Restaurant Table Linen: A Rich Cultural History

Restaurant Table Linen: A Rich Cultural History

Whether you are a restaurant owner or perhaps work in a food and catering environment, chances are you haven’t given much thought to table linen. I think it’s even safe to say that for most restaurant diner’s who have a discerning taste for a fine dining experience may well certainly dine without noticing anything on the table other than the food itself. As with many of us, very little thought has perhaps been given to the history of table linen.

Table linens make up a powerful aspect of a restaurant's décor. Not only do they have the power to set the mood, for example, a formal, casual, romantic or whimsical dining experience but they have the power to set expectations about entrée quality and price. Moreover, they also have the power to increase the comfort of your guests by reducing background noise and controlling spills better than a bare table.

Taking all of this into consideration, in this blog, we take you on a journey of these essential restaurant staples and discover how vital they are now - as they always have been.

The origins of Table Linen

The earliest accounts of tablecloths in history were related to a poet named Martial and dated all the way back in 103 AD. It was speculated that they were believed to have been used to sop up spills and keep the tables organised and clean.

Back in the Medieval Ages, people liked to look as affluent and ostentatious as they possibly could, the basic tablecloths of earlier times were replaced by ornately designed ones to match the ornateness of the furniture they were covering. Throughout this period of history, when everything was symbolic as a status symbol, the ideal tablecloths of the wealthy were white as this was supposedly an indication that a homeowner could afford plenty of servants to keep their white linens white.

The Victorian era has a very strong attachment to the ‘correct’ type of tablecloths. While popular opinion attributes the creation and popular use of tablecloths to Victorian upper-class pomp and ceremony - something the uptight people of the era used tablecloths to cover the bare legs of their tables because they were scandalous – this has been refuted by lots of historians. Just like in earlier history, Victorian tablecloths were used to provide a layer of protection for costly furniture in restaurants as well as the home.

Funnily enough, the industrial boom of the Victorian era hugely influenced the use and production of tablecloths as well as various other table linens. The American cotton industry and garment manufacturing, as well as the birth of the synthetic dyes, revolutionized the appearance of tablecloths. 

As time moved forward, the styles and design of the modern tablecloth changed as well. From the Art Nouveau style of the early 1900s during the height of the World Exposition Fairs to the creation of synthetic fibres to augment the originally 100% cotton linens. The humble tablecloth has come a very long way to where it is today but its main purpose remains the same: to keep dining tables clean all while giving an elegant appearance and upgrade.

History of Linen Napkins

The history of the linen napkin greatly crosses over very much with that of linen tablecloths. In various periods of history, particularly throughout the time of the ancient Roman Empire, many diners used fabrics much smaller than the standard tablecloth – this was appropriately referred to as ‘mappae’ which meant ‘kin’ to the tablecloth – as a way of cleaning up during and after meals. However, the earliest record of napkins are attributed to the Spartans, who use pieces of dough known as an ‘apo madalie’ to wipe off food from their hands and faces. This in turn, led to the use of sliced bread as a way to clean off diners’ hands and faces during meal times.

Napkin usage disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire and people used whatever was available to clean up their dining mess. Between the 15th and 16th centuries, the upper classes brought back napkins and used them as a status symbol. Napkins came in different sizes, had different names and different purposes, and had become part of regular dining rituals. In the 17th century, forks became a staple at almost lots of dining establishments. This meant that people ate much less sloppily, which then went on to drastically reduced napkin size. While the ancient napkins were about the size of the tablecloths, the standard napkin after the popular use of the fork was brought down to about 35 x 45 inches.

19th-century aristocracies in Italy and France introduced more elite etiquette rules on napkin use and more elaborate ways of displaying a napkin. Over the years, the table napkin became an indispensable part of a formal table setting. Proper table manners always include proper use of napkins before, during, and after meals. Certain rules have come and gone and the popular use of napkins in restaurants and homes has fluctuated but one thing has remained consistent: the table napkin is part of our dining history.

A symbol of elegance

If there is one thing that is so clear about the history of table linen and the history of napkins and that is that they can teach every restaurant manager and owner, it has to be that restaurant tablecloths and napkins are a symbol of classic and elegant dining.

Linen Tablecloths

So, as we have established, tablecloths are used for table decoration for ages. Linen yearns were originally acquired from a flax plant. Due to the time and effort needed to produce linen fabric it was the most expensive and also highly elegant material. The linen table linen was only used by the affluent in the past. However, nowadays linen tablecloths are still well appreciated by interior designers and homeowners and restaurants as they bring a serene and elegant look to the table as well as to the overall interior design of a space.

The appeal of linen tablecloths mainly comes from their lustre and quality texture. Apart from that, linen tablecloths also add splendour to the table and the whole room. They are available in all different colours these days or opt for the classic white. They can even have embroidery or hemstitched details on them and the feel is always excellent.

The texture of the linen tablecloth (and all other linen table linen for that matter) is one of the key reasons why many people do prefer them. But the most important advantage of pure linen tablecloth is its water-absorbing capacity. If anything is spilt, drops of liquids vanish immediately.

Stalbridge Linen - table linens are an investment in the quality and reputation of your restaurant

Table linens are some of the hardest-working products in your restaurant. Your investment in them will be rewarded with a great many benefits. Here at Johnsons Stalbridge Linen Services, we have been providing linen napkins, table linens and restaurant tablecloths to our customer base across the UK. We have extensive experience within the industry which has permitted us to develop a fantastic reputation for the quality of our table linens and cloth napkins as well as our customer service. We’ve built a loyal base of customers over the years, thanks to our exceptional quality of service, reliability, and a flexible method of working which ensure customers aren’t tied into long term contracts.

We deliver all services promptly and pride ourselves on fixing any problems which may arise quickly and effectively. As a manager and owner of a restaurant, you’ll know just how important it is to concentrate on every detail of your property, from the decor and the theme all the way to the restaurant linen. If you are looking to change your supplier and would like to consider linen napkin hire, serviette hire or any other form of restaurant linen hire, look no further. We can provide bespoke options on all of the above and always endeavour to provide the very best service. To find out more about how we can help you, get in touch today to find out more.

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