History of the napkin

Posted by Jo Jeffery on

From dough to rabbits and more, discover the weird and wonderful history of the napkin

When were napkins first used?

The first napkins weren’t made of cloth or paper. They were actually edible. The Spartans in Ancient Greece would use a dough called apomagdalia to wipe their fingers. Next up, the Romans introduced the ‘mappa’, a large cloth they would drape over themselves while reclining and eating.

Meanwhile in the Far East, the Chinese, having invented paper in the second century BC, started using small folded pieces of paper when serving tea. Known as ‘chih pha’, these were the true descendant of today’s paper napkin.

Who invented the napkin – a tall tale

Some people credit Leonardo De Vinci with inventing the napkin. This seems to stem from a story about the Duke of Milan. The story goes he was in the habit of tying live rabbits to guests’ chairs to wipe their hand on. DaVinci didn’t approve and so handed out pieces of cloth to fellow guests to use instead. While DaVinci was definitely a master inventor, the source has been revealed to be a book published on April Fools Day.

Even so after many centuries of people eating with their hands and wiping them on anything that came to hand, a version of a fabric napkin did make its appearance in the Middle Ages. Only to disappear from many tables with the introduction of the fork from Italy in the 17th century which took the mess out of eating.

To make ends meet

Today we associate the phrase ‘to make ends meet’ with earning just enough money to live on. Yet some sources suggest it’s a reference to how a napkin was used in the first half of the 18th century at the French Court. Here men would wear shirts with stiff, ruffled collars. To protect their clothing, napkins were tucked in the neckline and around the neck with the ends meeting.

When did we start using paper napkins

In the late 1800s when British Firm John Dickinson Ltd brought back some souvenir printed napkins from Japan. However, they didn’t widely catch on until the 1950s when their convenience was recognised. Last year Talking Tables sold six million napkins, a testament to their enduring popularity. You can shop them here.



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