Origins of the tea towel

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a tea towel as “a cloth for drying dishes.” Often made of linen, cloth, or a combination of the two, tea towels date back to England in the 18th century, when they were used to insulate tea pots at tea ceremonies (hence the name), dry fine china, and cover baked goods.

Known in the USA as ‘dish towels’ or ‘kitchen towels’, the tea towel began its life in the homes of the Victorian middle class. Serving afternoon tea was an important ritual in the late 18th-mid 20th century, where a table would be covered with a tablecloth and tea served in a fine bone china tea set.  Linen tea towels were used to protect the delicate porcelain and chinaware from scratches and keep them lint-free. Tea towels were also used to cover food to keep it fresh and keep flies away if tea was served outdoors.

Decorative tea towels

Servants and homemakers began hand-embroidering their tea towels. These beautiful textiles were handed down as heirlooms and can be found today in flea markets and vintage stores. Pristine vintage tea towels are hard to find as they were usually worn and stained from kitchen use. Embroidering was the beginning of the idea to create decorative tea towels. With mass-production during the Industrial Revolution, more households could buy tea towels (often people had had to use cut-up flour sacks to create cloths). By the mid-20th century, there was a strong market for printed tea towels.

Printed tea towels were intended for display only and not for use in the kitchen. These fancy towels were printed with bold graphics, historical scenes, images of nature, national landmarks, floral patterns, table spreads, and cartoon characters. Tea towels made from durable linen survived years of use, making them part of a family’s history across generations.

Today, linen tea towels are an essential part of any kitchen and are used for more than just tea and small meals.  Whether decorative or task-oriented, the need for towels has evolved and will forever be needed.

Other uses for tea towels:

  • As a painting backdrop, Van Gogh used tea towels to paint on when he couldn’t afford proper painter’s canvas. In fact, one of these tea towel paintings sold in 2000 for millions!
  • As a picnic food carrier – bundle sandwiches or bread into a tea towel, then use to clean up when done
  • Frame a special tea towel and hang it on the wall as a piece of art
  • Line drink tray with a tea towel
  • Use worn towels as dust cloths
  • Build a collection of themed tea towels based upon on a topic, holiday, or era