In Roman antiquity, napkins known as "sudaria" and "mappae" were made in both small and large lengths. The sudarium, Latin for "handkerchief," was a pocket-size fabric earned to blot the brow during meals taken in the warm Mediterranean climate. The mappa was a larger cloth spread over the edge of the couch as protection from food taken in a reclining position. The fabric was also used to blot the lips. Each guest brought his own large mappa "napkin" and they became the first known "doggy bags" as guests leaving a Roman dinner had their mappa filled with leftover delicacies from the enormous feasts to take home. With the fall of Roman Empire, napkins disappeared from the dining table.
Napkins returned to adorn the dining table many centuries later and the classic painting Last Supper from 1464-1467 AD by Dieric Bouts depicts the use of napkins on the dinner table. The use of the napkin in Europe began in 1400 on the tables of royalty, where they started to use napkins made from warm or even perfumed cloth. By the 16th century, napkins were part of rich dining experience and came in many sizes, known by various names like diaper, serviette, touaille (towel) depending on the size and intended use.
The art of napkin-folding in Europe began in Italy. The most popular, were those that were resembling animals. The folded napkins, or "serviettes", caught the eyes of all fashionable British, after the Restoration. Samuel Pepys wrote in 1669 in his diary, of a grand dinner held. The day prior, he wrote of having a caterer come to lay the table cloth and fold the napkins.
17th century saw the use of big sized napkins measuring 35" by 45" inches to help accommodate the needs of eating with bare hands instead of spoons and forks. The size reduced when forks and spoons were accepted as part of regular dining experience in major parts of Europe in the 18th century including Great Britain.
The 17th century also saw French come up with elaborate rules for nobility class which included instructions on napkin usage, a predecessor to modern day napkin etiquette, including the one which instructs the guests to not use the napkin for wiping the face or clean teeth or worse, rub one's nose.
The French court imposed elaborate codes of etiquette on the aristocracy, among them the way to use a napkin, when to use it, and how far to unfold it in the lap. A French treatise dating from 1729 stated that "It is ungentlemanly to use a napkin for wiping the face or scraping the teeth, and a most vulgar error to wipe one's nose with it." And a rule of decorum from the same year laid out the protocol:
"The person of highest rank in the company should unfold his napkin first, all others waiting till he has done so before they unfold theirs. When all of those present are social equals, all unfold together, with no ceremony."
Fashionable men of the time wore stiffly starched ruffled collars, a style protected while dining with a napkin tied around the neck. Hence the expression "to make ends meet." When shirts with lace fronts came into vogue, napkins were tucked into the neck or buttonhole or were attached with a pin. In 1774, a French treatise declared, "the napkin covered the front of the body down to the knees, starting from below the collar and not tucked into said collar." Margaret VisserNapkin rings or "serviette holders" began in the Napoleonic period in Europe. The rings were used mainly by upper class families as a way to identify which napkin belonged to what family member. At the beginning of the 1800s, napkins became part of the bourgeois lifestyle, mostly to protect the sumptuous dresses of the period during meals. The art really took off around 1880 with the incoming prosperity of the Industrial Revolution. One etiquette book advised "one should, if possible, avoid taking the bones into your mouth and when removing any, should shield your mouth with your napkin."
|A napkin folded into a kimono with the chopsticks tucked in for the diner to pull out for use.|
"Dinner over, the housemaid removes the plates and dishes on the tray, places the dirty knives and forks in the basket prepared for them, folds up the napkins in the ring which indicates by which member of the family it has been used, brushes off the crumbs on the hand-tray kept for the purpose, folds up the table-cloth in the folds already made, and places it in the linen-press to be smoothed out.
After every meal the table should be rubbed, all marks from hot plates removed, and the table-cover thrown over, and the room restored to its usual order. If the family retire to the drawing-room, or any other room, it is a good practice to throw up the sash to admit fresh air and ventilate the room." Mrs. Beeton
In 1860's "The Ladies' Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness" by Florence Hartley, Mrs. Hartley recommends one bring a pincushion to a dinner party for use with the napkin:
"Sit gracefully at the table; neither so close as to make your movements awkward, nor so far away as to drag your food over your dress before it reaches your mouth. It is well to carry in your pocket a small pincushion, and, having unfolded your napkin, to pin it at the belt. You may do this quietly, without its being perceived, and you will thus really save your dress. If the napkin is merely laid open upon your lap, it will be very apt to slip down, if your dress is of silk or satin, and you risk the chance of appearing again in the drawing-room with the front of your dress soiled or greased." Florence HartleyAnd Arthur Martine's book of etiquette from the same period, gave advice on napkins and finger-bowls:
“Finger-glasses are generally handed round as soon as the viands are removed, but they are intended merely to wet the fingers and around the mouth. When the finger-glasses are passed, wet your fingers in them and then wipe them upon your napkin. The habit of rinsing the mouth at table is a disgusting piece of indelicacy, which is never practiced by any well-bred person.Upon leaving the table, lay your napkin beside your plate, but do not fold it."In 1895, George Rippey Stewart lamented the British and their habits on the use of napkins:
“It is a matter of regret that table napkins are not considered indispensable in England; for, with all our boasted refinement, they are far from being general. The comfort of napkins at dinner is too obvious to require comment, whilst the expense can hardly be urged as an objection. If there be not any napkins, a man has no alternative but to use the table-cloth, unless (as many do) he prefer his pocket handkerchief— an usage sufficiently disagreeable.”In 1911, Agnes Morton, in her book "Etiquette," wrote about napkins:
“Napkin rings are discarded by many who hold that a napkin should be used but once, and must be re-laundried before reappearing on the table.
Practically, such a fastidious use of table linen would exhaust most linen supplies, and overcrowd the laundry. The neat use of a napkin renders this extreme nicety superfluous as a rule of home dining, Care should certainly be taken to remove all soiled table linen. Nothing is more disgusting than a dirty napkin, but the snowy linen that comes spotless through one using may, with propriety, be retained in the ring to be used several times. This, of course, refers to every-day dining at home. On formal occasions no napkin rings appear on the table; the napkins are always fresh, and used for that time only. At the close of the dinner they are left carelessly on the table; not rolled or folded in any orderly shape.
Small fringed napkins of different colors are used with a dessert of fruits. Fancy doylies of fine linen embroidered with silk are sometimes brought in with the finger-bowls; but these are not for utility, the dinner napkin doing service, while the embroidered 'fancy,' a dainty bit of effect to the table decoration.
|Origami flower folded napkin in the plate for the first course.|
Modern Day Napkin Etiquette
Paper napkins can be flimsy, so it is okay to use more than one. In a pinch, a paper towel can be used as a napkin.
Napkins are never a part of your clothing so do not use your shirt sleeve or shirt tail to wipe your mouth with.
Napkins can never be dipped in your water glass to then wipe your face with, once you are old enough to eat on your own.
Tablecloths are no longer napkins. They were at one time in history, but that was very long ago.
Your wrists and the backs of your hands are not napkins.
A napkin stays on your lap the entire time you are seated to eat. If you have to leave the table for a moment and others are still eating, your napkin goes on your seat until you return.
Napkins do not go back on to the table until everyone at the table is finished eating.
Paper napkins can be crumpled and put on your plate when you are done, if the plate will be thrown away, as well. Cloth napkins go beside your plate, to the left.
Unless you are part of the family, do not put your napkin back into a napkin ring unless you have been advised to do so by your host or hostess.
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber is the Site Moderator and Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia