We’ve all gone to lengths to keep the things we love pristine. Whether it’s keeping your new shoes off the muddy grass, or putting protective plastic over your cell phone screen, the invention of the tablecloth shared this same goal of preservation. Seems obvious right? Tablecloths evidently protect our tables from unwanted spills and scratches, but their history has been somewhat misconceived. In this article we’ll cover the history and invention of the tablecloth, and why it has been so misunderstood.
The History and Invention of the Table Cloth
The tablecloth has been around for centuries to protect our furniture. In fact, the first recorded mention of the tablecloth dates back to 103 AD from the Roman poet Martial! That’s almost 2000 years ago. Just like today, it’s believed that tablecloths were used to absorb spills and protect the surface of tables underneath.
While the records of tablecloths in Antiquity are slim, we know for a fact the prevalence and importance of tablecloths starting in Europe in the Middle Ages through visual art and literature. A number of paintings and poems include depictions of the tablecloth in high society. Because most of the art that survived through the Middle Ages was of religious significance, or commissioned by the very wealthy we have much more knowledge about the fancier tablecloths than we do the common ones. Many biblical paintings at the time depicted famous scenes with the inclusion of pleated and ornamented tablecloths, the Last Supper for example. The inclusion of tablecloths in these scenes however was more likely just a sign of medieval times rather than an accurate representation of what the average dinner tables looked like before the common era.
Tablecloths for the rich in the Middle Ages were inherently valuable simply due to the sheer amount of effort in making and maintaining linen. Keeping linens white was a mammoth task in and of itself. Clean white linens were an indication of wealth due to the amount of staff it would require to keep them that way. Producing linen too was very labor-intensive. Before industrialization that would come in later centuries, “all linen had to be harvested and spun by hand, bleached, then skillfully woven on a hand loom”. The table linens of the wealthy were also often ornately detailed with patterns and embroidery, this too took a great amount of skill and people were willing to pay the price for it.
The Modesty of Victorian Tablecloths
So where does the misconception about tablecloths come into play? The Victorians of Britain and Early America have a reputation for being quite conservative, and at the time rumors spread that Victorian Americans were so conservative that they would cover their table legs with long tablecloths or furniture slips as a means to maintain their furniture’s modesty. The origins of this myth come from an “1839 travelog by a writer and officer in the British Navy, Captain Frederick Marryat”.
The story goes, that Marryat while visiting the United States met an American woman who injured her knee while they were traveling together. Marryat went on to ask the woman if her leg was alright, and “she was apparently scandalized, replying that a gentleman only refers to ‘limbs’ in the presence of a lady, and never ‘legs,’ even when talking about furniture”. Later on, in Marryat’s travels, he came across a piano that had its legs covered with frilled linen slips, and he made the assumption that this was in order to maintain the notion of showing bare legs (wooden or otherwise) as immodest. Though his anecdotes were likely hyperbole and made in a joking matter, this stereotype stuck and Victorians were comically seen as so concerned with modesty that they even clothed their furniture.
Because of mass industrialization, table linens were much more easily produced than they had been before. More modern laundering practices also made them more easily maintained than in previous generations. And while many items of furniture were covered in this period, it was done so to protect the furniture underneath, not for modesty. The people of the Victorian era were able to enhance their furniture with decorative and ornate, richly colored fabrics, more easily than their ancestors in the Middle Ages whose linens had to be harvested, spun, and woven by hand.
While the modest table leg myth is a hilarious misconception about the uptight values of the Victorians, it is just that; a misconception.
From Fine Linen to Plastic Vinyl
People in the Middle Ages saw the value and beauty of fine linens and enhanced their furniture in a somewhat contradicting manner, by covering it. With the invention of plastic vinyl in the 20th century, tablecloths and furniture slips took on a new transparent look. The plastic furniture cover had the best of both worlds; the furniture underneath was protected from spills and wear and tear, and the furniture was still able to be seen in all of its glory.
Plastic vinyl furniture covers are still used in many households today as folks try to maintain the original beauty of their most prized possessions. The plastic vinyl tablecloth does an even better job at protecting furniture, and if it’s a little too retro for your liking you can simply cover it with a linen table cloth on top.
Tablecloths and the Food Industry
One of the largest consumers of tablecloths and table linens is the restaurant industry. Tablecloths not only protect the furniture from a rotating door of thousands of hungry guests, but they can also act as an unspoken language to passing patrons.
Red and white checkered table cloths for example have long been a staple of Italian restaurants, and customers walking past might recognize the tablecloths as an indicator of Italian cuisine before even reading the menu. The red and white checker interestingly represents red and white wines. The red and white checkered tablecloth gained popularity in the United States as well, as a signifier of Italian American cuisine, Southern cuisine, but also more generally, inexpensive family-friendly dining.
Higher-end restaurants commonly use plain white linens, while more affordable options might have clear plastic or vinyl tablecloths. A casual family-style restaurant may even have paper tablecloths for children to draw on with crayons. Table linens can communicate to customers what they can expect in terms of cuisine, price, and service before they even take their first bite.
While tablecloths can be a purely aesthetic choice, many restaurants opt for table linens because they are believed to be more hygienic. That is, as long as they are replaced between patrons. Restaurant tables without linens are normally wiped down between guests, but this doesn’t mean they are completely sanitized. Placing silverware directly onto the table’s surface therefore can transfer the germs onto your fork, and then onto you. Using freshly laundered linens can reduce this spread of bacteria dramatically. This however can only be maintained if used tablecloths are swapped out for fresh ones between every guest. Therefore reusable and regularly laundered tablecloths not only protect the table but also protect you from picking up any unwanted bacteria.
While they are not as common, today tablecloths still serve the same main purpose they did almost 2000 years ago, absorbing mess and protecting the furniture underneath. They may not have the same air of affluence as they did in the Middle Ages when linens were few and far between, but they can still be used to make a dining table feel more luxurious with the right styling. While the sheer presence of a plain white tablecloth in the Middle Ages was an indication of wealth, with the mass production of textiles in contemporary times, tablecloths don’t carry that same weight. Nowadays you can purchase a tablecloth with ornate patterns, high-quality fabrics, and bright dye, and it won’t set you back a month’s wages, or require a staff of servants to maintain. And we’re glad about that! Now you can elevate your dining table with a table cloth, a table runner, decorative linen, and centerpieces all without breaking the bank. Thanks to the ingenuity of our ancestors we can cover and protect fine furniture from inevitable messes, or spruce up a regular table with the use of decorated linens, all thanks to the simple invention of the tablecloth.
- Atlas Obscura. “No, Victorians Didn’t Cover Up Table Legs Because They Were Too ‘Sexy’”
- Coast Linen Services. “The History of Restaurant Linen”
- Old and Interesting. “Tablecloths in the Middle Ages”