In my local history research, I rely upon paper records, bronze yahrzeit plaques, and stone matzevot. My favorite records, though, are those created in cloth and thread. They are tablecloths, embroidered with names numbering in the dozens or hundreds. So far I’ve identified sixteen Jewish sisterhood tablecloths from the Western Pennsylvania/Eastern Ohio region. All are long, white pieces of fabric, but on some the names are elegantly organized, while on others the names are strewn about haphazardly. Some follow consistent patterns, and others are a riot of competing styles. Most are food-stained.
These signature tablecloths were fundraisers in which individuals, families, and organizations donated to have their names or their loved ones’ names added to the tablecloth. Often the names were placed to keep family members together. All the tablecloths I’ve rediscovered were initially created in the 1940s and 1950s, though many were updated for decades after.
Unlike most of the curiosities I’ve rediscovered along the way, there is no prior scholarship to explain these table cloths, not even a blog post or a tweet from someone else who had fallen for their charms, so I know very little about this phenomenon elsewhere. Was their extreme prevalence in my region’s Jewish community unique, or was everyone in the mid-20th century making these? Please contact me if you know anything more about these wonderful artifacts!
Inventory of signature tablecloths from Jewish communities in Western PA
- Aliquippa Jewish Center (pictures, community history)
- Ambridge: Beth Samuels Sisterhood and Council of Jewish Women (pictures)
- Donora Hebrew Congregation Ohav Sholom (pictures, community history)
- East Liverpool, Ohio: Sisterhood of B’nai Jacob Synagogue (pictures, community history)
- Homestead Hebrew Congregation Sisterhood (pictures, community history, tablecloth history)*
- Kittanning: The Sisterhood of Kneseth Israel Congregation (community history)
- Latrobe: Beth Israel Congregation (pictures, community history)
- McKeesport: Temple B’nai Israel (pictures)*
- Adath Jeshurun Sisterhood (pictures, congregation history)
- Congregation Poale Zedeck (newspaper article)
- Jewish Hospital and Home for the Aged Ladies Auxiliary (newspaper article)*
- Save-A-Life Pittsburgh Auxiliary of the City of Hope (newspaper article)
- Tree of Life Congregation (newspaper article)
- Uniontown: Temple Israel Sisterhood (pictures, community history)
* Documentation survives about the creation of these signature tablecloths.