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Collecting Mania: Vintage Tablecloths

Updated on May 28, 2010

American kitchens of the late 1940s and 1950s were spirited work spaces filled with fresh colors and lively patterns. Following decades defined by the sobering realities of the Great Depression and the Second World War, manufacturers turned their attention to meeting consumer demand for "modern" kitchens outfitted with gleaming appliances accented in shades of red, turquoise, and jade green. Complementary countertops, curtains, and floor treatments echoed the contemporary homemaker's passion for color, as did fresh-pressed tablecloths and napkins bearing cheerful prints and patterns.

American women had enjoyed the chance to work outside the home while the men were away at war. When the men returned and women found themselves back in the house, they refocused their energy to create the idyllic concept of Home Sweet Home.

Textile manufacturers lent a hand. Companies with enchanting names like Prints Charming, Wilendure, and Table Tempo produced hundreds of colorful tablecloth designs. Because the pieces were moderately priced (most cost about $2 in department stores), homemakers could own a variety and customize their table settings according to meal and mood. A bright cotton daisy or strawberry print, for example, might grace the family breakfast table, while a delicate pastel linen with embroidered rosebuds or polka dots may have appeared at a proper afternoon tea with the bridge club. For candlelit suppers with close friends, a more subdued floral or a subtle plaid rayon blend may have been just the thing.

In the 1960s and 1970s, design tastes shifted away from traditional fruit, floral, and graphic patterns toward a more modern aesthetic characterized by stylized designs, geometric shapes, and deep earth tones. What's more, increasing educational and work opportunities lured women away from the home once again, leaving little time or inclination for the regular cleaning and pressing that these linens required. As a result, stacks of "old-fashioned" tablecloths were stored away in attics, placed in Good Will boxes, or simply discarded. Today it is precisely the dated appearance of these textiles that collectors respond to.

Yet plenty of other tablecloth designs from the mid-20th century are frequently sighted in antiques shops specializing in vintage kitchen items or period textiles. As the popularity of vintage tablecloths continues to grow, so do their prices. Expect to pay anywhere from $25 to $75 for a quality piece, depending on its size, condition, color saturation, and rarity of design. Sets that retain their matching napkins hold greater value, as do pieces replete with original labels and gift boxes. Flea markets and yard sales remain good places to search for bargains; attractive tablecloths can occasionally be found at these venues for as little as $5 to $15.

While near-mint tablecloths are not uncommon, many pieces sport stains and other signs of age. Once washed, laundering instructions on a 1940s label advise stretching the cloth while still damp and pressing with a warm iron. Everyday tablecloths were generally square, the most common sizes being 52 by 52 inches and 40 by 40 inches. Fruit and flower motifs are among the most popular with collectors. Dealers report that collectors are often drawn to souvenir tablecloths that depict a honeymoon destination or favorite vacation spot.

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