The Jewish signature tablecloths of Western Pennsylvania
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Material cultureFinding history in ordinary objects

The Jewish signature tablecloths of Western Pennsylvania

Embroidered names speak to an almost forgotten tradition

Kittanning tablecloth

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. When Susan Melnick, former director of the Rauh Jewish Archives, led me in 2014 to the first one I ever saw — from my family’s synagogue in Homestead — I was confounded. Why did it exist? Who had the crazy idea to labor over something so beautiful — and put food on top of it?!

And then over the following year, six more turned up from Aliquippa, Donora, Uniontown, Ambridge, Latrobe and Adath Jeshurun of Pittsburgh. Three of them were new donations to the Rauh that showed up at the perfect time. Two of them had been in the archives for some time, overlooked until Susan knew to check. Only one remains with its original congregation, Beth Samuels in Ambridge.

And still they keep turning up — B’nai Jacob in East Liverpool, B’nai Israel in McKeesport and Na’amat in Pittsburgh — plus documentation of others, now missing, that were created in Kittanning and in Pittsburgh at Poale Zedeck, Tree of Life, the Jewish Home for the Aged and the City of Hope.

I now know of about 15 local Jewish signature tablecloths. All are long, white pieces of fabric. 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.

What had initially seemed so odd to me was actually once popular across the region’s whole Jewish community. And yet, unlike most of the curiosities I’ve rediscovered in my research journey, there was no prior scholarship to explain what I had found, not even a blog post or a tweet from someone else who had fallen for their charm. My friend Gena Philibert-Ortega, a specialist in family heirlooms, recognized the tablecloths’ resemblance to signature quilts, a craft that emerged in the mid-19th century as a way for communities to honor departing friends or to fundraise. The earliest evidence I can find for this practice crossing over to tablecloths dates to California in the 1930s. Rebecca Migdal, an expert in American material culture, explained to me over a Passover seder that this change may relate to the Colonial Revival design movement also in the ’30s.

In Western Pennsylvania’s Jewish community, 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 embroidery was arranged to keep family members’ names together. The tablecloths I’ve rediscovered were initially created in the 1940s and 1950s, though many were updated for decades after.

To me, these tablecloths convey the values of the world in which they were created more poignantly than any written records. They point back to the social structure of the mid-century Jewish communities in our region, in which reliable cohorts of women filled their hours with volunteer work that kept their communities going; in which people regularly socialized through formal sit-down dinners, often prepared by these women, to support the many community organizations they belonged to; and in which these people and their events proudly adopted the trappings of American middle class life. In such a setting, these tablecloths were useful and elevating, and the labor to create them not daunting. The strangeness they have since taken on speaks volumes about how much our community has since evolved, for better and for worse.

But mysteries remain. Just how many existed in our region? Was their extreme prevalence in this region’s Jewish community unique?

Here is where you come in, dear reader. Do you, like the Weinberger family who brought the Homestead tablecloth to life for me with their memories of (grand)mother Hazel making it, have your own recollections of such tablecloths from your community? Do you have pictures of them in use? Or do you have in your possession an actual undiscovered tablecloth in the wild? Please contact me via TammyHepps.com/contact. I would like to weave your contributions into the larger story of these tablecloths and the hardworking women who created them.  pjc

Tammy A. Hepps is the creator of the local history project HomesteadHebrews.com. You can view pictures of all of these tablecloths at TammyHepps.com/tablecloths.

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