Monday, 19 June 2017

The White Cloth Napkin

I was leaving the exhibition On the Edge - Israeli Paper, when I came across this sweet display of "bete'avon" ("bon appétit") cloth napkins made by Had-Ar. Had-Ar was a small family business set up in the early 1940s by Stenia Veroslavsky, a remarkable woman who had emigrated from Poland at a young age, seeking new business ventures in Palestine.
Stenia and her husband, Moshe, began by producing handkerchiefs and napkins, which were sold by peddlers who made the rounds on the streets of Tel Aviv. It was a time when people carried stiffly-ironed handkerchiefs in their pockets and cloth napkins were always on the table. Schoolchildren used them for their 10 a.m. snack. According to the rules of etiquette at the time, they were told to spread a cloth napkin on their desk before eating their sandwiches and apples. Stenia and Moshe, who managed the technical aspects of production, and their children, took part in cutting, stamping and packing the items on the family's kitchen table. The first childhood memory of Ilan Lavi (Veroslavsky), who was born in 1943, is piles upon piles of coloured handkerchiefs in his parents' living room in Givatayim. The job of Ilan and his sister Varda, who was four years older, was to pack the cloth handkerchiefs into bundles of 12.
Over time the business grew, moved out of the house, and was set up in a rented hut in Givatayim. A decade later it moved to a building in Ramat Gan. In 1960, a factory outlet store was opened on the Jaffa-Tel Aviv Road and Varda and Ilan joined the family business. The production methods developed, and the factory commissioned the illustrations that decorated the tablecloths and napkins from artists. Some of the artists were relatives, among them Stenia's son-in-law, the graphic artist, Jack Jaget. Cloth calendars, printed tembel hats, aprons, special mats for the stove and refrigerator, covers for challot and tablecloths were all added to the inventory.
The factory employees - peaking at about 20 workers, most of them women - became part of the family. Stenia ran both the factory and family with an iron fist - Moshe passed away in 1960 - but she was known to be generous and created a fun atmosphere.
Had-Ar’s "bete'avon" napkins are an interesting bridge between Israeli and European culture. Whilst there is something universal about them - napkins and handkerchiefs are very common items, and the ones made by the family were even sold at Macy’s department store - there is also something pioneering and Israeli in the choice of subjects and 
illustrations. The naive illustrations embodied the way in which Israeli society wanted to see itself in those days; families making the blessing over the Friday night candles, children leaving on a hike, riding their bicycles and skipping rope in the park, the building of the country and the Jewish Holidays. The napkins were screen printed in four colours. The technology, which was limited at the time, did not allow the use of a large number of colours, or complex and irregular shapes.
Had-Ar's items were sold throughout the country for decades, and till today can be found in numerous homes. Inevitably, the factory closed down in 2007, when it could no longer compete with cheap imports from India and China. Stenia Veroslavsky died in 2013 at the age of 97, leaving behind crates full of textile products she had produced over 65 years. Ilan's daughter-in-law was one of the curators of this exhibition.
As an interesting aside, the history of napkins is fascinating. In ancient Rome, diners used two napkins: One was fastened around the neck; the second was meant for wiping one’s hands and wrapping leftovers, which were brought home by the slaves.
During medieval times, hosts didn’t provide napkins for the guests, who usually wiped their hands on the tablecloth. Licking greasy fingers or wiping your hands on your clothes, on the other hand, were considered a blatant violation of good 
Napkins used during and following the classical era were huge, almost as big as present day bath towels, and were meant to protect the diners from stains and grease.
In the absence of a fork, and at a time when people ate only with a knife, people were 
constantly getting their clothes dirty. Only when the fork came into the world did napkins become smaller, being placed discreetly on the diners' laps or on the table in front of them.
The birth of the fork also signalled the beginning of the paradox of napkins in modern Western culture; Napkins are meant to remain almost clean (a napkin is used to gently dab one’s mouth at the end of the meal, leading to the modern preoccupation with decorating and folding them), an almost unreasonable demand in light of the original purpose.

* This post has been shared on Seasons, Amaze Me Monday, Inspiration Monday, The Good. The Random. The Fun., Monday Morning Blog ClubMake it Pretty Monday and Wordless Wednesday (on Tuesday).


Tamar SB said...

Those are so beautiful!

Jackie Mc Guinness said...

What a fascinating story and display. I would love to see this.

Miss Val's Creations said...

What an interesting exhibit! I love reading about inspiring business stories like this. I never thought about the history of napkins before. It is funny how something that seems mundane to us today has such a fascinating past.

NC Sue said...

They're lovely! Too lovely to use!
Thanks for continuing to share at

Carol @Comfort Spring Station said...

A wonderful display and I love the table linen.

Anonymous said...

What a fun post, Lisa! When you mentioned that it was an interesting blend of European and Israeli endeavor, my thoughts wandered off to the 12 tribes - you are the only one who is connected in all directions of the globe! Many thanks for sharing this lovely exhibit. 97 year old - I can't even imagine that age! Have a beautiful week!

Lili Sulastri said...

Interesting story behind the Napkins. Great post.

Mia said...

So nice and interesting!

Su-sieee! Mac said...

Thanks for sharing photos of such a neat exhibit. And the history behind the napkin! It inspires me to sew more needed cloth napkins for us.

Rose said...

I was at your blog earlier today but could not concentrate enough to read this...but just now read through it and thoroughly enjoyed this post.

Quinn said...

Such colorful and interesting items! Thank you for sharing so many pictures. I'm very keen to try my hand at fabric design, and just have to get my courage up to make an investment in some samples. Thanks for reminding me :)

Anisa said...

I have not been to Hull yet, but it is definitely on my list. Its impressive it is the city of culture. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

Carol @Comfort Spring Station said...

I'm so glad you spent time with your Dad - that is important. Great post.

Jayne SMABL said...

What an interesting story and such a pretty display. Thanks so much for sharing it with us over at #MMBC.

Hope to see you Monday :)

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