Though the need to “dry off” started with bathing, scholars say that the towel is a Turkish invention which originated in the 17th century. Prior to that time, cloth used to dry oneself did dual duty as cloaks or other clothing. The towel came to western society because of industrialization but the history of the beach towel is much shorter.
Known as a “pestemal,” the original Turkish towel was a flat, woven sheet of linen or fine cotton which may have originated as part of a pre-wedding bathing ritual for the bride. The pestemal was long and narrow, made to be wrapped around the body and may have included hand embroidered markings. Decorations with embroidery were replaced by increasingly vivid, bold or intricate patterns in the weaving. As use of the towel spread, weaving of the towels became more like the weaving of rug – and were nearly as expensive.
By the 18th century, double-layer towels with “loops” from one of the fabric layers became standard and were called “havly” which meant “with loops.” Over time, the shape of the towel changed slightly, becoming less narrow as the “havlu” known today. Turkish towels, woven in the traditional manner are still highly prized today.
The towel became a mainstream affair in the 19th century. The development of the cotton trade and industrialization made production of “terry-toweling” affordable. Towels became available as cloth yardage or in a “pre-made” form. As people became more familiar with towels, varying sizes and shapes were constructed for the hands, face and body – and for the kitchen. Consumers have demanded that towels used for the bath become thicker and heavier. Today, we consider a bath towel which is denser to be of a higher quality, and as the thickness increases, so does the price.
Coco Chanel and her tan
Up until the 1920s, “tanned” skin was associated with the farmer and the labor class. The wealthy could afford to stay indoors while the lower classes were exposed to the sun. In addition to modesty purposes, women’s clothing was designed to preserve pale skin.
Coco Chanel may have been responsible for the association of tanned skin with the rich and famous and – inadvertently, for the invention of the beach towel. The fashion designer reportedly got a sunburn at the French Riviera, causing her skin to darken. Fans adopted the look – and darker skin became fashionable. Bathing suits got smaller and time spent lying on the beach, necessitated a ground cloth. Towels were needed at the beach but the bath towels available in most homes were hardly large enough to lay upon and many dragged blankets to the beach along with the towel.
Combining a towel with a tarp
Clearly, there was a need for an article that could be used as both a blanket and a towel. Likely, someone had traveled to Turkey and become familiar with Turkish towels but import of havlu would be unreasonable. There was already a robust trade of bath towels in the U.S. and some brilliant soul figured out how our regular terry cloth could become more like a havlu.
With loops only on one side, the beach towel is thinner and lighter than the bath towel but constructed differently than the havlu. The beach towel is first made with loops on both sides, but those on the top side have been shorn off. Our “beach towel” meets a middle ground between thick bath towels and the much flatter, havlu. It is economical, durable and can be decorative – but most of all, it serves both of its purposes.