1890,  Browse By Era,  Browse by Subject,  Linen Closet,  Victorian

The Linen Closet – Tablecloths and Napkins

Most young housekeepers take a deep interest in the furnishing and equipment of their tables — not alone with the food supplies which are there to be served, the dishes which are to contain them, the appointments which are to make everything neat and cozy but as well and especially with the cloth by which the table is to be covered, the napkins which are to be placed beside each plate, whether for the members of her own household or for the visitor — friendly or critical as the case may be — who shall occupy a seat at the board, or whose casual glance may rest thereon.

Fortunately, she may give pretty free rein to her fancy in this portion of her realm, whatever fashion may dictate in other directions. If for any reason this tablecloth or that set of napkins commend themselves to her favor, they may be purchased and used for all ordinary occasions. Naturally, if in command of ordinary means with which to equip her dining room, she will have a special cloth, “with napkins to match,” to be brought forward on the more ceremonious occasions but for ordinary service this is not at all necessary, though, on the other hand, there is no reason why a preference in that direction should not be followed. The matter is entirely in her own hands.

The size of the tablecloth must, of course, be determined in a general way by that of the table. Where an extension is used, there should be one cloth large enough for the table when all of the leaves are in place ; but such a spread would be entirely out of place when half of the surface had been taken away, and smaller cloths should be provided, of proper size for the ordinary use. While any approved pattern may be purchased, it is generally a mistake to select fancy colored linens. The white is always standard, always appropriate, looks well, and will be in fashion but as much cannot be said for the colors, which may be popular one season and entirely under the ban within a year. Besides, when the cloth has become so worn that it is not available for further use on the table, its utility is very much greater if white than if colored. In the former case it may be cut over and acceptably used in a multitude of ways.

Tablecloths may be bought either woven and finished complete, or by the yard. For kitchen tables, and not infrequently for general use, the latter is an entirely satisfactory way, while it is decidedly more economical. The ends may be secured by a simple hem, or finished in any approved manner, and some very pleasing effects may be produced by the housekeeper skilled in such work an by the housekeeper skilled in such work and having a little spare time which may be thus employed.

The napkin is now indispensable at all well-regulated tables, though it was not so very long ago that it was looked upon as a fancy attachment, adapted only to “stuck-up” people and to children. It is historically interesting to read that almost as far back as books of etiquette are to be found, including such as have come down to us in manuscript, from a time prior to the discover)- of the art of printing, children were directed to wipe their hands and mouths with their napkins ; but it does not appear that grown people were supposed to use these convenient articles earlier than the middle of the fifteenth century. At that time tablecloths, among the wealthy — and nobody else had them at all– were long enough to come nearly or quite to the floor, and the ample margin which hung over the edge of the table served the purpose for which the handcloth is now employed.

When the napkin first came into use, it was handled quite differently from the present custom. For a time it was considered the thing to throw it over the shoulder then it was placed upon the left arm, as it is now carried quite generally by waiters ; being still later placed under the chin by one corner, while the lateral corners were carried around the body and tied at the back. This was the custom during the days of elaborately frilled shirt fronts, and the philosophy of the fashion is quite apparent. More recently it dropped into the lap, where it still reposes, though many individuals have habits of their own to which tenacious adherence is given, regardless of the usages of society.

One of the accomplishments of an “expert waitress” has long been the ability to fold a napkin in all manner of curious forms. This fancy doubtless comes from the fashion, at one time prevalent, of folding the napkin for each member of the household or each guest in a different manner. This was a French custom, and at one time napkin etiquette ran so high that they were perfumed with rose water and were changed with each course, at ceremonial dinners. A French work published in 1650, which undertook to teach how properly to wait on tables and to fold napkins, gives the following forms in which the cloths might be folded : “Square, twisted, folded in bands, and in the forms of a double-and- twisted shell, single shell, double melon, cock, hen, hen and chickens, two chickens, pigeon in a basket, partridge, pheasant, two capons in a pie, hare, two rabbits, sucking pig, dog with a collar, pike, carp, turbot, mitre, turkey, tortoise, the holy cross and the Lorraine cross.”

