THE HISTORY OF THE TABLECLOTH: ANECDOTES AND TRIVIA
Tablecloths and napkins are objects that we use every day, and for precisely this reason, few people wonder about their origins. However, this is a topic that is worth examining in depth, since the history of the tablecloth is full of interesting anecdotes and trivia.
For example, few people know that the tablecloth has been used since antiquity – even if it was just employed as a sacred adornment – and that it was only in Roman times that it began to be the used on the table. Over time, it is not just its function that has changed, but also its shape and the materials used for its manufacture have evolved: if tablecloths were simple rags in ancient times (similar to rugs), from the first century AD on, they started to look like the covers and the vestments that we usually admire today in places of worship. It seems that the person responsible for this change in the way tablecloths were commonly used and perceived was Emperor Domitian (Titus Flavius) who, through the use of more refined fabrics, intended to bestow prestige and dignity to his banquets, transforming them from simply being a meal to actual sacred moments. Whether this is about history or is simply a legend, what is certain is that it is from this time on that the history of the modern tablecloth began, with the patrician families flaunting more and more precious as well as refined fabrics as a status symbol capable of reflecting their societal standing. At the same time, the emergence of Catholicism led to the widespread use of white linen tablecloths for church altars as a symbol of purity and prestige.
The tablecloth from the Middle Age to the 18th century
Since their appearance as table adornments, tablecloths have been for a long time a luxury enjoyed by the wealthier classes, with styles that have changed over time. In the 13th and 14th centuries, for example, white tablecloths embellished with embroidery and fringes were very fashionable; coloured and perfumed tablecloths that were changed after every course, with the aim of offering fellow diners a special banquet – as much from the point of view of flavour as from the aesthetic and olfactory level – were in style as well.
In the 15th century, “perugine” became widespread: white tablecloths decorated with blue stripes, elegant and sober; while in the following century embroidery came back into vogue and in many cases they were particularly rich and lavish.
During the baroque period appeared damask fabrics, whereas in the Age of Enlightenment it was the minimalist style that re-emerged, with white tablecloths made from precious fabrics and often large enough to touch the ground. In tandem with the changes in taste in the choice of tablecloth, technological innovations concerning the materials and the techniques used in the production progressed as well, especially in specific areas, such as in Flanders or certain places in Italy (Assisi, most of all) which quickly became renowned for the quality of their products.
From a precious object to mass-production
Up until the entire 19th century, tablecloths had been still considered precious objects (they were in fact a very important element in the wedding trousseau); it would be only in the next century – and in particular with the economic boom of the fifties and sixties – that the tablecloth became, to all intents and purposes, mass produced and purchasable by all within any price range. From this moment on, industries adapted to market demand, offering a wide range of varieties in terms of colour, design and materials.