Little Bitty Pretty Ones: Vintage Risque Towels

These vintage towels are not only pretty, they’re a little sexy!

Often labeled as “risqué” towels, these fun vintage linens were popular in the 1940s and were placed in guest bathrooms.

When I saw these first I thought they were made by those loving hands at home and just reveled in the image of proper 1940s housewives having a little fun by making these and feeling a little scandalous.

I have since seen many of the towels, and cocktail napkins with similar designs, with original labels and price tags and know that, while they were made completely by hand, they were made by experts, probably as part of the Madeira linen tradition, which was begun on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the 1860s. Madeira linens are known for exquisite quality of materials and handwork.

So, I had to re-vamp my mental image, from women making these and feeling scandalous to, instead, spending their egg money on them and feeling scandalous. Not much of a difference when it comes right down to it!

To me, in the 21st-century, when our ideas have changed about what defines titillating, these towels are a charming reminder that a sense of humor and a love for a little fun know no era. I display them in my guest bathroom, as my foremothers might have, and smile every time I see them!

Cocktail (Napkins), Anyone?

cock tailIf I were going to start a new collection of vintage linens (and I’m not!), it would be cocktail napkins.

They are so small, easy to store, and utterly, utterly perfect. They speak of attention to detail and elegance of a time gone by.

Because a cocktail party is a special, showy occasion, cocktail napkins tend to be special and showy as well. And just as cocktail parties can take different tones, so can the napkins. Some are arch and clever, some are a little naughty, some are self-consciously elegant.

All of the napkins are designed to be noticed and to communicate about the party-giver.

Many, many of the napkins reference the point of the party—drinking. Roosters are extremely popular on cocktail napkins, presumably because of the connection with the “cock’s tail.”


Elegant “cocks” on super-fine fabric, with handmade lace

red blue roosters

Jaunty printed “cocks”

Other cocktail napkins depict all aspects of drinking. You’ll find designs of glasses and liquor bottles.

Madeira linen glasses, with tiny red cherries

Hand embroidered on linen, with tiny red cherries

Madeira bar accessories!

Madeira bar accessories!

You’ll also find pink elephants

pink elephant

A pink elephant, hugging his cocktail

and fish that are drinking like fish!


Partying goldfish!

A whole subset of cocktail napkins is the risqué or naughty category. These turn up on eBay and Etsy pretty regularly and can be very expensive.

One napkin, two views

One napkin, two views

Four girls with padding

Four girls with padding

A woman in a bottle

A woman in a bottle

Another direction in cocktail napkins is that of sheer elegance and opulence. These napkins were used as a way to demonstrate taste and refinement.

pastel F mono naps-5

The tiny “F” monogram is created by hand-pulling threads

These napkins are the finest-quality and most perfect I’ve had my hands on. The linen is like gossamer and the monogram “F” has been added, not with embroidery, but by drawing and tying those tiny threads.

The napkins pictured in this post were all wrought by handl. This work is not “hands at home” but, rather, done by experts and highly prized.


Madeira hand applique on organdy

Because of their appeal and craftsmanship, cocktail napkins can sell for pretty crazy prices, especially the very detailed ones that are cheeky and whimsical. But you can also get lucky and find wonderful surprises at tag sales and thrift shops. These superb napkins with embroidered champagne glasses came from an estate sale in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

my champagne

Tiny stitches form the champagne glasses and bubbles!

And the F monogrammed napkins shown above were thrown into a mixed lot in an eBay auction.

So, keep your eyes open and see if you can add some fabulous cocktail napkins to your life! Or, if you just like looking and enjoying the glimpse into a bygone era, feast your eyes on this specialty shop, as well as this one!