The fascinating history of napkins

Ruth Griffiths

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.