Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Napkin Etiquette at Versailles

The Table Napkin — Curiously enough, that article now considered almost indispensable, the table napkin, was first used only by children and was only adopted by elder members of the family about the middle of the 15th century. In etiquette books of an earlier date than this, among other sage pieces of advice for children, are instructions about wiping their fingers and lips with their napkins. It seems that the tablecloth was long enough to reach the floor and served the grown people in place of napkins. When they did begin to use napkins, they placed them first on the shoulder, then on the left arm and finally tied them about the neck.—Youth's Companion, 1893

French Court Napkin Etiquette

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."



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