Signature Tablecloths

In 1965 after 11 years of work, Mrs. Morris Wheeler and Mrs. Bud Saunders showed off the completed Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged tablecloth with more than 1200 names of individuals who made donations. (image courtesy Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives)

In 1965 after 11 years of work, Mrs. Morris Wheeler and Mrs. Bud Saunders showed off the completed Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged tablecloth with more than 1200 names of individuals who made donations. (Image courtesy Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives.)

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.

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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!

The Sisterhood of Kneseth Israel Congregation in Kittanning, PA spread its signature tablecloth across the dais at a banquet for the dedication of its new synagogue in June 1954. Image courtesy Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives.)

The Sisterhood of Kneseth Israel Congregation in Kittanning, PA spread its signature tablecloth across the dais at a banquet for the dedication of its new synagogue in June 1954. (Image courtesy Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives.)


Inventory of signature tablecloths

* There survives documentation about the creation of these signature tablecloths.

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