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11/12/2014 08:00 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

What The Heck Are Tea Towels, Anyway?

Like their dining room doppelgᅢᄂnger the cloth napkin, tea towels are a workhorse if we've ever seen one. And while their uses around the house are varied, so is their history -- a lesson we learned when we set out to answer the question: WTF is a tea towel, anyway?

What we suspected -- that tea towels have something to do with tea; that despite their weird, not-so-absorbent material, they're meant to be used as a drying tool in the kitchen; and that their presence in souvenir shops probably belies some more noble roots -- held true, to a degree, when we asked Diane L. Fagan Affleck, a consulting curator at the American Textile History Museum, for her thoughts.

"A tea towel seems to be what I would term a dish towel," Affleck explains. "The difference between what this kind of dish towel and what a lot of people think of is that it’s a flat-woven fabric made from linen (earlier) and cotton (more recently)," she adds. And one thing is clear: "It is definitely not a terry towel."

According to Affleck, early 20th-century household manuals sometimes call them "glass towels" or, more simply, "towels." Earlier catalogues use terms such as "crash toweling," to indicate the grade of linen used, and "damask toweling" to explain the patterning. "Kitchen towels had a long history of being flat-woven rather than terry cloth, so the use of the term in a generic fashion is not surprising," Affleck says.

In an article from textile trade magazine Weaving Today, tea towels are said to have originated in 18th-century England, where "the lady of the household would use them to dry fine china and delicate tea sets, jobs that were considered too important to trust to potentially clumsy servants." They were also often used as a way for said "ladies" to show of their embroidery skills.

By the 19th century and early-mid 20th century, a glass towel or dish towel would likely have been a striped or checked cloth so that it was decorative as well as useful, according to Affleck. These days, they come in all manner of adorable designs, like the eight we rounded up here.

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