The fascinating history of napkins

The word “napkin” has a number of meanings in modern English. I decided to investigate the origins of this ubiquitous small piece of cloth.

The term “napkin”dates from the 14th century, in the sense of a piece of cloth used at mealtimes to wipe the lips or fingers and to protect clothing. The word derives from Old French nappe (tablecloth) from Latin mappa with the suffix kin (which is a diminutive).

The French also introduced the use of forks at the table. During the same era the English were stabbing roast beef with their hands and wiping their fingers in the hair of the dogs sitting at their feet. Sacré bleu!

Historians credit the Spartans with coming up with the concept of a napkin. They used a small lump of dough, called apomagdalie to wipe their hands at the table. Ancient Romans used the first cloth napkins at the table.

A napkin can also be a small cloth to protect garments, something like a bib. The cravat is a men’s garment worn around the neck, initially to minimize the soiling of a doublet (a short padded jacket).

Today a cravat is a form of neckwear that is worn with an open collar shirt, with the fabric tucked in behind the shirt to cover the lower neck and chest area.  Women used to wear a garment that served a similar purpose, called a fichu. In 18th century fashions, bodices were cut revealingly low, requiring a piece of cloth, known as a fichu, to cover a woman’s chest. Worn around the neck and crossed or tied at the bosom, fichus were either triangular or square in shape.

Squares of cloth have been used in many ways in North American culture. Think about the Texas cowboy with a bandana covering his nose to filter the dust on a cattle drive. My farmer father always carried a large cotton handkerchief that was supposed to be used to wipe his nose, but might be used to apply grease to the machinery, much to my mother’s dismay. Women of many cultures use a square of fabric as a head covering. Sailors often sported a piece of cloth folded into a triangle and knotted tightly about the neck.

A baby’s diaper is also referred to as a napkin by some people. When I hung diapers on the line, they were rectangular, but some of the older diapers were square and folded into a triangle before being pinned in front.

More recently, we created the sanitary napkin to prevent soiling of clothes during menstruation. They are now commonly called pads.

Ironically, disposable napkins were initially made for men. These disposable pads were developed by nurses in France to control the bleeding of the soldiers injured during battle. The first pads were made from wood pulp and bandages. The pads were very absorbent, and cheap enough to throw away afterwards. Commercial manufacturers borrowed this idea and the first disposable sanitary napkins for women were available for purchase in 1888.

Today we often use the terms napkin and serviette interchangeably when referring to an item used at the table.

Paper napkins originate in China, when paper was invented in the 2nd century. Chih Pha, folded paper square napkins, were used for serving tea. Today paper napkins have all but replaced cloth napkins except in the more expensive dining rooms. KFC was one of the first to introduce paper napkins, complete with advertising.

Planting with the Man in the Moon

Victoria Day weekend is traditionally garden planting time in this area. This year, the new moon is on May 19 so that should make it a great time to plant vegetables.

Some gardeners will already have early crops planted, but others will be waiting for the soil temperature to rise and moisture to fall, hopefully not as snow! Some people, like me, usually plant according to the calendar date, but for centuries, gardeners have planted according to the phase of the moon.

According to Canadian Farmers’ Almanac, gardening by the phases of the moon is a technique that can speed the germination of seeds by working with the forces of nature.

The theory is that plants respond to the same gravitational pull of tides that affect the oceans, which alternately stimulates root and leaf growth.  Seeds sprout more quickly, plants grow vigorously and at an optimum rate, harvests are larger and they don’t go to seed as quickly. This method has been practiced by many for hundreds of years and is a perfect compliment to organic gardening because it is more effective in non-chemically treated soil.

The lunar phase controls the amount of moisture in the soil. This moisture is at its peak at the time of the new moon and the full moon (which was May 5). The sun and moon are lined up with earth. Just as the moon pulls the tides in the oceans, it also pulls upon the subtle bodies of water in the soil, causing moisture to rise in the earth, which encourages germination and growth. Seeds will absorb more water at the time of the full moon.

