The Surprisingly Long History Of The Humble Tablecloth

Tablecloths are such an innocuous part of the dining experience that most of us barely clock them when we sit down to eat. But besides being a chance to add an aesthetic edge to your meal, tablecloths are a device with a function that dates back centuries. 

The Roman Table

The first recorded mention of a tablecloth being used in the way we identify them today was all the way back in 100 AD by the Roman poet Martial as part of the grand reclining feasts enjoyed by the rich. Before that time, Romans used a type of napkin-tablecloth combo, where the ends of a long piece of fabric would be weighted down by the dishes on the table and the other end could be used to mop up spills. Some say that the Spartans may be true pioneers of the concept as they used a hunk of dough to dab away stray food, but since those did eventually end up as part of the meal, it seems like the purpose wasn’t quite the same. 

As the practice became more prevalent, the Romans brought "mappa," small squares of linen, to meals for wiping their fingers. They also draped "Mantele," larger pieces of linen, over their seats to serve as catch-all napkins, which served as precursors to modern tablecloths. Over time, the mantele grew in size, and the dining position shifted from reclined to upright. The linen was unadorned, designed solely for the purpose of cleaning, not for decoration.  

Although that being said, as per legend, The Roman Emperor Charlemagne would use an asbestos tablecloth and while entertaining, he would toss the cloth into the fire, and delight in the awe of his guests as it refused to burn, using this illusion to persuade his friends and foes alike of his authority and supposed supernatural abilities.

An Artist’s Eye For Decor

Art is another valuable marker for the progress of dining etiquette through the ages. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous work, “The Last Supper” which was painted at the end of the 15th century shows Christ and his disciples dining at a table with a white table covering. Now this isn’t to say that tablecloths were de rigueur in the time of early Christianity, but it does suggest that Da Vinci was pretty familiar with them.

This specific table cover is based on a Perugian Towel, known as "Tovaglia Perugine," which was a popular style of woven linen cloth made in Umbria for liturgical purposes starting from the 12th century. These cloths were typically made of white linen and often featured patterns or simple trims woven in blue cotton.

The Rise Of The Tablecloth

In the 12th century, an interesting development in tablecloth history occurred in Britain. The British National Treasury became known as the "Exchequer" due to the use of a chequered tablecloth around which the kingdom's authorities gathered to visually track their finances. They placed counters on the cloth to represent financial inflows and outflows, a medieval precursor to today's budget presentations.

Tablecloths gradually gained popularity, especially among the European nobility and aristocrats. However, by the fifteenth century, nearly every household, except the very poorest, utilised some form of tablecloth, even if it was a simple hessian sack. Those in the middle class, which didn't exist at the time, typically had plain, more affordable cloths, while the less fortunate used hemp fabric, and the destitute had no table coverings at all.

Tablecloths As A Marker Of Wealth

During the Medieval period, it was considered essential to use the finest linen tablecloths, and these linens had to be as white as possible. The higher your social standing, the whiter your tablecloths were expected to be to display that your wealth could afford you many servants in an age where conveniences like chemical cleaners and washing machines weren’t available to remove stains. 

White tablecloths remained in vogue, evolving into a luxurious, thick woven material called Damask, resulting from the collaboration between Flemish linen producers and Italian silk weavers. Their convergence point was the Flemish port of Bruges, which served as the hub for Italian sea trade. From the 16th century onwards, white damask enjoyed international acclaim. It became a symbol of status, a requirement for royal courts, and an essential part of a bride's dowry in the 19th century. Even today, Buckingham Palace's main banqueting table is adorned with seven white damask tablecloths, each measuring an impressive 68 meters in length.

During the Victorian era, linen was an exceptionally valuable commodity, demanding a substantial financial investment. It needed to be cultivated, hand-spun, bleached, and meticulously woven into cloth by a Master Craftsman. In the richest homes, "surnapes" were employed to cover the primary tablecloth, akin to the table toppers we use today. Additionally, "sanaps" were used as an extra covering. These ran the length of the table and served as precursors to contemporary table runners. As opulent homes vied with each other to create the most extravagant table settings for their grand feasts, these sanaps became increasingly elaborate, adorned with lace and embroidery. In these exceedingly affluent households, there was often a designated servant responsible for ceremoniously covering and uncovering the table.

Even though today, tablecloths are a given for any fine-dining atmosphere, they’re starting to fall out of fashion. Most modern-day restaurants favour a more minimalist approach to decor, not to mention, skipping tablecloths means a lot less washing to do for their staff. Though this functional turned decor item is by no means obsolete, it’s definitely seen a decline in popularity, although perhaps, there’s still time for the unassuming tablecloth to make a mighty comeback.