A fine linen napkin is an essential part of formal dining and a great indicator of the attention to detail that signifies exceptional standards. Napkins, both today and yesterday, carry with them a strict napkin etiquette.
How much, however, do you know about the use, history and etiquette of napkins?
- For most of history, even as late as the 19th Century, guests would be expected to bring their own napkin. Table linens of all kinds were expensive and often mentioned in wills.
- Until the 17th Century, most people ate with their fingers, specifically the right hand, thumb and first two fingers. It’s a popular misconception that napkins were used to wipe the fingers clean of food; they were, in fact, used to dry the fingers after rinsing them in a bowl of water brought by a servant.
- The Romans had two kinds of napkins. The ‘Sudaira’ was about the size of a modern handkerchief and used to mop the brow, whilst the ‘Mappa’ – a much larger napkin the size of a modern pillow case was used to both protect the host’s upholstery and to be pressed to the lips, if needed.
- In the later eastern Roman empire, as dining moved on from couches to tables with guests sitting around, the earliest napkins were long stretches of cloth sewn to the table cloth and draped around the edge. Such table setting is often seen in early depictions of the Last Supper.
- Napkins have always denoted status, not just because they were expensive to buy but also to maintain. Before modern washing machines and chemicals, maintaining a pristine whiteness was difficult and costly. Lye (from ashes), urine, and sunlight were used to clean and whiten table linens, which often had to be stretched on frames to dry, and then pressed in special ‘linen presses.’
- Napkins were often folded in elaborate ways before placing in the linen press, so they had an intricate network of formal creases when they dried.
- During the 16th and 17th Centuries, napkins came to the fore and got much bigger and more elaborate. Specially woven napkins were often made for weddings and other occasions, with commemorative designs usually seen as a gift from the host to each guest. During this era, napkins got much larger to cover the era’s highly elaborate dress.
- When expensive ruff collars were worn, huge napkins were tied around the neck, covering the ruff collar. This gives us the expression ‘making ends meet.’
- These enormous napkins lead to the introduction of napkin folding for a surprising reason. Folding the napkins using a series of complex pleats meant these huge napkins (often the size of a small tablecloth) could be ‘shrunk’ to a size more suitable for the table.
- The napkin ring was introduced in the 19th Century and was used to mark out your napkin so it could be reused the following day, but only in a domestic, family setting. In some more money-conscious homes, guests staying overnight would be given a napkin ring so they could be given the same napkin at breakfast the next day. For these reasons, even today, napkin rings are not considered part of formal dining in Britain.