Salt, lemon juice, and lying in the sun… Ahhh, the perfect recipe for... oh no, wait! I’m not enjoying a margarita. I’m talking about cleaning vintage tablecloths!
From wonderful kitschy heavy cotton "lunch cloths" to the most pristine whites, table linens of the Depression Era could be purchased for a mere pittance. Spending only a dollar or two, it was a great way for housewives to liven up their kitchens and raise the family's spirits. Today, the garish holiday-themed patterns and any of the “50 States” tablecloths (especially if found with the paper tag in place) are a collector’s dream and could cost as much as two or three hundred dollars. A true collector would not dream of putting one of these finds on the dinner table.
For many of us, however, these colorful cloths, tucked away in our servers, are like time capsules from our childhoods. We may remember our mother or grandmother chastising cousin Tommy for knocking over the cranberry sauce or clicking their tongues when uncle Harry, after "just one more sip", knocked over the best crystal goblet leaving the red wine in a puddle on Santa's face.
These Victory Women wasted no time at the end of the meal "clearing up". Food was wrapped and put away, dishes were washed, dried and placed in the cupboards, and the tablecloth was left to soak in the hottest possible water. With that, the blemished fabric could wait until the next day when they would agitate it gently with their hands so as not to damage the threads. They knew the most effective way to clean their textiles was to use a centuries-old method: a little lemon juice mixed with salt. The cloth was rinsed in extra-hot water, taken outside and stretched flat on the ground where sunlight combined with the water and grass would brighten and remove any stain naturally. Some refer to this age-old technique as "crofting" or "grass bleaching".
It did the trick back then and will still work today. What could be “greener”? You simply lay clean, damp linens out on a green, grassy lawn on a sunny day. The combination of sunlight, water, and grass causes a natural bleaching action to occur. If you try this method, make certain that you sun both sides equally and lightly spray with water periodically if necessary. Colorfast dyes were not used until after 1935 so you may want to spot-test the fabric first. When completely dry, wrap the cloth in acid free tissue before you stow it away for next year.
So, go find that bright red poinsettia tablecloth your mother got from your great aunt Mary's cousin Fred's wife and don't be afraid to use it this holiday season. And, with the left over ingredients, make yourself a margarita.
Audrie's Odds and Ends is an occasional column written by our Museum Store Manager, Audrie Rañon featuring tips on shopping and caring for vintage Floridiana.