The Victoria Day weekend is a good time to get root crops in the ground The three-day snowfall we experienced after Easter has me feeling a bit nervous about putting out tender plants such as tomatoes until the end of May. The next full moon will be June 3, perhaps a good time to set out your tomatoes and other tender plants such as cucumbers and squash that are easily damaged by frost. Our average last frost is May 21-31. So get out there and get a little dirt under your fingernails. And while you’re planting, give a little nod to the man in the moon … he’s smiling at you.

Column hits 26th anniversary

Mother’s Day is the 26th anniversary of my column in Rural Roots.

Rural Roots used to be published on Sundays, but lswitched to Thursday publication to accommodate production and distribution schedules. More recently, Rural Roots has become the Thursday edition of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.

Rural Roots was launched in 1990 by Barb Gustafson, who was its first editor. (She was later the Prince Albert Daily Herald Managing Editor and then Publisher.)  At the outset, Rural Roots was distributed free to 30,000 homes in North Central Saskatchewan. It’s an area that I know well, having grown up in Tisdale.

I moved to Prince Albert as a bride in 1969 and worked for a year in the laboratory at Victoria Union Hospital, before returning to classes in Saskatoon to finish a Bachelor of Science degree at University of Saskatchewan. I interned at the Prince Albert hospital and became a Registered Laboratory Technologist. My first job was in the lab at Prince Albert Medical Clinic.

After being at home raising babies for five years, I started work in 1981 as the Women’s Editor for the Daily Herald. I thought it would be for just a year or two, but I ended up working 29 years for the Herald. I was laid off in May 2010, along with eight other people, when editorial and composing functions were centralized in Moose Jaw. While I was working for the Herald, I moved to being Assistant City Editor, then City Editor and finally Rural Roots Editor in 1997.

During the years after my husband died, I became a certified fitness instructor. My first regular class was with seniors at the Heritage Centre. It’s an age group with whom I feel a special kinship. In 2009, I became the instructor for the Easy Adult Fitness program offered by the City of Prince Albert at the Margo Fournier Centre. A faithful group of women and men attended each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning to maintain their good health. I officially retired from leading this fitness class in December 2022, having achieved my goal of being one of the oldest certified fitness instructors in the province.

I continue to teach fitness in a much less vigorous style. I lead chair-assisted yoga classes twice a week.

Keeping fit allows us to continue everyday activities. Getting together with a group encourages us to keep coming out each week.

Writing this column has been a special privilege. I hope to be able to continue it for years to come.

May the 4th be with you

It’s Star Wars Day,  a celebration of all things Star Wars. As most fans know, the fourth day in May became Star Wars Day because of the phrase, “May the force be with you,” used by Jedi masters in the movies.

Since George Lucas created the original trilogy in the ’70s, movie fans have delighted in celebrating May 4 by dressing in costumes and binge-watching Star Wars movies.

Jedi Master Yoda once said, “Do or do not, there is no try.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to answer these questions about the Star Wars films.

1. What year did the first Star Wars movie come out?

2. What is the episode number of the very first Star Wars film?

3. What is the name of the first Star Wars film?

4. What is the name of Han Solo’s ship?

5. Anakin Skywalker grew up to be who?

6. The Lion King’s Mufasa and which Star Wars character were voiced by the same actor (James Earl Jones)?

7. According to Yoda, what is the path to the dark side?

8. What species is Chewbacca?

9. Which character said, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You are my only hope”?

10. Who were the star actors in the original Star Wars trilogy?



2. IV.

3.  Star Wars: A New Hope

4. The Millennium Falcon.

5.  Darth Vader.

6.  Darth Vader.

7.  Fear.

8. Wookiee.

9.  Princess Leia.

10. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford

Churches made my best travel memories

When visiting European countries, visitors often tour ancient cathedrals. They marvel at the architecture and ornamentation of these enduring houses of worship. Although educational, visiting these historic edifices can be as cold and impersonal as the stone from which they are built.

While vacationing abroad, I have been privileged to attend worship services at humble local churches. These low-key encounters were often the high note of my trip.

