A long towel, the two ends of which are sewed together so that it can be hung upon a cylinder of wood, over which it may roll; – called also roller-cloth and roller. — Jack-towel: a long narrow towel with the ends joined together, and suspended on a roller; generally fixed behind a door. The roller is called a jack, a name frequently given to anything which supplies the place of a boy, as a boot-jack, etc.
Always supplying a dry spot for the wiping of hands, the roller towel hanging in the hotel in Tracy, Minnesota, was a novelty to Laura Ingalls in By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 4, “End of the Rails”). Any towel hanging on a peg or bar might have served the purpose of drying freshly washed hands and faces; the fascination of a long towel with two ends sewn together and hung on a bar must have been in the length of the towel loop and the fact that it stayed put!
A roller towel was made by sewing together the narrow ends of a long (two yards or more) piece of toweling and running the towel bar through the loop before hanging. The idea was that only clean hands were dried upon it, so the towel itself stayed fairly clean. The towel air-dried in place, and its length helped assure that a dry spot could be found by multiple users. The photo at right shows a roller towel on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Pepin, Wisconsin. Note the seam across the front, showing where the ends were sewn together.
At the time the Little House books were first published in the 1930s and 1940s, readers would have been quite familiar with the public washroom “continuous loop” roller towel in its white enamel cabinet. These “modern” fixtures did the roller towel one better by providing yards and yards of drying surface. Pulling the towel with two hands provided a clean, dry surface from one bar while drawing the soiled linen into the cabinet, where it wrapped around a second bar. These towels weren’t a sewn loop, but were one long towel.
It seems strange to speak of the roller towel as a convenience, when it should be considered a positive necessity in every well-ordered household, yet there are many more kitchens without them than with them in some parts of the country— the cook substituting her work apron, or, worse, a dish towel, to wipe her hands upon. A roller and fixtures can be bought ready to screw into the wall. ix towels is a bountiful supply for one roller. Buy a good quality of linen crash, making each towel two-and-a-half yards in length; sew in a seam and fell neatly. Roller towels that have been in use a few months make the best tea towels, as they are soft and pliable, a quality by no means to be despised. Cut in two, hem the edges and again supply the towel drawer with new roller towels. In this way the drawer can be always supplied with strong towels for kitchen toilet purposes, as well as soft ones for the dishes. — The Weekly Wisconsin (May 13, 1889).
roller towel / roller-towel (FB 2; SSL 4; TLW 16)