Why in the world would Henry Ford Museum collect an inexpensive plastic table cover made in the 1970s for use on an outdoor picnic table? Some might think this plastic tablecloth is "tacky" and inappropriate for a museum to collect. We think this piece is a great addition to our collections. This plastic table cover "says" as much about the lives of present-day Americans as exquisite pieces from times gone by.
Museum curators think hard about collecting objects that reflects the ways our lives have changed
over these eras, from the Colonial era, to Victorian times, past the two world wars and into the present. We research the objects that come into our collections so that we can help visitors learn about the people who made and used these objects.
What can we learn from this plastic tablecloth made in the 1970s?
- "Recent manufacture:" plastics are largely a 20th century material made of synthetic materials-indicating the piece is not too old.
- "Imported:" this cover reflects the shift of goods made in the U.S.A. to those manufactured in a foreign country. So many of our inexpensive goods aren't produced here in the United States because labor costs are high. This is an important issue that affects our workers and our once-vital manufacturing communities.
- "Marketing:" it was made to appeal to Americans who wanted to celebrate the "Bicentennial," or the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Products from soap holders to license plate holders were emblazoned with patriotic graphics. If you look carefully at this table cover you can see a version of A.M. Willard's painting "The Spirit of '76" painted just after the Centennial celebration of the founding of this country in l880.
- Suburban summer dining: this table cover was used by a suburban Iowa family who used it on their picnic table for summer meals during the Bicentennial. Wooden plank picnic tables became very popular in the 1950s--so many suburban homes had one in the back yard. We imagine what sat upon this table cover--hot dogs with onions and relish, hot corn, watermelon, some chocolate cupcakes and Kool-Aid.
As you have your Fourth of July picnic this year, take a look around your table. What does your food, your plates, your tablecloth, even the table, say about you and the era in which you live? Martha Stewart or cheap paper plates? Ethnic foods cooked by diverse family members and jumbled together for a delicious meal? Low fat or low carbohydrate? Whatever it is you eat, and eat off of, it says so much about you. Oh, and watch out for the ants.