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"A kid under a tablecloth insists he’s a ghost. A table underneath a tablecloth is, I guess, like the rest of us, only pretending to be invisible." Richard Siken

I've been meaning to write about tablecloths for a while now, so today when this painting by Pierre Bonnard - The Checkered Tablecloth - turned up on my desk calendar I took it as a sign that it was time.

Pierre Bonnard was into colour and also it seems, he was into tablecloths. He painted lots of them, mostly without people, but sometimes with, or sometimes just partly. Here are a few:

There are many more, many more - many with the same checked tablecloth, although it looks slightly different every time. Make of them what you will, ponder and reflect, but I will leave Bonnard there, just as an introduction to the topic, although I did try to find out why so many tablecloths without a lot of success. I missed the exhibition of his works last summer too. Very remiss of me.

It seems that tablecloths have been around for a very long time. Everyone seems to agree the first reference is in the first century AD in Rome when, some say, everyone had an individual tablecloth - which sounds more like a modern placemat than a tablecloth. By medieval times, however, apparently just about everyone, other than those at the very bottom of the heap used tablecloths, although of course the higher up the social scale you were the finer the tablecloth. And apparently at those levels anyway, always white, and decorated with fine embroidery. White signified wealth because you had to keep them clean, which required a lot of work by a lot of workers. Which, of course, cost money. I also vaguely remember that before napkins were introduced, the tablecloth was often used for wiping greasy fingers. More washing.

That idea of white signifying wealth continues to this day in the use of the white linen tablecloth in very posh restaurants - as here at Paul Bocuse in Lyon, but also these days it seems the trend is to ditch the tablecloths in favour of expensively designed tables constructed out of hard materials. There is a massive cost involved in using tablecloths of course - I found one restaurant quoting $200,000 per year as the cost of cleaning those tablecloths - and probably replacing some.

The French used to have a nifty way around this, by placing a large sheet of butcher paper over the tablecloth, replacing it at each sitting. Another cost but a lesser one. I also remember that the waiter used to write your order and the bill on to the paper, so that you could add it up as you went. I tried so hard to find a picture of this but this is the closest I could find. Indeed I suspect that the French themselves no longer do this. They seem to go with plastic topped tables these days which are easily wiped down. And in slightly more upmarket places you might get either better quality wipeable tables or cheaper tablecloths.

Some restaurateurs suggest that they are ditching the tablecloth - and even napkins - not just because of cost but also for ecological reasons:

"The absence of tablecloths is not just a question of style. It removes an “overlooked” contributor to a restaurant’s carbon footprint. It’s common for laundry to be collected by a dedicated company, washed, starched, pressed, potentially wrapped in single-use plastic and delivered back.” Tony Naylor


Some still hang in there with the tablecloths though, whether it be to hide a tatty table underneath, to dampen the noise, or indeed to make the occasion just a little bit special. Because it does, doesn't it?

Colourful tablecloths might hide the stains somewhat, but they are also harder to wash. You can just bleach white ones. And speaking of the colourful tablecloth, what about all of thos gorgeous provençal tablecloths? I took this picture in the market at Agde, down on the Mediterranean coast. In fact I eventually bought a round plasticised one for our then round outside table. I must get it out again because it reminds me of those happy times. And I also saw recently someone mentioning that you could heap all of these superficially clashing colours together and it works. Yes it does.

Over time the tablecloths and the table layout became ever more of a fashion thing, sometimes with the emphasis on the cutlery and the crockery, the glassware and some kind of table decoration. Sometimes on a tablecloth or a table runner down the middle. It's called tablescaping and even Bunnings has a brochure/article online on how to do it. I remember trying just once to do this for one of David's signifcant birthdays. We must have just come back from France, because I remember it was a Provençal theme, but rather less fancy than the above - just blue tablecloths - hiding folding tables. At the time we also had a set of cheap Provençale crockery. I tried but I'm really not that great at these things.

Other cultures do not necessarily have tables. They sit on the ground on beautiful carpets that are protected by decorative cloths as the family sits around the food. Which is sort of interesting. I guess it stems from their original nomadic lifestyle. Although, no that doesn't work as the people of the Middle East were the first to abandon the nomadic lifestyle and settle in one place. A topic for another time perhaps.

And even we resort to the ground and tablecloth spread over the grass as we picnic. It's sort of romantic - if you forget the ants and the other creepy crawlies. Utopian.

I'll end with my beginning quote and kid under a table. I'm not sure that children under a table are pretending to be ghosts, but they are in a make-believe space. My brother and sister and I used to get under the table - and pretend all manner of things. And yes there absolutely had to be a tablecloth. With the tablecloth you could hide and you could pretend to be somewhere else completely.

Tablecloths do more than keep the table clean. Most of all they make you feel special in so many different ways. And they make you dream.


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17 mai
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Ah to dream under the table witha tablecloth - wealthy dreams beyond my imagination. We ate on a hard table - no cloth at home and at my expesive school, lunch was served on ancient hard tables dating back to the 17th century, and the Frech master peeled his orange with a knife and fork on a plate!

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