Danger High Voltage! Edwardian Electric Tablecloth Uncovered

By Corinne Field | 23 January 2004
Shows a photograph of a table with a patterned tablecloth. There are small lights in two rows of three illuminated.

Photo: The Parkin's illuminating tablecloth dates back to 1902. Photo by Corinne Field © 24 Hour Museum.

Have you ever heard of an electrical illuminating tablecloth? No? Neither had we until a man from Sussex called last week.

Tom Parkin from Lancing is looking for a new home for his extraordinary, turn-of-the-century innovation and asked 24 Hour Museum to help him find a museum that might be interested in displaying it.

"Years ago, back in the thirties, it was given to my mother by an elderly friend," says Tom. He has no idea where his mother’s friend got it from though he believes it originally came from a wealthy family.

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

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 use the tablecloth on special occasions like Christmas and birthdays. Photo by Corinne Field © 24 Hour Museum.

London’s Science Museum has a similar tablecloth in its collection, on display in the Domestic Appliances Gallery until 1990 but now in storage. They date their tablecloth, made by Henry Cooper of Bakewell, around 1902 to 1905.

The museum's file notes state that it was an "unusual novelty item" that would have been "lethal if liquid were spilt on it".

And it is not difficult to see why. Made of two layers of felt with a series of wires sandwiched between them, Tom, who uses it with the aid of a 12-volt battery, thinks it is rather like an electric blanket.

Small lights, essentially bulbs on wooden stands with two pins underneath, like drawing pins, simply 'plug in' to the fabric connecting to the live wires beneath. Tom still has eight bulb holders and some of the original bulbs.

Photo: Only one of the crepe lampshades that Tom's mother had made before the war survives. Photo by Corinne Field © 24 Hour Museum.

Although the first electric light was demonstrated back in 1878, Britain's first National Grid was not introduced until 1926 and it wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that electrical household appliances were introduced.

So an electrical illuminating tablecloth would have been a great talking point at dinner and would have seemed incredibly cutting edge in Edwardian times.

According to the electrical curator at Amberley Museum, John Narborough, who found a reference to the tablecloth in a replica catalogue for the equivalent of Army and Navy, such items would have been popular with the upper classes.

John says, "When electricity was new, well-to-do hotels, clubs and wealthy people at home wanted to show off electrical light".

Photo: Wires run along the lined part of the tablecloth and the lamp pins plug straight into the fabric. Photo by Corinne Field © 24 Hour Museum.

He was quick to point out that the electrical illuminating tablecloth was not the safest of new ideas but that pre-1930 there was no legislation, code of practice or industry standards governing electricity and the sale of electrical items.

Tom says he doesn’t remember ever having spilt any liquid on the table, which is pretty lucky by the sounds of things. I certainly wasn’t going to risk putting my teacup down on it.

Because it is made of felt, the tablecloth is susceptible to moth attack and needs to be carefully looked after so Tom has decided to donate it to a museum. “Our children don’t want it and it’s better than putting it in a skip,” he explains.

Mr Parkin’s tablecloth has both intrigued and baffled some of the curators that we have spoken to but several museums have expressed an interest in acquiring it.

We'll keep you posted on what happens so watch this space!

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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