Let me preface this post by saying, this piece is not meant to be a full treatise on early kitchen towels, but merely a brief overview of what was found in early kitchens. Anyone who has useful information to add to it is certainly welcome to comment.
Hemp cloth dates from antiquity, and it was used so extensively in utilitarian items that Colonial Americans were mandated to grow it for use in making sails, rope, canvas, etc. It was durable and rot resistant and it was not a far stretch for someone to use it for absorbent cloths or towels.
By the 18th century kitchen towels were becoming a feature on better tables, replacing the rags of previous centuries. They were made of linen, cotton, and hemp and were soft and absorbent, no ma’am, no terry cloth numbers in those kitchens. The Radical Tea Towel Company’s website says fine ladies were more likely to use their towels to dry china than trust the delicate pieces to the hands of a servant. I can neither confirm nor deny the statement.
Early towels were sometimes embroidered creating nuances of color and domesticity to enliven the otherwise rather dull kitchens. Such embellished towels were not necessarily meant for heavy use or to clean up dirty messes. They were more likely used to cover food, or wrapped around a teapot to retain the heat. The better towels were regularly carefully washed, hung to dry and kept out of the sunlight to prevent the colors in the embroidery from fading.
During the 18th century there were hand towels for drying the hands and face as well as tea towels. I even found an early 19th century account of a girl using a larger towel to wrap fish in to carry them from the dock to the kitchen.
In 1836, a traveler described, “a sort of family towel”, which implies several people repeatedly used the same towel to wash face and hands, but continued his discourse with a rather pleasant description. “When clean, that is to say, when new, some of these towels are really pretty; they are sometimes showily ornamented with fringes of open lace-work, coarsely executed, but nevertheless, not inelegant in its design.”
Huckaback towels were advertised from the beginning of the 19th century into the early decades of the 20th and are still available for purchase. Huckaback was absorbent cotton or linen fabric, or a blend of cotton and linen, that was used especially for toweling. The word dates from 1690. Ladies were known to adorn the huckaback towels with initials and simple designs although some were described as a “very coarse, common towel”.
The average American woman did not have mass-produced towels or terry cloth towels before the industrial age. Even then many women recycled feed sacks or flour sacks for toweling, especially during the depression. My grandmother even had flour-sack sheets, one of which I still have. Some women chose to embroider simple designs or initials on that coarse fabric but they were probably more often just utilitarian squares or rectangles.
By 1900, ads were appearing for kitchen toweling and “kitchen crash”, “Toweling—bleached kitchen crash; a heavy red bordered, absorbent quality; sold in lengths as they come, from 2 ½ to 10 yards.” An ad in 1905 for Bleached Crash Toweling, “of linen-mixed yarn, unusually absorbent”, noted that, “many women plan upon making at least a dozen towels at home each season”, and another recommended Turkish kitchen towels for Christmas gifts. How many young ladies today would be happy to receive kitchen towels for a special occasion gift?
What did those nice linen towels look like? Some had blue, pink, or red borders, others were blue striped or pink checked. There were brown crash towels, and some in white with fancy weaves, etc. In short, they varied in color and design.
My aunt Dora had the cleanest, snow-white kitchen towels I’ve ever seen. Even when well worn they were spotless. I, on the other hand, had kids who had no qualms about taking a dish towel out to wash the car or clean mud off the four-wheeler and my drawer was usually full of clean but stained towels. Now that the kids are long gone and Martin knows how to use a rag for wiping a dip-stick, I like the idea of nice embroidered linen kitchen towels. Blissful Meals, yall, may your kitchen be filled with nice linens and your stew pot always full. ©
“The New Annual Register”, 1783.
The Radical Tea Towel Company catalog
“The Newgate Calendar”, 1825.
Smith, Robert. “The Friend”. Vol. 9. July 13, 1836.
Blackmore, M. O. “Merchants Manual of Advertising”. 1905.
Brightwell, Cecelia. “Georgie’s Present”. 1872
Merriam Webster Dictionary.
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. “Ishmael”. 1884.