Do you know what a linen press is? I thought I did – a specially designed cupboard used for storing household linen which today is often replaced by the airing-cupboard – right? It turns out that’s only half the story – a linen press was originally exactly that – a contraption with flat planks and a screw designed to press your sheets and tablecloths, while still slightly damp, into smooth flat perfection, complete with much prized sharp edged folds. We know the Romans had them because they found a wall painting of one in Pompeii and they lasted
well into the 19th century.
The fibres in linen become smooth and shiny when pressed and having crisp folds in your household linen was considered a bit of a status symbol as it meant you could afford to have a press. As this desire to show off developed presses became increasingly ornate and were placed in the dining room as a piece of must-have furniture. Table linen was repeatedly used, shaken and replaced in the press as washing was tedious and drying in northern countries could be even more of a chore. Larger households had other, plainer presses which they stored in the service areas of the house. I have often wondered why Renaissance paintings of scenes such as The Last Supper always depict deeply creased tablecloths. Now I know – it was not about slovenly staff but, au contraire, the dictates of fashion. Glad we don’t have to go through all that fuss now.