Vintage linen tea towels — from Parisian Prints, Kay Dee, Martex, Tammis Keefe, Vera Neumann

vintage linen tea towlsEarly in my estate-sale-hunting life, I discovered vintage linen tea towels. It seemed that every home I entered had a stash of vintage linen tea towels — unused — many still with their labels — finally unpacked from a drawer and now for sale. These also are abundant on ebay, at very reasonable prices.

rooster tea towelI began snatching these towels up, and began using them. 

roses tea towelNot only do I love them for their (1) terrific vintage graphics and colors, (2) thrifty cost, (3) provenance — but I really love them functionally as well.

strawberry and cherry tea towelsMost importantly: Linen kitchen towels really soak up the water. They dry fast. Yes, they fade as you wash them — but, they get softer and softer and still retain their absorbency. Indeed: Nothing Dries Like Linen!

I use them every single day, exclusively, as kitchen towels.

I will guess they came to be known as “tea towels” because… what?… they were used by the Mrs. when she served tea? 

Hmmm. All I know is that they work great as daily kitchen towels. Don’t keep them packed away! Use them!

Above: Some designs were ‘mod’.

Above: Some designs resemble Thibault murals.

Above: This one has a very 1940s look to me — very sweet… like a Meyercord decal.

Back in the day, popular makers of linen tea towels seem to have included:

  • Parisian Prints — this was the biggie, I *think*.
  • Kay Dee
  • Martex 
  • Tammis Keefe — glorious!
  • Vera Neumann — glorious!!
  • Fallani & Cohn (thanks, Janet!)
  • You also saw custom made as location-based souvenir towels and labeled as such.
  • And… as special event souvenir towels (thanks, J D!)
  • They also were sold as calendars. 
  • Who else made them?

In my collecting, I’ve picked up lots of roosters and chickens. 

Santas too. Put out novelty towels for the season!

Fruits and florals also were very popular.

I love vintage tea towels. How about you?

  1. J D Log says:

    I still use my vintage tea towels they are all Irish linen. They also record important events. I have one from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, The Commonwealth Games in Perth 1962 and when Australia converted to decimal currency in 1966. The new tea towels do not seem to absorb water and have shrunk in size. You just can not buy that quality new anymore

  2. lynda says:

    This is a very fun post. I love looking at all the cute towels. I have made towels out of huck toweling I ordered from JoAnn and then I stitch mid century modern fabric in a horizontal strip on the toweling. I give them as gifts. I have many for myself as well.

      1. Mary Elizabeth says:

        So, do you think that’s why they call towels “bath linens”? Do you suppose they all used to be linen instead of terrycloth? Anyone know a book on the subject of the history of bath linens?

    1. Melita says:

      I am so glad to see somebody else doing this! I have been using linen tablecloths as bathroom towels for a while now. And nothing dries the way linen does. After (linen-tablecloth)-towel-drying my hair, it takes a forth of the time to blow dry it. I use these beautiful tea towels to dry dishes, older larger ‘hand’ towels for anything else in the bathroom, the overused dinner towels that are not presentable for the dinner table as face towels. I use lighter/thinner tablecloths (often called ‘card tablecloths’) to dry vegetables and fruit before putting it in the fridge. I have replaced everything cotton with linen. That includes all towels, rags, sheets, clothing. T-shirts too. I only have a few cotton sweatshirts left, a cotton pair of pants for painting – walls, etc. I am not an artist 🙁 – and cleaning, and a couple of microfiber dust rags. Everything else is linen. (Ok, I kept a few cotton towels for visitors that question why there are tablecloths in the bathroom… And a group of holiday designed towels for that special holiday get-together. Otherwise, because I replaced all cotton with linen I have tripled the space in my closets and cut *considerably* down on the dust. Linen produces a very different type of dust that concentrates in fuzz type balls, very easy to pickup/vacuum.

  3. Allison says:

    Although I have a number of dish towels in my collection, which I also use daily, my real love is printed tablecloths from the 30s through the 50s. All the tablecloth manufacturers (who usually made sheets and towels as well) also made tea towels.

    As far as collectability, Tammis Keefe (who was a designer, not the manufacturer; look for her nifty hankies as well) and Wilendur probably top the charts. California Hand Prints is another to look for- simply gorgeous designs. Simtex and Martex were the biggest producers, but there were literally dozens of smaller houses.

    True mid mod designs are fairly rare in kitchen linens, snap them up when you see them.

    But my personal favorite tea towel? The NOS flamingos with the souvenir of Florida label; as they say on ebay… HTF!

  4. judy says:

    How much fun I’ve had browsing these lovely tea towels and then, browsing them again. My Mother had quite a collection of linen Christmas tea towels. She never used them, they were for “decoration only”. My Grandma, on the other hand, had nothing but linen tea towels, every variety of fruit in every combination of design possible with fruit; and she used hers! I remember many years of standing next to her, she washed, I dried and she would tell me about her week with her friends or who she saw when she went uptown. She would always remind me, “Use a separate towel for the glasses, I want them to be spotless.” That old soft linen could shine a glass like nothing else! I never knew I wanted some linen tea towels, until now.

  5. Carol says:

    Thank you for the post Pam, and thank you everyone for the lovely stories. This took me straight back to my grandparents farm. My beloved grandfather is gone. He was half Cherokee and he called me horsefly until he died in 1987. My grandmother is 95 and lives with my mom. She has 2 drawers in her kitchen full of these dish towels. She hasn’t lived in her house for 6 years, so my mom maintains it. They go over once a week to water plants and “check” on things. She has dementia and my mother has never suggested she sell the house. That’s either very sweet, or my mother just likes to collect real estate. We tease mom about it and she just smiles. It’s hard to let your roots go sometimes. I think that is the reason all of us collect things that remind us of home.

  6. Wendellyn Plummer says:

    Both my grandmothers had the calendar towels in their kitchens for years. I always thought they were curious and my mother did NOT like them! I found them beautiful and unique. Therefore, we never had one in our kitchen.

  7. meb says:

    How fun! I’m a sucker for PennDutch, and have hex sign inspired kitchen towels. Once our redo of the kitchen is complete, I hope to pull them out of storage.

    Have a link to image of one as my website link. Don’t know if you’ll be able to see it or not, but it was worth a try.

  8. Lawrence Merkle says:

    Hi, I also picked up unused kitchen towels at house sales and when I was looking for a Christmas tablecloth a couple of years ago in an overly packed credenza I found some of the towels one of them was designed by Tammis Keefe and I goggled her and discovered all the hankies she created and started to collect her hankies depicting buildings in US Cities. As many of your readers know one collection creates a new collection.

  9. Myra Horn says:

    We have been collecting linen calendar towels forever and now have about 80 at last count. I think the oldest is from 1956 and lots from 60’s and 70’s. Use them to dry dishes. Holiday ones very hard to find. Bought most at yard sales for 10-25 cents! Love them!

  10. Jamie says:

    My favorite brand for tea towels and tablecloths is Wilendur. My fave designer is Tammis Keefe who also designed under the name Peg Thomas. Someone (maybe Michael Miller or Moda) put out a line of her fabric designs in quilt weight fabric 6 or 7 years ago.

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