Friday, May 6, 2011

The humble napkin

Napkins are one of those elements of etiquette that are completely practical: they keep your clothes and (in a pinch) your face clean. They were even more useful to our ancient ancestors, whose mealtimes resembled miniature baths.

Let's talk about cutlery first. Forks first appeared in 11th century Tuscany, where they were rejected by clergy and others who said that humans were meant to use their fingers while eating. Wealthy Tuscans ignored that advice, and eventually others followed suit — thought it took about 100 years for forks to be commonly accepted there.

Forks remained a novelty everywhere else until around the 18th century, with the French leading the way in using forks as a symbol of nobility. What did people use instead of forks? Knives, spoons, and their hands (showing good manners meant using the first three fingers instead of all five, avoiding using the ring finger and pinkie —talk about dainty!).

So you see, napkins were an absolute necessity to keep hands clean throughout a multi-course meal.

As you might expect, napkins used to be quite large—about the size of today’s bath towel. Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks used these extra large napkins along with flower- and herb-scented finger bowls, or small bowls with water. Have a bite, get your fingers wet, towel off.

Once forks became commonly used, there was less of a need to practically wash your hands at the dinner table, and napkins started getting smaller - the perfect size to keep in your lap.

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