Like so many elegant and useful treasures in our homes today, table linens (including tablecloths, toppers, runners and napkins) have evolved from simple utilities into essential staples of well-dressed dining. Table linens have an extremely long history and have been customary and valued household necessities for nearly 2000 years. The earliest proof of the existence of tablecloths is drawn from the work of a poet named Martial who mentioned them in his writing. Since the poet died around 103 AD, table linens are believed to have come into use in Europe in the first century AD. Earlier than this, high-ranking Roman households are thought to have possessed tables that were so exquisitely carved they were considered too beautiful to be covered.
However, the ancient Romans certainly knew how to throw a good party. They were so adept at celebrating that they had a god of partying — Bacchus. Celebrations of this god, called Bacchanals, were so popular and raucous that the Roman Senate banned them for a time as a threat to its authority. But no matter, the Roman calendar included several holidays and celebrations each month, and sources say the average wine intake of Roman men was a gallon per day. Something had to be done to preserve those ornately-carved tables. Enter the tablecloth. By looking at early artwork, it appears that the first cloths were very plain and used simply for protecting the furniture, wiping greasy fingers and soaking up spilled wine.
The Roman Emperor Charlemagne is rumored to have used a tablecloth made of asbestos. After dinner, he would throw the cloth into the fire, where it would amaze all observers by refusing to burn. Apparently, he used this trick in order to convince his barbarian guests of his total supremacy and infallible powers. Today we simply throw the tablecloth in with the laundry. Over time, table linens gradually became more popular, particularly among European nobility and aristocrats. By the fifteenth century, every household apart from the very poorest would have used a tablecloth of some description.
Form Follows Function and Fashion
During the Medieval period, it was fashionable to use the finest linen tablecloths. Linen was a valuable commodity. It had to be harvested, hand-spun, bleached, then hand-woven into cloth by a master craftsman. It was so valuable that it was seen as a family heirloom and was present in wills and probate inventories right up to the twentieth century. In addition, the linen had to be as white as possible. The higher your social standing, the whiter your linens were expected to be. In a time before chemicals, washing machines, dryers and irons, it took a great deal of labor to keep household linens clean. Having the freshest, whitest tablecloth announced to society that you were the head of a wealthy, well-run household. As ironing was not widespread, a smooth tablecloth was also a sign of social status.
These early tablecloths were sometimes decorated with borders, fringes and stripes. Silk and cotton became popular, as well as luxurious woven damask, which remains a classic table covering to this day. Traditionally, damask is monochromatic, made from a single shade of silk, linen or cotton. The pattern is distinguished by the way the light plays off the vertical and horizontal threads. Some damasks even look different depending on the time of day. The first silk damasks, consisting primarily of woven botanical and animal patterns, were produced in China around 300 B.C. They were traded along the Silk Road, which stretched from the Far East to the Mediterranean, and may have gotten their name from Damascus, one of the cities merchant caravans passed through on the way to Europe. Damask and fabrics like it were so coveted that rulers of kingdoms went to great lengths to learn the secrets of silk weaving. In the sixth century, the Byzantine emperor commissioned monks to smuggle silkworms out of China in hollowed-out walking sticks. During the second Crusade, weavers were taken from Greece and installed in royal workshops in Palermo, Sicily. Their methods spread to Venice, Lucca and Genoa, where versions of Chinese and Arabic motifs were favored. Damask designs evolved over time to include woven representations of plants and animals, urns, eagles, shields, and even garden party scenes.
Because ornate linen and silk tablecloths were so valuable, and cleaning them was so labor intensive, surnapes were used by the most fashionable hostesses to cover the main tablecloth. These were designed very much like the table toppers we use today. Sanaps were also popular as an additional table cover. These ran the length of the table and were the precursor of today’s table runners. As grand houses competed against each other for the richest-looking table setting for their feasts, these sanaps became increasingly ornate, decorated with lace and embroidery. Wealthy households would often employ a servant whose job it was to ceremoniously cover and uncover the table.
