The Dish Towels

My interest began a few weeks ago, when in a thrift store, I came across the first of my small collection. Since then, in promising venues, I’ve prowled about diligently, and now have a nice stack. My collection of vintage dish towels not only pleases me aesthetically, but has prompted my consideration of the persons who owned these towels before I did. At length, I’ve considered their mindset, their work ethic, their values, and most of all the use of their time. I’ve thought long of their lives and of the culture that seems to have placed a sizable value on such a mundane item as a dish towel. Yet, I note these to be cherished pieces, even to the embroidered scenes and the knit or tatted edges–of fineness and care…and time.

What gives with this? How did people have time and energy to sit down and decorate dish towels? How? And why would they do so? Now, I’m not sure how old these pieces are, but I recall when I was a child that it was not unusual to have embroidered dish towels and embroidered pillow cases, and that my mom starched our pillowcases, that we hung them outside on a line to dry, and that after they were dry and we gathered them from the line, we sprinkled the pieces, let them set awhile and then ironed them crisply.

I cherish these dish towels I’ve collected, and while I was home in Crestline last week, I carefully laundered and ironed them. They are old–some have stains–and I was afraid to be too aggressive with them, but they’re beautiful and they renewed questions, and spoke lessons to me. Why do we rush about so? How is it that we have automatic washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, garbage disposals, trash compactors, fancy coffee pots, and dependable automobiles, yet have so little time? How is it that should someone (such as I) suggest we “admire dish towels,” we probably shake our heads in disbelief, and politely consider such a person quite out of touch with reality. For we have work to do, places to go, appointments to keep, phone calls to make, emails to read, iPhones to cradle, Droids to cuddle, and Macs to tend.

But what of those other generations? What of those who worked long in the fields, who at dawn roused to morning chores, who plowed with horses and ancient John Deeres? yet in the evening sat on porches, listening to scratchy radio broadcasts, and who waited for the air to cool so they could sleep? What of the wives who tended gardens and cooked large meals on simple stoves, who scrubbed bare floors with brush and rag? and yet who embroidered dish towels and sat about at friendly gossip with a neighbor the next farm over? What of those in cities who rode street cars to  factories? yet of an evening sat in groups on apartment steps and watched over youngsters and their innocent games?

I’m really not here today in hopes of changing anyone. I make little progress in altering my own lifestyle, for even as I craft and publish such a piece as this, I use my delightful MacBook, and the internet, and electricity, and every modern way. So how could I even think of changing you? Not happening. I am extending a little challenge, though. I wish you would take a minute to look at the images of my dish towels…and to think. Think about your life and your busyness and your values. Think about your children and your family and your friends. Think about money and “things.” Consider porches and apartment steps and vacant lot ball games and casual strolls.

My vintage dish towels are stacked on an old tray in my Crestline kitchen, and come Fall, when I’ll probably be home for good, I will use them. Should you come to visit I’ll let you pick one to help me dry the dishes. We’ll talk and laugh in the ancient way of women who, in a kitchen or on a porch or on the steps wisely pause to speak of children and cooking and pain and joy…

7 thoughts on “The Dish Towels

  1. Eva

    Hello again, Sis. Buxton!
    My dear friend Holly Garrett is visiting me this weekend in OR. We went exploring in a little town’s historic downtown district. We came upon an antique mall and had the best time. We kept looking at incredible embroidered hand towels and thought of you. Wondered if you’ve been adding to your collection or even had some of the ones we came upon. We had to come back and read your wonderful blog again! Have a wonderful day! We love you! Eva & Holly

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  2. Sandy Bock

    Thank you for reminding me of the little treasures my mother has made for me. Up until about 10 years ago my mohter would embroider many dish towels and give them to my sister and I for Christmas. They always had a theme. Thank goodness Mom (86 years old) is still alive and in good health but arthritis in her fingers keeps her from doing anymore needle work. For some reason, years ago I put them away in the cabinet but after reading your story you’ve made me realize that they are really “treasures” made by my mother from her heart.

    Oh, Sandy, you have made me cry this afternoon. What a distinct treasure you have in those dish towels your mother made for you and your sister. Please take them out of the cupboard, place them where everyone can see them in your kitchen, and use them. And let your mom know how much you love them and appreciate what she has done for you. This is so precious.

    I do love you, Sandy, and am thankful for the years we were neighbors. Hope to see you again soon. Be blessed always.

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  3. Eva

    What a great thought! What a neat collection! It reminds me of the lady here in town who collects old pillow cases and makes the cutest little dresses with them…they have the same type of embroidery and detail. I was just discussing with my sister today how everything is computerized and fast that no one writes letters anymore. You might have even written a blog about it. I still oogle over cute note cards, fancy pens and pretty papers. I have a neat article someone sent me called “mamaw’s apron”. You may have seen it. It takes you back, just like this blog did. I’ll send it to you. Thanks for all your wonder posts and inspiration!! Love you!

    Good morning, Eva. Thanks for visiting my site and for your good comments. I’d love to see the apron article.

    Be especially blessed today. 🙂

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  4. Great story! I have some up in Montana house with tablecloths and I feel the same way about them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in a beautiful way. Love U

    I love you too, Melina. Glad to hear you have your own collection in your Montana home. I hope it is not too long before I can see your place there, and maybe even dry a dish or two, or set the table with one of your vintage cloths.

    I’m wishing you a blessed and quiet day.

    Mom B.

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  5. I have in my possession several dozen dish towels – embroidered by my lovely maternal grandmother. For me they represent a woman who loved her Lord, her children and grandchildren more than anything and her greatest joy was in giving us something she had made with her own hand. AND she expected us to use those towels! “They aren’t for decoration, they’ll just rot in a drawer if you don’t use them.” I’ve been using them for nearly 20 years, many are in rough shape, but still they last. I think of her (and miss her!) when I use them.

    Oh, Kathy, what a treasure you have in that your vintage dish towels came from your own grandmother. I have nothing from either of my grandmothers, and almost nothing from my own mother. I’m so glad you cherish those simple, but very meaningful, items.

    Hope your day is peaceful.

    Shirley

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  6. I’m with you girl… Been collecting towels and dresser sharves for years. The detail, time, and effort put into them is amazing. It was a slower time and time on the porch or in the kitchen talking was the modern-day version of a counseling session! A lot less costly and more fun I think. Thanks for your beautiful entry. Got the day on the porch with grand daughter… gotta go.

    Hi, Rosebud. Thanks for being here and for your comment. A great thought you have about a slower life being a form of counseling. I tend to agree with you. Glad for your collection, and for your day on the porch with a granddaughter. Doesn’t get much better than that.

    Blessings on your day.

    Shirley

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