Today Etiquetteer celebrates* the memory of Eleanor of Aquitaine, known to most of us today only by Katharine Hepburn’s award-winning depiction of her in The Lion in Winter. Queen Eleanor, aside from having had an adventurous life, left an enduring mark on Western Civilization by making the use of the tablecloth at meals a standard of Perfect Propriety.
Alison Weir, in her biography Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life, wrote "The conservative French . . . could not deny that their new Queen was a civilizing influence upon court manners. It was she who insisted upon the boards being laid with tablecloths and napkins, and who commanded the pages to wash their hands before serving at table."
What kind of tablecloth does Etiquetteer recommend for you? Emily Post used to say “We breakfast and dine on damask, but we lunch on lace.” These days, thanks in part to the less formal entertaining and wider latitude in decorating that began after World War II, almost anything goes. Millicent Fenwick offers wonderful suggestions in her Vogue Book of Etiquette, and the celebrated Dorothy Draper includes some very colorful ideas in her book Entertaining Is Fun! Linen, lace, damask, cotton, embroidery - whatever you choose, be guided by the style of your dining room and the type of entertaining you do most. Damask does remain the most formal of fabrics, and Etiquetteer would reserve it almost exclusively for formal dinners. But there are wonderful coarse linens, embroidered cottons, and other fabrics worthy of your consideration.
Etiquetteer does draw the line at using bedsheets, no matter how brand-new, for tablecloths. Yes, Etiquetteer understands that it’s more convenient, etc., and really does not care about these objections. If you can’t find something the right size for your table, pick out some lovely yard goods and either hem them yourself or get your neighborhood seamstress to do it.**
Apparently there is no prohibition against using placemats on top of tablecloths, although Etiquetteer would strongly recommend against it for a formal dinner. It does rather demonstrate a lack of faith in the table manners of one's guests, although Etiquetteer does know that mistakes happen. Be sure the placemats you use complement your tablecloth.
Sometimes there's a question about what to do when a fresh stain is made on a tablecloth. On such occasions Etiquetteer turns gratefully to Igor in Young Frankenstein, who famously said "Say nothing. Act casual." If it's a drop or two of red wine, pour a little salt on it. Later on, red wine stains can be effectively removed by stretching the stained portion over a bucket, adding a bit more salt, and pouring boiling water onto the stain from a height.
So the next time you spread out your best tablecloth, or your favorite tablecloth, or any tablecloth, take the time to raise a glass to Queen Eleanor. Just don't spill anything.
*Why now? While Queen Eleanor's date of birth has been lost to History, it's known that she died in the month of April.
**Doesn’t every neighborhood have a seamstress? If they don’t, they should.