The Napkin Unfolds
The first use of “napkins” was attributed to the Greek Spartans, who used lumps of dough called apomagdalies, which they rolled and kneaded between their soiled hands at the table. This custom led to using sliced bread to wipe the hands. Fabric napkins were invented to discourage guests from wiping fingers and faces on the tablecloth. In Roman antiquity, napkins known as sudaria and mappae were made in both small and large sizes. The sudarium, Latin for “handkerchief,” was a pocket-sized fabric used to blot the brow during meals taken in the warm Mediterranean climate. The mappa was a larger cloth spread over the edge of the couch as protection from food eaten in a reclining position. The fabric was also used to blot the lips. Each guest supplied his own mappa. Departing diners filled mappae with delicacies left over from the feast, a custom that continues today with restaurant “doggy bags.” The acceptance of the fork by all classes of society in the eighteenth century brought neatness to dining and reduced the size of napkins.
Currently, napkins are made in a variety of sizes to meet every entertainment need: large for multi-course meals, medium for simple menus, small for afternoon tea and cocktails. Napkin etiquette is constantly changing and entire books have been devoted to the subject; however some basics always apply.
At the most formal occasions, the napkin is situated to the left side of the place setting. As protocols have evolved, sometimes this rule is relaxed to include placement in the center of a place setting at both formal and informal affairs.
Unfold the napkin on your lap either when you are seated, or when your drink arrives.
Use the napkin to gently blot your lips. It is never acceptable to wipe your face, teeth or nose with it.
Experts disagree about the proper place for the napkin when the diner must leave the table briefly before the end of a meal. Some say it should be placed at the left side of the place setting. Dissenters note that a soiled napkin should never go back on the table. Another camp advises that when temporarily leaving the table, the diner should put the napkin on the empty chair. Others disagree, saying that the dirty napkin could damage the diner’s clothing or the host’s seat covering. When facing this conundrum, following the lead of fellow diners, or the custom of the host, would be the safest policy. Perhaps you should just visit the restroom before being seated.
When the meal is completed, loosely fold the napkin (concealing any obvious stains), and put it to the left of the plate, or in the center of the place setting if your plate has been cleared.
Color and Style
for the Table
Although crisp white linen, lace and fine Damask have always been appropriate for every setting, color and fanciful patterns found their way to the table. During the Victorian Era (1865-1899), the style was dark and opulent with crimsons, browns and golds in heavy, plush fabrics, including velvet. The beginning of the twentieth century was influenced by Art Nouveau and Art Deco, styles developed by an energetic generation of artists, architects and designers. Tablecloths from this period were more adventurous — with geometric prints, stylized florals, Asian motifs, laurel wreaths, ribbons and animal prints. Colors were fresher, featuring silver, pale greens and blues, muted reds and oranges, pink, mauve and violet. In the 1930s and 40s, thrift became very important and many homemakers turned to making their own table linens. Manufacturers made bolts of whimsically printed, colorful kitchen fabric with cartoon-style and farm-inspired designs featuring vegetables, fruits, flowers and animals.
The 1950s were a time of prosperity and manufacturers responded with witty, exuberant, sometimes quirky themes — imaginative depictions of household items like bowls, teapots and glassware artfully printed directly on the tablecloth. Also trendy were printed designs of quaint home interiors like hearths, living rooms and kitchens, as well as whimsical garden themes. Another development during the 1950s was a new way to create oilcloth as a tablecloth fabric. Oilcloth could now be manufactured as a vinyl cloth bonded onto a cotton mesh. This new fabric has proven itself to be waterproof as well as fade and stain resistant. When most people think of the 50s, they think “kitsch,” items that can be flamboyant in their design with a fun appeal. In the 1960s, there was a general trend to move a away from all things traditional, including having dinners at home gathered around a formally set table. Popular tablecloth patterns fill the spectrum from brightly colored, mod, psychedelic prints, to subdued botanical images like pinecones and ferns.
Today, busy families are making an effort to gather around the table for at least one group meal. Make it a worthy occasion with a graciously set table, whether with an elegant, sophisticated setting, or a vibrant, colorful expression of personality. The “rules” can be relaxed and the atmosphere memorable. It’s a formula that’s sure to bring everyone home time and again.