Saturday, August 20, 2011

Vintage Kitchen Towels -- Wilendur, Vera Neumann - Collectible, Colorful and Eco Friendly

Colorful Vera Neumann linen towel from the 1970s
I’ve always had a thing for fun kitchen towels.  You always use them, so why not have nice ones?  I’m partial to pretty floral patterns printed on linen or cotton and from the 1940s through the ‘70s.  And in today’s eco-minded world, these vintage towels are a great way to avoid the waste of one-time-use paper towels. 
Seashell linen towel by The Ryans
Fun swirly design on linen  by Parisian Prints
If you believe sources like Wikipedia (big grain of salt here, please), tea towel is the English term and Americans just call it a plain old dish towel.  The purpose of this piece of fabric was to dry dishes--linen is absorbent and leaves little lint.  Cotton was used as it became more readily available later in the 19th century.

Printed cotton towel, probably from the 1940s
In the 1930s and '40s you often see towels that were cut from lengths of fabric printed with this use in mind.  So there will often be a border on each end and then a hemmed end on each side where the fabric was cut.  This leads to non-standard sizes and slight wonkiness, but in a pleasantly homemade way.
Wilendur printed cotton dish towel, 1950s
Big textile manufacturers made dish towels, too, including Wilendur and others.  Wilendur (they later became Wilendure) is better known for their tablecloths, but the same heavyweight cotton fabric was used for towels.  (And a PS on Wilendur--am I the only doofus who took a while to figure out that Wilendur is one of those cutesy, retro names?  Their products are long lasting, they 'will endure', get it? I thought it was Swiss name like Winterthur or something!)
This color combination is lovely!
Linen towels became a collectible souvenir in the 1950s and ‘60s.  These were often more decorative than functional and were sometimes used as wall hangings.  Tea towels were like souvenir spoons--you picked one up where ever you traveled. When I was in graduate school at UVA, I worked part time in the gift shop at Monticello where ladies of a certain age always asked for the Monticello tea towel for their collections. 
Calendar towels were especially popular in the 1960s and '70s, this linen one from 1968 by Vera
I'm kind of a rag hag and, no surprise, I have lots of vintage towels.  I used to just keep them stacked up in a cupboard to keep them nice, but really, that's just silly.   I tend to use my prettiest ones for lighter use like just drying off my hands and then towels with ok patterns or a few holes or stains for heavier duty stuff like wiping up spills or dusting. Because I really use them, I tend not to be as interested in the embroidered variety of towel, even if they are a good size (smaller embroidered towels I consider guest towels, those fancy things you never want to sully when you visit someone's house).
Some of my printed cotton towels from the 1940s and 50s
When you‘re shopping for for vintage kitchen towels you’ll find a huge range of price points. Price will depend on color, condition and general desirability of the pattern and maker. 
Vera linen towels in two colorways
Nice towels from the 1940’s and 50’s are getting harder to find in good condition.  I feel like I used to find them for just a couple dollars and now I don’t even see them!  Retro floral designs in reds and blues can be especially charming.  Heading into the ‘60s, you start to see groupings of kitchen items, stagecoaches (huh?), and Pennsylvania Dutch designs.  Humorous and risque towels are fun to find from any era--because a little risque humor always comes to mind when you are drying dishes in the kitchen! 
Risque printed cotton towel, probably from the 1930's or '40s
Do note the tails and horns...
Towels designed by Vera Neumann in the ‘60s and 70‘s are commanding high prices these days--I’ve seen a single towel go for more than $80!  More often, Vera towels can be found in the $20 to $40 dollar range for her fantastic images of flowers, vegetables or bold graphics, all in bright colors and in good condition.  Still, if Vera is your thing, you can definitely find towels for less than $10, you just have to dig a little harder and maybe compromise a bit on condition. 
Two linen towels by Vera Neumann
If you can live with a little bit of wear and a few stains, you can pick up some great towels for less than $5.  That’s generally a lot less than a new towel would cost and you are re-using an existing towel, thereby saving the planet and doing good for one and all.  What could be better?
Novelty linen towel, 1960s
You can find kitchen towels and other linens in my shop here.  I always have a few!

© All text and images are copyright of Jeni Sandberg

1 comment:

  1. I'm a sucker for vintage kitchen linens! I absolutely adore that one with the anniversary theme! O M G!!