The origin and etiquette of the napkin goes back centuries.
The napkin’s development comes from a variety of cultures. The word originates from Middle English, 'nappe' from French, meaning a cloth to cover the table, and the completion of the word, 'kin,' meaning family and friends.
The napkin originated in Greece with the Spartans. They used dough to clean their fingers! Yes, a napkin by all definitions.
The Romans came next, using a small cloth to wipe one’s face. When guests attended dinners they would bring embellished linen or silk fabric to the host to place leftovers.
The Middle Ages saw the disappearance of the napkin as we know it. People began wiping their faces and fingers on their cuffs and jackets.
During the Renaissance the tablecloth was used to wipe one’s hands. In time the large tablecloth was fashioned into small individual cloths.
England in the 16th century used fine linen fabric folded in a diamond shape, the size depending on the importance of the event.
Around 1729 the gentlemen in the French Court would tie their cloth napkins around their necks to protect their collars. The highest ranking person seated at the table would have their napkin embroidered and placed to the left hand side of their plate. This person, upon opening their napkin, gave the signal that the other guests were to follow.
During the 18th century the fork became accepted for common use. With this, the napkin reduced in size to 30” x 36”. In modern times we use various sizes of napkins depending on the event: formal, informal, lunch, tea or drinks.
Interesting to note that the first published book on folding napkins was in 1639 part of a series of treatises on the culinary arts written by Martha Gieger, a German who worked as a meat carver in Padua and who “learned the art of napkin folding so well that he taught the subject at The University of Padua on the side.”
(Taken from 'The Beauty of the Fold' by Charlotte Birnbaum, available in our book section.)