The FACES gallery was greatly enhanced with the addition of a new member to the family. We have been honored with a wonderful donation of a linen, or screw press that will be on continual display in the front gallery. The press was made in Belgium in the mid to late 1800’s and is a gift from Dr. Baronne Ghislaine D. Godenne.
Maybe you are thinking that it is a wonderful sight to behold. But mostly, you are probably wondering what in the world it is for? The term linen press is commonly used to refer to a linen cupboard that is similar in size and stature to an armoire. But the linen press of this type does more than store the household linen. With the textiles carefully sandwiched between the individual boards, it applies pressure to the textiles, between the boards, using a large screw to push down on the cloth. Much like our steam iron and ironing board of today, the linen press allows you to get that crisp, flat look to your table clothes, napkins, and other decorative textiles.
We can now of course ask the next question on our minds: when did people actually use these? Evidence of the use of these types of presses stretches back as far as Roman times with examples being found in the murals of Pompeii. However, they were at their height of use in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, when examples could be found throughout Europe and the Americas.
Another question that may come to mind is: why does the thing look so darn pretty? If its’ modern equivalent, the ironing board, is tucked away, in the modern home, why would our ancestors need such a functional domestic tool to look nice? The simple answer is status. Showing off not just the linen on your table, but of all the backups as well would make the neighbors fairly jealous. With this in mind it was often placed in the corner of the dinning room, displaying all the other beautiful items you own, so that even the Joneses would know that you had it all.
Finally, you may think that all that is great and interesting, but why on earth did they bother? There are really two answers to that question. First, the shine the pressed linen gave was dazzling; far beyond what we can achieve today with our fancy dry cleaning techniques and steam irons. The flatter you can get those little linen fibers, the shinier that they become. Secondly, the creases were to die for. Who wants creases? Everybody, that’s who. Note Jan Steen’s painting The Merry Family, look at that table, and two things jump out; the fact that there is a Persian rug on it (topic for another blog, perhaps) and the perfectly creased linen, on top of the rug. Creases like that don’t just happen they are pressured into appearing there. After use on the table, the linen would be shaken free of debris and refolded exactly, to maintain the grid, and put back into the press.
FACES is sorry to announce that the donor of our amazing linen press, Dr. Baronne Ghislaine D. Godenne, passed away on December 7, 2013. Her generous donation has been greatly appreciated by many of our visitors and students. The history of textiles can be told in so many ways, but it is with objects like this that we can truly appreciate the power of something as simple as a tablecloth and napkin. We will continue to honor the part of her family that is now in our care. A wonderful obituary on her contributions to the advancement of adolescent psychology can be found here.