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The Saga of The Lowly Napkin

By LC Van Savage

       Used to be I’d put nice linen or fancy paper napkins on the table when it was time to eat. Dine. Whatever. But as time has passed and the kids moved on, Mongo and I eat, dine, whatever, in front of a good TV movie and in general, I strip a couple of squares off our roll of paper towel for our napkins, and that suffices. You too? I knew it.

       You know what’s coming, right? Right. I began to wonder about the history of napkins and guess what folks? There is one. And, lucky you, I’m going to tell you about it.

      Back in the day, whatever that means, they were not paper. It is thought that napkins began to be used around 500 BC in the Near East when the meals were gigantic and hours long. So, the napkins had to be pretty big too. They were like today’s towels. Folks didn’t use utensils all those years ago, so after using 5 or even all 10 fingers for getting food into the mouth, eeeuw, huge cloth napkins were necessary.

      The Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, ---you know, the folks who started lots of civilized things, wiped their greasy hands with towel-like napkins they called “serviettes” which sounds pretty French to me, but those guys came later. And along with the enormous serviettes, those three cultures also used finger bowls with water scented by rose petals and rosemary. The Egyptians however, had their finger bowls scented to complement the foods being served. They used spikenard, cassia, myrrh, orange blossom, cinnamon or almond. I don’t know what the first two are either, but the Egyptians apparently liked them. And finger bowls? Yes, the first time one was put in front of me in a fancy-shmancy restaurant I drank it. Oh come on, little kids do that. What do they know from finger bowls?

      You’ll never guess what happened during the sixth century BC during the reign of good old Tarquinius Superbus, and yes that really was his last name. He was, as we all know, the seventh and last king of Rome and he had his own ideas about napkin use. When King the Seventh threw a banquet blast, his guests were expected to wrap delicacies from the table in the big napkin and take them home. To not do that was considered bad manners. Thus was born the first doggie bags. Cave Canem.

       Jumping forward to the 1680s, we find that serviettes were things of artistic beauty; they became kind of cloth Origami. One folded in the shape of Noah’s Ark would be presented to a clergy person, small chicks for women, and shapes of fish, turtles, cattle, bears and rabbits were folded for the pleasure of the guests. Must have been hard to wipe gravy off one’s chin with something folded so artistically.

       And then came along the rollicking 1700s when the still-large serviettes were, direct quote here, used “for wiping the mouth, lips and fingers when they are greasy. Also to be used for cleaning the utensils after use.” It was suggested that if the hands were excessively greasy, proper etiquette required that one first wipe his or her hands on a piece of bread so as to not soil the serviette too much.

       I know you’re wondering when napkins began to shrink down to the size we use today. I can solve that for you. It was when forks came into everyday use in the 1800s. When forks were used to stab food and take it to the mouth, fingers remained clean, so the napkins could now be smaller since only the mouth needed de-greasing.

       And in case you’ve been wondering why those pieces of cloth became known as “napkins,” that’s easy. The word derived from the Old French “naperon,” which meant “little tablecloth.” The English got into the napkin act, gradually took the “e” out of the word and voila! The word “apron” was invented. So you see, the napkins we use from the roll of paper towel, or the packet of normal napkins, had a long and varied history; they were once table cloths, towels, aprons and even doilies. Alas, now the once venerated napkin is a piece of paper we use and toss into the trash. Interesting history, don’t you agree?

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