New Home At The Geffrye Museum For Electric Tablecloth

By Corinne Field | 07 May 2004
Shows a photograph of a table with a patterned tablecloth. There are small lights in two rows of three illuminated.

Photo: the Parkins' illuminating tablecloth dates back to 1902. Photo by Corinne Field © 24 Hour Museum.

Do you remember the story we ran back in January about how a gentleman from Worthing was looking for a museum to house an unusual family heirloom?

Well Tom Parkin’s electric illuminating tablecloth has found a home at London’s Geffrye Museum.

Kathy Haslam, Assistant Curator at the Geffrye says: "It is quite rare to come across an item like this. Our staples are sideboards, wardrobes and cupboards.

"Because of the nature of the object it is incredible it has survived all those years and is still in working order. It is something of an oddity."

Shows a photograph of a man and a woman sat at a table with a tablecloth and three bulbs lit up and 'plugged in' into the cloth. The man is wearing glasses and a red shirt. The woman is wearing glasses and a pale blue polo neck jumper.

Photo: Tom and Roz Parkin used the tablecloth on special occasions like Christmas and birthdays. Photo by Corinne Field © 24 Hour Museum.

Tom inherited the tablecloth from his mother who was given it by an elderly friend back in the thirties. It is made of two layers of grey felt and, sandwiched between the layers, are a series of wires. Specially adapted bulbs plug directly into the cloth.

"I haven’t used it for about 10 years," says Tom. "But we used to use it every Christmas, especially when the children were younger."

Shows a photograph of an entry in a replica Army & Navy catalogue. It reads "Electric Illuminating Table Cloth. Is used as an underfelt and covered with a white table cloth. Care should be taken to use the 2-pin plugs across metallic lines on cloth, and not lengthways, it may be attached to floor or wall plug. No. 22 Suitable for table 4 ft by 6 ft... 68/3. 2-Pin Ivory Connectors for cloth... each 4/9. Other sizes to order.

Photo: Jon Narborough, Amberley Working Museum's Milne Electrical Collection Curator, found a reference to an electric illuminating tablecloth in a replica Army & Navy catalogue dated March 15 1907. Courtesy Amberley Working Museum

After the 24 Hour Museum contacted Kathy about the cloth in January she arranged to visit Mr Parkin and take a look for herself.

"When I got down there to look at it I couldn’t believe it, I imagined sockets but the whole thing is live,” she says. “It is just amazing. I was flabbergasted."

Shows a photograph of an ivory connector plug about 1 1/4 inches long. It is a stretched oval shape and has two pins, one at either end.

Photo: two pins, like drawing pins, simply 'plug in' to the fabric connecting to the live wires beneath. Courtesy of Amberley Working Museum

Last week Mr Parkin called to say the Geffrye had been to collect the tablecloth. When the 24 Hour Museum asked if he would be sad to see it go he replied, "No not really. I am just glad it has gone to a good home."

The Geffrye’s collection includes objects found in domestic interiors from middle and upper middle class urban homes dating from 1600 to the present day.

Tom’s Electric Illuminating Tablecloth fits absolutely with the Geffrye’s social profile. It was used in an upper middle class London home.

Tom has given the museum photographs of the interior of the house so that the object can be put into context. It is one of the reasons the Geffrye is so excited about their latest acquisition.

"We have archives of interiors but very seldom have an object that relates to a visual source," says Kathy.

Shows a photograph of an ornate metallic fruit bowl stand. It has two lit bulbs encased in a flower-like design. A glass bowl filled with apples and bananas is resting on the stand and a bunch of grapes hanging above the bowl.

Photo: Mappin & Webb fruit stand designed to 'plug in' to the tablecloth (the glass bowl is not of the period). Part of Amberley Working Museum's collection

For health and safety reasons it will not be possible to display the tablecloth with the lights on. However information about it may well become part of the Geffrye’s annual Christmas exhibition this year.

"What we might do," says Kathy, "is show it in tandem with the Christmas exhibition, as an 'object in focus' in the front case with a graphic panel."

In the course of our enquiries the 24 Hour Museum discovered that London’s Science Museum has a similar tablecloth in its collection but no longer on show.

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