Whether drying your hands or removing a hot dish from the oven, tea towels are an indispensable tool for any cook. Also known as dish towels or kitchen towels, these fabric rectangles rose to prominence during the 18th century in Great Britain, when plain linen towels were used to dry delicate pieces of china and flatware.
In the 19th century, such towels became increasingly embellished so the lady of the house could use them to prevent drips or to cover a fresh tray of baked goods when serving tea, hence the name “tea towel.” Perhaps the most famous tea towels are those repurposed as canvases by Vincent van Gogh when he ran out of art supplies while at a psychiatric hospital in 1889.
During the Great Depression, cotton flour sacks were often reused as tea towels since buying them new was not an option for many families. In turn, flour companies adopted more decorative sacks explicitly so they would be saved for kitchen duty.
In the mid-20th century, dish-towel designs were updated for the modern household, thanks to improvements in screenprinting techniques and colorfast dyes. Mostly made of cotton or linen, tea towels of the 1940s and '50s often featured patterns with bright floral shapes, cartoon animals, popular foods, and travel themes.
While many tea towels were mass produced by companies like Vera or Kay Dee, others were decorated by hand with elaborate embroideries. Some of the most distinctive dish towels were produced by textile designer Margaret Thomas Keefe, known by her professional signature Tammis Keefe.
Working with manufacturers like Goodall Industries and Lord & Taylor, Keefe created bright, eye-catching prints used for clothing, furniture, handkerchiefs, scarves, and tea towels, of course. Keefe’s textiles eventually made it into the Museum of Modern Art’s “Good Design” exhibition of 1950, and her dish towels became a coveted addition to any Mid-Century Modern kitchen.