Our story begins in Ancient Greece when all food was consumed by hand. Spartans used a soft dough called an apomagdalie (apo-mag-dalie)in order to dab each of their greasy little fingers on as they ate. Every guest at the table had their own dough ball and when mealtime was over, they would feed them to the dogs. Good boy.
In the early Middle Ages, napkins all but disappeared from the table and diners used whatever was available—their cute little tunics, their hands, or a piece of bread. Soon after, cloth napkins were socialized again and a set of three napkins were used. The first was called a couch, about six feet by five feet placed along the head of the table. The second was called a surnappe, which translates to “on the cloth” because it was laid over the couch, indicating a place set for an honored guest. Anyone following this? The third, and most disturbing, was the communal napkin *screaming crying throwing up* which was draped along the edge of the table. Let’s continue.
Our next stop takes us to Italy in the 16th century where they were creating unhinged tablecloth sculptures called, “triumphs.” From what I can gather, Italians were having the time of their life in the 1500s: Poofy sleeves. Voluminous gowns. ADORNMENTS. This aesthetic carried into dining culture where they erected statue-esque centerpieces purely out of folded and starched linens. Think nature scenes, mythical creatures, and castles. There’s only a few of these wholly preserved in museums due to the delicate nature of the fabric. *googles napkin museum*
During the Renaissance, we see individual cloth napkins called serviettes begin to gain importance in fine dining. With these smaller, more personalized napkins came the art of folding them into elaborate figures because, duh. Notable creations include: Two-headed birds, dogs with fish bodies, and menacing crabs. Sure Grandma, let’s get you to bed.
In the late 1770s, for a brief time, napkins yet again, fell out of favor. Guests were allowed to wipe their mouths on the edge of the tablecloth. This didn’t last long because, gross.
China had paper as far back as in the 2nd century BC and were using paper napkins in the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD). Japan documents that paper was introduced by Korean Buddhist monks as early as 600 AD. But neither would reach the western world until 1887, when British company John Dickinson Ltd. purchased Japanese paper napkins which they printed their logo on and turned into souvenirs for commemorative events. Because, of course they did. These souvenir napkins became popular despite the creative hellscape of combining the delicate, Japanese designed borders with crude and bold advertising type.
Paper napkin usage didn’t fully take off in the US beyond souvenir collectables until the 1950s with the invention of fast-food and less formal dining in the home. This coincided with the invention of Television and TV dinners, pulling even more eaters away from their dinner tables and into more casual settings. Today, all bets are off. Yesterday, I ate tacos off of a dog’s frisbee I found in my car.
So, what’s in store for the napkin? I’m so glad you asked. Our next decade of dinner napkins will need to be sustainable, but also as absurd as the world we find outselves in. Here’s an idea: Cake is delicious and dense enough to sop up any juices that wander down your chin. And, you don’t have to feed it to the dogs after using because it’s covered in decadent frosting. Did a cake write this?