Furnishing the Linen Closet

Vintage linens

Most Victorian houses were built with a linen closet, well arranged to show the piles of sheets, pillowcases, and towels, as well as the table linen, each and all with a sachet bag of sweet lavender.

The manufacture of linen began at a remote date. The ancient Egyptians made it not only for their own use, but also for export. In all civilized communities, either linen or cotton is an important factor in the comfort and health of daily living.  In the Old and New Testaments there is frequent mention of fine linen. In olden times the bride came to her new home with a generous supply of linen, the greater part of which was spun and woven by her own hands; in many cases the flax was raised and prepared for the spinning wheel by her.



antique lace tablecloth

The possession of well-stocked linen closet was proverbially a great comfort to the mind of the Victorian housekeeper, and certainly every woman who liked to have nice things in her home took a great deal of pride in having pretty linen. Most Victorian houses were built with a linen closet, even though it could be a very small one, well arranged to show the piles of sheets, pillow-cases, and towels, as well as the table linen, each and all with a sachet bag of sweet lavender.

The Victorian era bride took great pains and pride in providing her household linen, many months being given to dainty sewing and embroidery. Each article had stitched into it many bright hopes and day dreams. One of the nicest wedding presents that could be given to the young lady was a stock of household linen, for to buy all that was required cost a great deal of money, and it was an expense that people felt they must sometimes go without when they had to provide it for themselves.


Bedroom at Arlington House displays period bed linens and antique quilts. [Image: Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]


Nothing else in the furnishing of the Victorian home had blended with it so many tender, loving thoughts, and to the woman of sentiment, it was more sacred than almost any other household possession.  Once acquired, this love for fine household linen would cling to the Victorian woman all her life, making it important to maintain a generous supply for her linen closet.  Today it is possible to find many of these treasured items in antique shops and flea markets. Because of the durability of the fabrics and the great care taken in storing these linens, these decorative treasures can still be used in the homes of today. What could be more enchanting than a collection of antique or vintage linens as a shower gift for a new 21st century bride?


antique linens


Imported Linens

Irish, French, Scotch and English table linens covered many grades, from the coarsest to the finest weaving and the most elaborate patterns.  By the late nineteenth century, many of the new designs were large, but in some of the choicest damasks it was still possible to get small patterns, if they were preferred. The damask sold by the yard rarely reached a higher price than two dollars and a half.  


Antique table linens grace a period dining room.


Damask tablecloth

Usually when buying the latest designs and the finest quality, it was necessary to buy the set—tablecloth and one dozen napkins. The usual width of the best table damask was two and a half yards or three yards in width. The tablecloths were from two and a half to four yards in length.  In these handsome cloths the border was deep, and the center was frequently perfectly plain.  Floral and conventional designs were popular. In 1892, The Ladies Home Journal mentioned one dinner set, which cost fifteen dollars, with a design of sections of bamboo stalks strewn over the surface.  In another, the bamboo formed small squares; and yet another pretty tablecloth was strewn with a ribbon scroll and some bell-shaped flowers. The latter set cost thirteen and a half dollars. The Ladies Home Journal also described several pretty sets in flower patterns—snow drops or leaves—cost nine and a half dollars.

antique table cloth and napkins
The dining room of the McFaddin-Ward House in Beaumont, Texas features a banquet size antique table cloth. The house was built in 1905-1906 in the striking and distinctive Beaux-Arts Colonial style. [Image: Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]

Tablecloths and Napkins

Damask tablecloth

The range in quality and price of table linen was greater than that of almost any other fabric. It was a long step from the fabrics that were so coarse, so loosely woven that they could be used for sieves, to the double damask, so fine that even under a magnifying glass it was almost impossible to discern the threads.  In the late Victorian era, one could buy three or four yards of the coarse fabric for about a dollar; however, it was possible to pay one hundred times as much for a dozen napkins and a tablecloth, three or four yards long, of the finer quality. But the average housekeeper did not go to these extremes.  The Ladies Home Journal was against a woman with a limited purse purchasing a mixture of cotton and linen; it was thought to be better to obtain a coarse all linen tablecloth than a fine one with part cotton, which would look attractive in the store, but could not be laundered well.  It was felt that the linen would improve with age and wear.