On the plane to Cuba, we met a United Church lay preacher from Manitoba. She found a Presbyterian house church in Varadero where we were welcomed for Sunday worship. The small congregation met in the pastor’s house and proudly introduced us to an octogenarian grandmother who was the only pre-revolutionary member. Many of the hymns we sang were familiar to us, although the four Canadians sang in English while the eight Cubans sang in Spanish. My husband’s high school Latin allowed him to identify The Lord’s Prayer when it was spoken. Meeting and worshipping with “real” Cubans was the highlight of our vacation.

After my husband died, I travelled with a group of friends to a spring event at the Girl Guides World Centre in Mexico. One of the tours we selected was attending Easter Sunday mass at a nearby church. We browsed the outdoor market that had been set up outside the church gates especially for that day. There was every kind of food imaginable for sale, including a donkey’s head! We marvelled at the mural made entirely of seeds (a universal symbol of fertility). Inside the church we were greeted with smiles and nods by the local people gathered to worship.

Many aspects of the church service were familiar to us, but there were some cultural differences. Girl Guides of Canada had told us to wear a hat on church, but an usher politely asked us to remove our hats as a sign of respect. Instead of music from an organ or piano, a trio of trumpeters played songs of praise accompanied by traditional drumming. Easter is the keystone celebration of the Christian year. We were privileged to celebrate that special day with local Mexicans.

Newfoundland is not a foreign country, of course, but it felt very far from home when we were stranded there for a week because of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001. Even now, my stomach churns when I remember that stressful time.

My husband and I had completed an enjoyable week touring up and down Newfoundland. We enjoyed meeting local people in our bed-and-breakfast accommodations. We stopped for a beer at a local hotel and chatted with the locals. Everywhere people were enthusiastically welcoming. We were on our way home and in our airplane seats awaiting takeoff when an ashen-faced steward announced, “This flight is cancelled; all flights are cancelled.” No one, including the flight crew, knew why flights were grounded. We found out by watching endless CNN coverage of the collapse of the twin towers in New York City. The three and a half hour time difference made it difficult to contact our teenage children and our work colleagues in Saskatchewan. An intense Atlantic storm kept the airport closed after other North American centres were returning to normal travel. On the Sunday after the 9-11 tragedy we attended the morning service at the downtown United Church in St. John’s. It was a sparse, elderly congregation but we discovered their warmth and humanity during the coffee hour. This church group (along with other church folk) had been providing hot meals to the hundreds of international travellers who were camped in the city’s sports stadium. Besides the solace of a familiar worship service, we were nurtured by the immediate friendship of these Newfoundlanders.

After the service, we walked through the harbour area, hoping to find a restaurant. We didn’t know that St. John’s strictly observed “the Lord’s Day”.  Without a cell phone, we wondered how we were going to find transportation to our airport hotel. We chatted with a couple who were just getting into their car and asked if they would call us a taxi. They did so much better than that. They toured us around the city and deposited us at our lodging. Along the way we learned that the wife was running for city council and this had been their first free time together for several weeks. And they gave their precious time to us! I have great memories of famous locations, historic buildings and fabulous entertainments enjoyed during my travels. But some of the most heartwarming memories are of the ordinary people I have met … often in a church.

Book sale springs up

Spring is in the air. The days are longer; the sun is brighter. It’s time for another sign of spring … the annual CFUW Book Sale

CFUW Prince Albert (often known as the university women’s club) will again offer its popular used book sale beginning April 21 at South Hill Mall. The annual book sale supports the community by raising money for scholarships for local high school graduates. It is also an opportunity for you to find gently used reading material and perhaps donate some treasured surplus books to the sale.

A huge influx of donated material is anticipated for the sale this year, so the sale hours have been expanded. As well as the usual Friday and Saturday hours, the sale will extend through the afternoons of the intervening weekdays.

Sale hours are Friday and Saturday April 21 and 22, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Monday to Thursday, April 24-27, noon-5 p.m.; Friday and Saturday April 28 and 29, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

After you have chosen your books you are invited to make a donation to the CFUW scholarship fund. In 2022, CFUW Prince Albert offered $5,000 in scholarships to Prince Albert students.

You are encouraged to bring your own reusable bags in which to carry home the books you discover at this much anticipated sale.

