While few of us would want to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, our ancient ancestors might be fairly frightened if they found themselves in our modern world. The idea of eating a full course meal at a table rather than snacking 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 observed 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 outrageously high prices and as cheap close-outs with huge discounts. At that point, time traveling cave-folks are going to have a pretty good idea of how complex 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 incite foreign guests he had magical powers. A few centuries later, tablecloths were universal among the aristocracy for more customary 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 manners and assortment of material and include a vast arrangement 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 favoritism for bleak colors made semi-funereal colors popular around the world. The trend was everted when the Art Noveau movement led to far more elaborate and colorful designs in table linens. Then history put a hinderance 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 perplexing 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 absurdly 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 ceremonialize just about anything — though food, animals, and rural life remain popular perennial themes. Place mats are another attractive deviation on the theme, particularly with busy parents whose spill-prone children 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 surely 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 enhanced 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 eye-opening enough that we forget tablecloths actually can prevent furniture stains.