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Evolution of the Napkin

Think napkins are just for spills? Think again! Dive into the surprising history of this everyday item and see how it shaped dining, culture, and even the environment. Your view of the dinner table will never be the same!

Who hasn't used a napkin?

Everyone uses SOMETHING to clean him or her hands during and/or after a meal. A napkin is a piece of cloth for wiping the mouth and fingers, usually a small square piece of cloth or tissue paper used at meals. Napkins are essential today in dining around the world; however, they were not always available. Throughout history napkins have evolved to meet peoples' needs.

Beginning with a lump of dough, napkins slowly evolved into new forms. In ancient Greece, Spartans used lumps of dough to wipe their hands at the dinner table. In Rome, two types of cloth napkins began to surface. The first napkin was called a sudaria, a pocket-sized handkerchief used for blotting the brow. The second, called a maapae, was a large cloth used to cover the surface of where the individuals eating were seated. They were also used to wipe mouths and for wrapping up leftover food to take home. Then suddenly during the Middle Ages, cloth napkins vanished and anything and everything was used for cleaning mouths and fingertips alike.

During the Middle Ages, cleanliness of ropes was very important to society; therefore, hands were wiped on tablecloths. The tablecloth evolved with the custom transforming into a three-cloth spread over the table approximately 4-6 feet long and 5 feet wide. The first cloth, the couch, was laid lengthwise in front of the master's place. The second cloth, the surnappe, was a towel laid over the couch indicating the seat of an honored guest. Finally, the third cloth was a communal napkin hung from the edge of the table. With time, the basin with water for hand washing appeared and a servant would drape a cloth over his arm to provide a place to dry wet hands throughout the meal.

In the 16th Century, napkins were accepted as a dining refinement. Sizes of napkins varied depending on the event. Moving into the 17th Century, the standard napkin was 35 inches wide and 45 inches long. The napkin size was reduced in the 18th Century after the fork was accepted by all classes of society. At this time, the napkin was 30 inches by 36 inches in size. Around 1740, manufacturers began making matching tablecloth and napkin sets.

Today, the napkin is made in a variety of sizes and with many materials to meet every entertainment need: large for multi-course meals, medium for simple menus, and small for afternoon tea and cocktails. The transition from cloth to paper napkins began in 1887, when John Dickinson used paper napkins at a company party in the United States. This change remained unformalized until 1931 when Scott Paper added them to the American market.

Paper napkins are much more accessible than cloth napkins but there is a lot of controversy.

The benefits of paper napkins include:

  1. They are convenient because they eliminate the need to wash napkins, and they guarantee the user they will have a clean napkin.
  2. They are lightweight and easy to pack.
  3. Thick paper napkins are easiest to fold.
  4. They come in a wide variety of sizes, patterns, and styles.

And then there are disadvantages:

  1. They consume natural resources and pollute landfills.
  2. They are bleached with chlorine and may contain dioxins and other toxins.
  3. They are thin, tear easily, may not absorb well, and may be abrasive to the skin.

Limiting the use of paper napkins minimizes environmental waste, and using napkins from recycled paper and/or cloth napkins.

Napkins have become essential for dining and are used by almost everyone. Starting with the Greeks with dough, moving to Rome with the first cloth napkins, and evolving from tablecloths to personal napkins that are nowadays even from recyclable material is the evolution of the napkin. Napkins are essential today in dining around the world; however, they were not always available so throughout history, napkins have evolved to suit people accordingly. Different sizes of napkins are used in different types of meals, and different materials are used to make them. They have colors and some even have elaborate patterns and designs.

Napkins are an art of their own class. They can each resemble whatever a dinner host has in mind and are the perfect final touch to make every table look magnificent.


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