The CFUW Book Sale is assisted by South Hill Mall, the Optimist Club, SHARE and community volunteers. You can participate too by volunteering your time at the sale. Contact Gail Syverson at 306 764-3556.

The books, vinyl records and videos have all been donated so there isn’t any fixed price for them. You pick out as many as you want and pay what you wish. Proceeds of the sale fund seven scholarships for local female students. Customers have been extremely generous over the years, allowing the club to double the amount given to the high school graduates.

I have very much enjoyed being a part of the CFUW book sales. I always look forward to meeting people, welcoming their book donations and sharing in the pleasure of buying a new book treasure. I look forward to seeing you at the book sale.

Getting ready for our summer fair

What’s 140 years old and has the motto “Where Town and Country Meet”?

If you answered “Prince Albert Exhibition,” you are correct.

I recently attended a meeting of Prince Albert Horticultural Society which will again be hosting the agriculture and horticulture competitions at the local summer fair organized by Prince Albert Exhibition Association.

At one time, Prince Albert Horticultural Society held its own show a week or two after the Exhibition’s show. It was usually the same people who entered both competitions. The Horticultural Society no longer has the number of volunteers necessary to hold its own show, so they have taken over the PAEx show with the approval and consultation of the Exhibition Directors.

This year the Prince Albert Exhibition’s summer fair will be held Aug. 1-5. It is the 138th fair but the history of the organization goes back 140 years. Because of public health restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic, there were no summer fairs in Prince Albert in 2020 or 2021.

The local Agricultural Society was known as the Lorne Agricultural & Industrial Society at its inception in 1883. The Association was incorporated under the name Lorne Agricultural Society in 1887. In the beginning it acted like a local government. It later focused on educating and informing people about best farming practices and innovations in agriculture. To this end, short courses and summer camps offered training for young people. Women learned about the safe handling of milk and home preserving. And always, there were people like me who are passionate about gardening.

The Prince Albert Exhibition Association remains the oldest continuing Agricultural Society in Saskatchewan. It is one of the few summer fairs in Saskatchewan with a strong focus on agriculture at the centre of its activities.

To quote the PAEx website: The organization has always maintained an onward trend for the betterment of the citizens of the area, to ensure that its motto, Where Town and Country Meet, remains an accurate reflection of its purpose and activities. I am thankful for the generations of volunteers who have organized, directed and participated in our local summer fair. The Exhibition Ground is situated in the heart of our community. I am proud to have had even a small part to play in the ongoing success of this historic organization.

Why Easter hops around the calendar

Businesses depends on it, school calendars must accommodate it and vacation plans revolve around it, but the actual date for Easter hops around like a bunny.

Easter is the most important Christian feast but the proper date of its celebration has been the subject of controversy for centuries. In 325, the Council of Nicaea established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox.

In 1583, the Catholic Church began using March 21 under the Gregorian calendar to calculate the date of Easter, while the Eastern Churches have continued to use March 21 under the Julian calendar.

The earliest and latest dates for “Western” Easter are  March 22 and April 25. However, in the Orthodox/Eastern Churches, while those dates are the same, they are reckoned using the Julian calendar; therefore, on the Gregorian calendar those dates are April 4 and May 8. To further confuse the issue, occasionally the “Eastern” Easter falls on same date as the Western Easter. That will happen in 2025 when Easter is on April 20.

According to the Bible, Jesus held the Last Supper with his disciples on the night of the Jewish festival of Passover, died the next day (Good Friday) and rose again on the third day (the following Sunday). Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus on that Sunday.

The beginning of Passover is determined by the first full moon after the vernal equinox, which can occur on any day of the week. To ensure that Easter occurs on a Sunday, the Council of Nicaea therefore ruled in 325 that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. But there’s a twist: if the full moon falls on a Sunday, then Passover begins on a Sunday, so Easter is then delayed by a week to ensure that it still occurs after Passover.

To confuse matters further, the council fixed the date of the vernal equinox at March 21, the date on which it occurred in 325 (though it now occurs on March 20), and introduced a set of tables to define when the full moon occurs that do not quite align with the actual astronomical full moon (which means that, in practice, Easter can actually occur before Passover).

We celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, why couldn’t Easter be celebrated on a fixed date? Several churches, including the Catholic church, say they are open to the idea of setting the date of Easter in this way, but until there is widespread agreement, its date will continue to jump around within a five-week window. Hoppy Easter!

Historic events on this day

When looking for a column topic, I often search for significant events that happened on the day on which the column will be published. Here is a sampling of the many significant events on this day.

March 30 is the day in 1867 when the United States and Russia agreed to the purchase of Alaska.

Secretary of State William H. Seward secretly negotiated the land deal with Russian minister Edouard de Stoeckl for $7.2 million. Politicians and the press mocked it as Seward’s Folly, but the United States’ purchase of Alaska came to be regarded as a masterful deal. The treaty enlarged the United States by 586,000 square miles, an area more than twice the size of Texas, all for the bargain price of around two cents an acre.

Russians had harvested sea otters to extinction along the Alaskan coast and Russia found it difficult to defend this remote and now unprofitable territory because of heavy losses in the Crimean War. Russia did not want its rival, the British Empire, to acquire Alaska which led in part to its hasty negotiations with the United States.

Canada did not become an independent nation until July 1, 1867 when the British Parliament passed the British North America Act, creating the Dominion of Canada. Canada and the United States disputed the boundary of Alaska along the Pacific Coast for four decades. The coastal area claimed by the U.S. was a barrier for trade to the Klondike gold fields.

Today, many Alaskans are feeling isolated and neglected by the “lower 48 states”. An informal online poll suggests 80 per cent of Alaskans favour becoming Canada’s 11th province. It’s nice they were able to get their “two cents” in.

Other March 30 events include the first recorded passage of Halley’s Comet around our sun in 240 BCE. The large green comet can be seen with the naked eye. Its passage created fear and wonder throughout recorded history. In 1705 English astronomer Edmond Halley realized that these appearances were re-appearances of the same comet. As a result of this discovery, the comet is named after Halley. Because it returns every 76 years, Halley’s Comet is the only recurring comet that a person might be able to see twice in a lifetime. Halley’s Comet was last seen in Earth’s skies in 1986 and will return in 2061, so it’s not likely I will see it twice. Which leads me to the other important happening on March 30. On this historic day in 1949 your Rural Roots columnist Ruth Griffiths was born. (My joints are feeling particularly “historic” today.)

Teenager’s lab accident coloured our world

On this day in 1856 a teenage college student was playing around with chemistry in his home lab near London, England. It was Easter break from London’s Royal College of Chemistry and William Perkin, 18, was trying to synthesize quinine from coal tar. Instead, his lab accident produced the first commercial synthetic aniline dye which he called “mauveine”. This accident spawned a new synthetic dye industry that changed the course of the textile industry, turning them away from the use of natural dyes to producing dyes from coal tar.

According to the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, Perkin’s teacher had remarked on the desirability of synthesizing quinine, an antimalarial drug, which at that time was derived solely from the bark of the cinchona tree, grown mainly on plantations in Southeast Asia. Perkin filed his patent for mauveine in August of 1856 and a new dye industry was born. With the financial support of his father, a construction contractor, Perkin commercialized his discovery and developed the processes for the production and use of his new purple dye. In 1857 he opened a dye factory at Greenford Green, not far from London.

From this modest beginning grew the chemical industry of synthetic dyestuffs and its near relative, the pharmaceutical industry, which improved the quality of life for the general population. These two industries also stimulated the search for a better understanding of the structure of molecules. Perkin, at the age of 36, sold his business so that he could devote himself entirely to research, which included early investigations of the ability of some organic chemicals to rotate plane-polarized light, a property used in considering questions of molecular structure.

Mauve is a pale purple colour named after the mallow flower (French: mauve).  Perkin’s new synthetic dye is now usually called Perkin’s mauve, mauveine, or aniline purple.

Most of the dyes we use today are synthetic organic chemicals that are cracked from crude oil. These dyes are used to colour everything in our world today from the pills we take to the clothes we wear. What a dull world it would be if that young scientist had not made his accidental discovery 167 years ago today!