Damask tablecloth

Damask tablecloth


In purchasing table linen, the Victorian housekeeper would ask herself, “Will it be subject to hard wear, and be laundered by inexperienced hands? Can I afford to replenish it frequently?  Shall it be fine and beautiful, or less expensive but durable?”

By the end of the nineteenth century, the finest goods were Irish and French; but the German goods, while coarse, had handsome designs and still wore wonderfully well.  It was said that no linen lasted longer than the half-bleached damask—and if one lived in the country, it could be bleached to a snowy whiteness in a few months when drying outdoors.


Size and Quality of Napkins

Antique linens

Victorian etiquette decreed that a napkin should not be put on the table a second time until it had been washed. Few housekeepers, however, had the means to provide themselves with such a supply of napkins, not to speak of the laundress to care for them; so the napkin ring was a necessity in the average household.

It was important, however, that the supply of napkins was large enough to allow their being changed two or three times a week.  For general use a dinner napkin was preferred, unless a separate set of tablecloths and napkins were desired for breakfast.  In that case, the breakfast napkins were smaller than for dinner.  All napkins were finished with a plain hem, or were hemstitched.


Fringe was rarely used, except on fancy doilies. The plain, square napkin came in all sizes, from twenty inches up to the size of twenty-seven inches for dinner napkins; and they cost anywhere from one dollar and a half to fifty dollars a dozen.  During the 1890s, one could get napkins that were good enough for ordinary use at five or six dollars a dozen.  Whenever possible, the napkin would match the tablecloth.  A tablecloth could outwear two sets of napkins; therefore, the Victorian lady of the house would get two dozen napkins to each cloth.


Antique linens

Small, square or round doilies were used a great deal under finger bowls; also under Roman punch and sherbet glasses. These dainty bits of fabric were available in linen stores, and also in the stores where embroidery and materials for needlework were sold.  These doilies were either hemstitched or fringed. The embroidery was usually in washable silks, fine flowers or Dresden patterns being the choice; they also came in Irish point, Mexican work and various kinds of lace.  Larger doilies for bread, cake, or cheese were embroidered in white or colored silks, with appropriate mottoes.  Ladies who wished to do this kind of work for themselves, or their friends, would send to a stamping and embroidery store for a sample doily, and the materials for a dozen or more.  These doilies required washing and ironing with great care.  It was recommended to make strong suds with hot water and white castile soap; wash the doilies in this, and then rinse them in several warm waters.  Next, squeeze them very dry, and spread them on a clean towel, and cover another towel over them; roll up tight, and iron immediately.

Antique linens

Tea, Carving and Tray Cloths

For the small tables that were set for five-o'clock teas and card parties, there were many pretty and inexpensive cloths.  Plain linen, with a plain or double row of hemstitching, made a satisfactory cloth.  In 1892, The Ladies Home Journal listed the cost as about one dollar for a cloth measuring a yard square. Plain damask with hemstitching cost from one dollar and a half to two dollars a square yard; and one dollar more for a cloth measuring two square yards.  Some long damask cloths with open work borders and a fringe cost four or five dollars.  Small hemstitched cloths of linen and damask were available for carving cloths, tray cloths and center pieces. They cost from twenty-five cents and upward. These cloths were useful in protecting the table, and were made decorative by embroidery. Tea, carving and tray cloths were often made as Christmas presents during the Victorian era.


Sheets and Pillow Cases

Antique linens

The Victorian housewife was told that sheets should be of a generous length and width; never less than two yards and three quarters long, with the breadth, of course, depending upon the width of the bed. While linen sheets were desirable, they were not within the means of all housekeepers of even fair incomes. Cotton cloth made a most satisfactory year-round sheet, and a good quality could be purchased at from twenty-five cents to seventy-five cents per yard, the cloth being from two to two yards and a half wide.  The Ladies Home Journal said one could buy good sheets already made, two yards and a half wide, for one dollar and a quarter to one dollar and a half apiece.  It was always more economical to buy the cloth and make them at home, since making two hems did not mean much work.  


throw pillows

Unbleached sheeting could be made up, and then bleached on the grass.  It was recommended to buy unbleached cotton for servants' sheets and pillow cases.  In the 1890s, linen sheets three yards long could be bought for from five to fourteen dollars per pair.  Pillow cases to match sold from two to three dollars and a half per pair.  The finest were hemstitched.