Breakfast napkins are considered of the right size if half a yard square but for dinner they should be three-quarters of a yard. They are sometimes made an eighth larger, but those are too large for convenience, and there is no necessity for the extra size.

Besides the tablecloth and napkins, there are numerous bits of linen connected with the table service which will be found of the greatest usefulness most of which can, if necessary, be readily and very acceptably made from linen remnants that may be bought for a trifle, or from the best portions of worn tablecloths. By using a little time and pains in drawing threads and hemstitching, or other graceful working, these cloths can be made very tasteful ; they can be employed where there is danger of spots and stains, and if mishap occurs to them, they are very much more easily treated than the larger articles, while if ruined, the loss is comparatively slight. We thus secure carving cloths, tray cloths, children’s cloths, as well as the means for protecting a fine cloth or the table from tea or coffee stains and the like. Sometimes a square of thin oilcloth may be placed upon the tablecloth, and being in turn covered by what might be called “a table rug,” will give double protection.

In the matter of economy in purchasing table linen, there are two factors to be borne in mind. Where a pattern proves unpopular, the goods are soon to be had at a considerable discount from the prices of popular patterns of the same quality. This is generally the “inside reason” for the great “bargains” which are sometimes advertised in these goods. The purchaser must decide for herself whether this reason makes the bargain an undesirable one, in her particular case. In any case, it may be set down as poor policy and poor economy to buy thin, light goods, no matter how fine they may be, for ordinary table use. A much coarser article, with strength and firmness of fibre, will look vastly better after a little time, owing to its power of resisting wear.

The suggestions thus far given are for the benefit of the ordinary household, at ordinary times. Neatness, convenience and good taste will determine what shall adorn the family board, as its members gather around it at each mealtime. On more elaborate occasions, and in the homes where wealth and social position bring constant responsibility, fashions have their rise and fall, in table linen as elsewhere. For these, the formal dinner, the less formal luncheon, the cozy tea, have each their requirements as to table napery and service. Just at present, the “right thing” for the several occasions, as laid down by a recognized authority, may be thus briefly summarized “For dinners and for luncheons, cloths are woven with borders complete and with napkins to match each set. For the afternoon tea, small fringed napkins will be used, and they may or may not match the pattern of the cloth, as taste and circumstances determine. The dinner cloths are all required to show a finish of narrow hand-sewed hem, as on the napkins that accompany each. The lunch cloths are hemstitched. The 5 o’clock tea cloths are to have cut-work centers, cut-work edges, drawn- work borders, and as much elaboration as individual taste may suggest.”

Closely allied to the table linen and the bed linen is the department of toweling, for which still other grades of linen are required. This is a large department, and no more than a few suggestions would be in place at the end of an article which has already practically reached its limit. But there is one rule regarding toweling which should never be overlooked–let there be a good supply. Towels are closely related to health, purity and cleanliness. There is something defective in the management of a household which finds itself obliged to get along upon a scant supply. Then they should be of good size, if for no other reason, because they are so much more satisfactory in use when of ample dimensions.

For everyday service and especially by children, servants and laborers, the very best form of towel is that familiar and much-abused variety, the roller, with its endless web of crash. For such use this has manifold advantages, not the least of which is that it is always in place, waiting for the next patron. Cotton towels are an abomination, and should never be countenanced though it is not demeaning any housekeeper that she shall make it a point to buy her toweling at such times and in such manner as shall give her the best value for the money invested. “Special sale” towels, if not defective in quality, may be commended to the prudent.

Never put a towel into use — and especially not in the guest room — with the store starch still rendering its surface about as pleasant as a sheet of steel. At least give it a good thorough rinsing to remove the starch, allow it to dry, then iron lightly on both sides, and it will be found to present a very satisfactory surface ; though nothing can take the place, for luxurious use, of a soft, well-worn piece of linen, from which every trace of harshness has been long since removed.