were designed with bold geometric and abstract free-form shapes and textures. 1950s tablecloth manufacturers such as Styled by Dervan featured motifs by prominent textile designers of the time, each with a different style and flavor and always with the artists’ signatures in the corner of the tablecloth. These are wacky, fun, stylistic examples of what was popular during the 1950s.
For more information on collecting vintage printed tablecloths – - The Collector’s Guide to Vintage Tablecloths, Pamela Glasell, Schiffer Publishing, 2002 – Fun Linens of the 20th Century, Elizabeth Scofield and Peggy Zalamea, Schiffer Publishing, 2002, – Vintage Tablecloth Collector’s Club – www.vintagetableclothsclub.com Pamela Glasell is the author of The Collector’s Guide to Vintage Tablecloths, SchifferPublishing, 2002. She is the president of the Vintage Tablecloth Lover’s Club which has mopre than 100 members in the United States and Canada.
She has a personal collection of more than 550 vintage tablecloths, runs several successful web stores and is currently working on her next two books. More information about her can be found on her website www.gramasattic.net The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.