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Dear Heidi: Where did the idea for a tablecloth come from? How has its meaning/significance evolved?

When was the last time you used a tablecloth?

Perhaps it was during the holidays, and you pulled out the tablecloth that’s been in your family for years, or you used something more casual for pizza and game night. I have a cupboard full of tablecloths that my mother gave me when I was “on my own,” including some my grandmother handmade. Frankly, I don’t use them much anymore, but I do find their history fascinating!

Turns out, tablecloths have been around since the days of the emperors in Rome.

In the Middle Ages, the nobility’s dining tables were not stationary, they were boards set or laid on trestles, and removed after dinner. Cloths were set to cover the boards and to reflect the wealth and status of the host. If a nobleman’s table was covered with fine linen, and if servants were at the table, an extra small cloth was placed at the nobleman’s setting to set him apart.

One of the biggest insults at this time was for a wrathful knight to use his sword to slice through the tablecloth in front of, or on either side of, another knight’s place setting—thus, “cutting him off” from the other diners. Such public humiliation was met with a fierce vendetta and would often result in a bloody feud.

Tablecloths were almost always white, which also reflected your wealth. This indicated you had a home and staff big enough to properly launder and prepare your tablecloths. Others still could use tablecloths, but they were of lesser quality, and at times were used as a communal napkin of sorts. Diners would wipe their hands and knives (you brought your own) on the tablecloth—seen as an improvement from wiping hands and knives on pieces of bread that would then be thrown to dogs in the room at the end of dinner.

Thank goodness napkins evolved from here...we’ll save that story for another time.

As time evolved, tablecloths became family heirlooms and needed to be ironed with creases just so to further separate the mannered elite. Eventually everyone used tablecloths, not so much as a sign of wealth, but to protect a wooden table top.

Writing this has inspired me to pull out my collection of tablecloths and use them more often. If you’re lucky enough to have some family tablecloths, join me! If not, think about getting some (they do not have to be expensive, I’ve seen beautiful linens at antique and thrift shops), and start your own traditions.

I am not sure that I’ll get the creases just right, but hopefully my guests will appreciate the effort to make a meal a little bit more special. I just hope no one brings a sword!

(source: Visser, Margaret; The Rituals of Dinner, Canada: Penguin Books, 1991)


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