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This Britain

Minor British Institutions: The tea towel

The tea towel is a fine example of the British approach to cheering up function with art of the robust kind.

It trickled down from its aristocratic and exclusively plain-linen-and-bone-china origins in the 1800s; by 1934 it was being mentioned in Lawrence's A Collier's Friday Night, and the country was drying its dishes on vivid scenes of castles, wild flowers and winning animals with big brown eyes.

In 1947, the present Queen's wedding was a natural subject, and another ancient tradition commenced, whose crucial importance was recognised when the sisters of a doubt-beset Diana pointed out that she had to go ahead with it because the tea towels were already on sale.

A lack of royal enthusiasm for being wiped with has continued up to this month's affair; the official tea towel, a terribly tasteful thing of coyly entwined insignia, contrasts violently with the jolly gaudy Tussaud-ish images of the happy couple offered elsewhere. Why would you want a dishwasher?