As the holiday season begins to sneak up on us, I’d like to share with you a little history and ideas for table setting and presentation over these next few weeks. While these are not necessarily categorized as ‘interior design.’ They do lend themselves to custom décor that, by nature, is pulling together the perfect attributes to create a wonderful environment.
This is something we all aspire to when the holidays are in sight. Whether it is a wonderfully set table or a perfectly decorated mantle, we want to insure we are doing things “just so” for these special occasions and for those that gather with us to celebrate.
I took Latin in high school back in the day. I believe it was required. The way Latin language was taught was via (by way of) a series of stories about the gods of the Roman Empire.
The vocabulary in Latin class taught us word origins and those vocabulary words melded with those fanciful stores exposed me to some of the cultural customs we are still using today.
When setting a table, there are basic items that are required. Plates, utensils and napkins. Of course, building onto this basic place setting for multiple courses and side dishes will require multiple utensils, side plates, butter dishes, etc, but for this discussion, let’s concentrate on one of the most basic table-setting items – the napkin.
Napkins & Latin – the History
The very early beginnings of the napkin were a simple lump of dough the Spartans called ‘apomagdalie’, a mixture cut into small pieces and rolled and kneaded at the table. This prompted the custom of using bread to wipe the hands.
In Roman antiquity, the mappae and sudaria were made in both small and large lengths. The former, sudarium, is Latin for ‘handkerchief” was a pocket-sized fabric used to blot the brow during meals taken in the warm Mediterranean climate. The mappa was a larger cloth spread over the edge of the couch as pretension from food eating in a reclining position. If you’ll recall from any Roman Empire movie you’ve seen, the guests are lying about eating and drinking rather than seated at a dining table. The mappa was also used to blot the lips.
Guests brought their own mappa when attending a feast. When they left, their mappae were filled with delicacies leftover from the feast. This custom is one that continues today as the modern day ‘doggie bag.’
As time marched on, the napkin continued to be used but changed in size and how it was utilized at gatherings. Whether it was available to all as a communal cloth or presented by a servant to honored guests, it has been ever-present since.
Folding napkins dates back to the Middle Ages to indicate a servant’s rank at Court. Draped over the left should indicated a high rank, similar to today’s Maître’s D, verses over the left arm for a lower rank, as in today’s waiter.
The first cloth napkins were created in Reims, France. Reims, being renowned for their fabrics, wove the linens to tell a story, and flax was the fiber most often used. The Italians, preferred, a finer cloth and with that created a Damask fabric, which was later introduced with the fork to England.
The trend became viable in Europe especially throughout the royal courts. It was King Louis XV of France who introduced the formal dining table with place settings using utensils and individual napkins folded in half and placed on ones lap to the knee, as they are used today. It was custom that the highest-ranking member of Court unfolded their napkin first, followed by the host, and followed by the remaining guests.
But beware; a folded napkin with the point facing a Monarch would have depicted an assassination attempt.
Napkins Go Viral
Linen was considered more valuable than furniture to the early American Colony settlers. George Washington’s great grandfather inventoried 10 old Virginia cloth napkins, which at the time, was an incredible amount to own. Mr. Washington was accustomed to dining in the English traditions, including his love for teatime which dictated yet another type of napkin.
For a short time in the late 1770s the napkin disappeared and using a communal tablecloth to wipe ones mouth was back in fashion, but alas, with the onset of fashionable hostesses, the napkin fast reappeared.
It’s interesting but as the rules of etiquette became more structured, napkins became smaller. Napkin sizes were created based on the need and the meal. Napkins became fashionable and a sign of wealth using different and richer fabrics, embroidery of the family’s monogram or crest and the ideal napkin ‘wardrobe’ was born.
A napkin wardrobe consisted of service for 12 and included a multi-course napkin, buffet or single lap dish napkin, simple dinner napkin, luncheon, tea and finally cocktail napkins. Wonderful new fabrics were employed; gold stitching was used to identify a formal or special occasion. This custom holds true today at dinners of State at the White House and official receptions worldwide.
Napkins should never be scented. Formal tables have one correct placement for a napkin and that is to the left of the plate. The napkin should be folded with the open edge to the right and the closed edge to the left. NO exceptions.
In the early 19th Century the napkin ring was created. Since napkins along with the rest of the laundry were done weekly or even monthly, one would use their napkin for multiple meals. Each member of the household had their own napkin ring where their napkin was placed and set aside for the next meal.
Today napkin rings and fancy folding are still a viable part of table setting, but today they are more often used to create a decorative, holiday table versus a practical every-day one.
Using Napkins Today and Everyday
Napkin folding is an art similar to Origami, so if you ,like most, want to learn more about napkin folding, take a look at some Origami books and get creative.
Cloth napkins are not just for holidays. My preference is to use a cloth napkin at each of my meals. One, I believe that has a decorative and economical benefit.
Economically, you’re saving on paper goods and protecting our environment from additional discards. Decoratively, you can change your table every day and experience something fresh and new.
The cost for cloth napkins doesn’t have to be astronomical either. Visit a local fabric store and take a look at their odd fabric pieces. Choose those that you find fun and fit your décor. These can be brought to your local tailor, cut into 30-36” squares. Ask to have the ends surged to create wonderful every day napkins.
The table is set and your guests have arrived. I’d just be sure my napkin folds weren’t facing the wrong way. Bon Appetite!