On a tour from Australia to the states my wife asked me to stop at the gift store and buy memorable fridge-magnets and tea-towels. Everywhere I went, none of the store attendants seemed to know what the latter was. My question is: What is the American word for 'tea-towel'?
I guess they are called:
a rectangular piece of absorbent cloth (or paper) for drying or wiping
A tea towel or drying-up cloth (English), or dish towel (American) is a cloth which is used to dry dishes, cutlery, etc., after they have been washed.
In 18th century England, a tea towel was a special linen drying cloth used by the mistress of the house to dry her precious and expensive china tea things. Servants were considered too ham-fisted to be trusted with such a delicate job, although housemaids were charged with hand-hemming the woven linen when their main duties were completed.Tea towels have been mass-produced since the Industrial Revolution.
Ngram - BrE: dish towel/tea towel/drying-up cloth/dishcloth.
Ngram - AmE: dish towel/tea towel/drying-up cloth/dishcloth
(from Wikipedia): Towel.
I am American and familiar with "tea towel", but I think more commonly you'll see them called "kitchen towels". I would be surprised to find them in a gift store - they don't strike me as very collectible items. That may be the larger cultural disconnect.
As an American, I can tell you that we have many different absorbent materials in our kitchens. Here's an inventory of ours, along with the typical uses.
- Dish towel - always kept clean of food or hand contamination, used only to dry clean dishes after washing them. Sometimes known as flour-sack towels, they are flat, 100% cotton. They are often printed with a design, or occasionally embroidered for decoration. These are what you would likely call tea towels.
- Kitchen towel - multipurpose towel used for hand drying, counter drying, and absorbing food or drink spills in an emergency. Generally thicker than a dish towel, often made of a terry cloth. These tend to be more utilitarian, and generally not as decorative as a dish towel.
- Paper towel - disposable paper towels used for many of the same purposes, but also for cleaning up non-food messes (dog accidents, mud, heavy grease, etc) where there is no desire to contaminate a food prep towel.
- Dish rag - A small towel used for scrubbing dirty dishes.
- Sponge - Almost all kitchen sponges are artificial, made of open-cell foam. Larger ones are used to absorb large quantities of spilled liquids, smaller ones are used to hold a soapy mixture for scrubbing dirty dishes. Some sponges may have a non-abrasive plastic mesh on one side for aggressively scrubbing baked-on foods from pots and pans.
- Scrubbing pad - often called by a brand name, such as a Brillo pad or a Scotchbrite pad, these are a stainless steel mesh and are used to aggressively scrub baked-on foods from pots and pans.
Mirroring John Deters' answer, here is an inventory for the British kitchen (well, Home Counties English - I'm sure there are further local variants):
- Tea-towel, or drying-up cloth - [=JD's Dish towel] clean, thin, absorbant, passed from generation to generation until disintegrating. Commemorative pictures, flowery patterns, rude phrases.
- Hand towel - towel for drying hands, when in the kitchen. Made of terry cloth, fluffy, plain.
- Kitchen towel, or paper towel, or kitchen paper - paper towel, on a roll. Only with patterns if you have some sort of obsession or spend too much time in the supermarket.
- Dishcloth, or J-cloth - a cloth, generally damp, used for wiping dishes during washing. And for occasional worktop spills. Required to be blue or green and white gingham pattern by laws of decency.
- Sponge - yes. Usually with scouring pad on the top.
- Scourer - green, scratchy flat cloth, used to remove stubborn things from metal pans. Capable of destroying the nice china, non-stick surfaces. Sometimes a brillo pad or other metallic pad instead, or as well if enthusiastic.
- Bridget brush - plastic-fronded brush with a long handle, for attacking pans, jugs, glasses that are hard to clean with the sponge/scourer; often non-stick friendly. Best ones are pink.
- Bottle brush - wire-bound brush with radial fronds and a long handle, for poking inside bottles where nothing else fits. White, and for those over 45 only.
The problem with America is it is so wide spread that we don't always call items by the same name. We have pop, soda, and coke for referring to a carbonated soda depending on where you are from.
I have heard of tea towels all my life but I have heard then called wash clothes, cheese cloths (even if that isn't technically correct), hand towels, and kitchen towels. You might have better luck if you ask them if they carry any kitchen items or items used in the kitchen. It might at least get you in the correct part of the store.
I hope you are having a lovely trip here.
This must be a very regional occurrence to call it a "tea towel" here in the United States. I have lived in California, Arizona, and Connecticut and have NEVER heard it referred to as a tea towel. Washcloth, dishcloth, dish towel, hand towel, kitchen towel, and dishrag are the only ones I have used or heard to it referred to as. If any of the previous posters would kindly put in their state of residence, it would go a long way in figuring out the state by state peculiarities. I have never personally made a distinction between the one used to dry a dish versus the one used to clean, as my family has always used sponges for actually cleaning the dishes so the cloth was always for drying. Now we just use the dishwasher 99% of the time.
I felt the need to chime in here, as I thought there were some interesting responses. Tea towel is most certainly a term used here in the US. They are commonly given as gifts, especially for weddings, and are often hand embroidered with flowers, monograms, etc. A keepsake item. The term has the same usage as British English. However, they may not be as common a souvenir item. If you go into any kitchen store or home decor gift shop, they will most certainly know what you are talking about. On the other hand, a souvenir shop that sells magnets, etc. isn't likely to have them. And if you're at a large retail store (or being attended by a younger person,) it's quite possible they won't know what you're talking about, but most kitchen sections will have some option of linen tea towel, albeit plain.