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…