Way back before eating utensils were invented, everyone ate with their fingers. Unless a person had very dry food, mealtime was a messy endeavor. People needed a way to clean their hands without wiping them all over their clothes. Enter bread dough.
The Spartans in Ancient Greece had the smart idea to dab their ten
little digits on dough to remove the grease. They called this
dough-napkin-thingy apomagdalie. Each person had a small ball of the
soft goodness to roll their fingers around on. At the end of the meal,
the used dough would be given to the dogs.
the dough-napkin was replaced with pieces of bread. As well as being a
napkin, the Greeks used the bread as a sort of fork and spoon to eat their food. A
tasty way to keep their hands clean.
Romans being a bit messier, even when eating with bread, laid out a
swath of fabric called a mappa on the reclining cushions, which served
to keep them free of food. The mappa was between the size of a large
napkin and a small tablecloth.
the Middle Ages, the napkin disappeared and diners were left to wipe
their hands and face on whatever was handy; back of a hand, a sleeve,
or piece of bread. During the Renaissance, individual cloth napkins
called serviettes became important in fine dining. With these napkins
came the art of folding them into the most elaborate things, including
two-headed birds, dogs with fish bodies, and crabs.
cloth napkins were introduced, some people must have figured if one was
good, three had to be better. This trio of napkins was about
four-to-six feet by five feet. Doesn’t sound much like a napkin, maybe
for the Jolly Green Giant. The first, called a couch, was placed
lengthwise along the table in front of the master’s place. The second, a
surnappe (“on the cloth”), was laid over the couch, indicating a place
set for an honored guest. The third was a communal one for everyone
else, draped like a swag on the edge of the table. In the following
image you can see the people in the foreground sharing this large
In the late 1770s, for a brief time, napkins fell out of favor, and guests were allowed to wipe their mouths on the edge of the tablecloth. This didn’t last long, and napkins were back to stay.
So then sometime in the 20th century, paper napkins were introduced, right? Wrong.
had paper as far back as in the 2nd century BC and paper napkins,
called chih pha, in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), but they didn’t find
favor in the western world. Although, in 1887, the British company John
Dickinson Ltd. purchased Japanese paper napkins which featured
delicately printed images (generally around the edge). Dickinson
overprinted logos on them, turning them into souvenirs. They were a mix
of delicate sophistication and commonly primitive images working
together to advertise for companies. Paper napkin usage didn’t really
take off in the US until the 1950s with the advent of fast-food
restaurants popping up and people eating in front of the TV. Also, Emily Post’s
pseudo-endorsement in 1948 helped. “It’s far better form to use paper
napkins than linen napkins that were used at breakfast.”
From bread dough to cloth to paper, napkins have had a checkered past.
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