To add unusual accent pillows to your decorating space, learn how to make pillows from scraps of old quilts. Old quilts in rough and worn condition can be recycled into beautifully crafted throw pillows, by those who how to make throw pillows, that preserve the labor and effort of the original quilter.


antique bed linens

"Button" bed made especially for Jefferson Davis while he was living in the First White House of the Confederacy displays period bed linens. [The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]

Bed Spreads and Blankets

During the late nineteenth century, the honeycomb and Marseilles spreads were almost universally used. They were sold in large quantities, and were popular because they only needed to be hemmed in order to be made ready for use. They did not wrinkle readily, were easily washed and kept clean for a long time. The Marseilles quilts cost from two to fifteen dollars and came in colors. Dimity was also used; it cost from two dollars and a half to four dollars and a half.  When one wished to make a bolster scarf to go with the spread, it was necessary to purchase a small spread and cut it in two.  Materials for spreads came in all sorts of fabrics.  Goblin cloth, and what was called basket cloth, both soft, were found two yards wide and cost about one dollar and a half a yard. These materials were made into spreads and bolster scarves; or, instead of the scarves, a round bolster could be covered with the material. These spreads and scarves were often embroidered in washable silks.  


Antique linens


Next to plenty of bed linen and towels, one of the essentials for the health and comfort of the Victorian household was the stock of blankets. Cotton batting comforters were inexpensive and warm, but extremely debilitating to the sleeper; and since they could not be washed, they were unsanitary, as compared with the woolen coverings.  It was recommended to use plenty of blankets instead, and wash them frequently. For people of limited means, blankets that cost from five to six dollars a pair were serviceable.  People also bought blankets that were made of part wool and part cotton. This was because they could be washed frequently without shrinking. It was best to select a smooth, soft blanket with white cotton-binding; the simpler the border the better for long term use.  When possible, the Victorian housewife would have a pair of summer blankets for each bed. These cost from three to ten dollars a pair. They could be washed as easily as a sheet, and were very comfortable in hot weather.  When blankets were not in use they were folded smoothly, pinned in sheets, and placed on shelves in the linen closet.


Bath and Bedroom Towels

Antique linensIn 1892, The Ladies Home Journal stated that nothing relating to the supplies of her house did the average housekeeper make so many errors as in the matter of towels.  The magazine felt that there was nothing so satisfactory for general use as the huckaback towels. They were excellent for absorbing water, and the slight roughness provided a friction that was both pleasant and healthful. They were hemstitched, and cost from twenty-five cents to a dollar and a half apiece, according to size and quality.  The goods could be bought by the yard if the lady preferred to make her own towels.  There were huckaback towels of fancy weaving, which, hemstitched, cost from fifty cents to one dollar and a quarter apiece.  Some of these were fringed, at thirty-seven and a half cents apiece. Damask towels, which were really more for show than use, cost from twenty-five cents to two dollars and a half.  Among other good bath towels were crash towels, at twenty-five cents apiece, and Oxford towels, something like huckaback, but very large— 26x50 inches—at one dollar apiece.  Imperial bath towels, which absorbed water like a sponge, cost a dollar apiece. Turkish towels made an excellent friction towel, and were within the means of all. They could be bought for even less than twenty-five cents, but it was not advised to purchase anything cheaper than twenty-five or fifty cents, as a towel of this kind should be large.


For Kitchen and Pantry

The Victorian housewife would always have a generous supply of kitchen and pantry towels in her linen closet.  Nothing was more satisfactory for glassware than the plaid linen towels. These were kept for silver, glass and fine china.  These goods came in stripes, and cost from twelve and a half to thirty-seven and a half cents per yard.  Fine Russian crash, when softened by a little wear, made the best kitchen dish towel. It grew finer and whiter with each week's use.  It was said that every kitchen should be supplied with half a dozen stove towels of twilled brown cotton crash cut into yard-and-a-half lengths and hemmed. Two of these towels were kept in the kitchen, and one washed each day. They were used in handling the pots and pans on the stove and in the oven.

The hand towels in the kitchen were soft and smooth. Frequent wiping on the rough Russian crash would make the hands red and rough, as this hard fabric scratched and did not wipe dry.  A twilled crash of cotton and linen, which could be bought from twelve and a half to fifteen cents a yard, made satisfactory hand towels. Source: The Ladies Home Journal, 1892; and Harper's Bazaar, 1896-1898.