A napkin, serviette or face towelette is a square of cloth or paper tissue used at the table for wiping the mouth and fingers while eating. It is usually small and folded, sometimes in intricate designs and shapes.
Etymology and terminology
The term dates from the 14th century, in the sense of a piece of cloth or paper used at mealtimes to wipe the lips or fingers and to protect clothing.
It can also refer to a small cloth or towel, such as a handkerchief in dialectal British, a kerchief in Scotland, and formerly a nappy or diaper in most English-speaking countries, apart from North America. It evolved into "nappy", except in formal language and South Africa where it still has its original meaning.
Conventionally, the napkin is folded and placed to the left of the place setting, outside the outermost fork. In a restaurant setting or a caterer's hall, it may be folded into more elaborate shapes and displayed on the empty plate. Origami techniques can be used to create a three-dimensional design. A napkin may also be held together in a bundle with cutlery by a napkin ring. Alternatively, paper napkins may be contained within a napkin holder.
Summaries of napkin history often say that the ancient Greeks used bread to wipe their hands. This is suggested by a passage in one of Alciphron's letters (3:44), and some remarks by the sausage seller in Aristophanes' play, The Knights. The bread in both texts is referred to as apomagdalia which simply means bread from inside the crust known as the crumb and not special "napkin bread". Napkins were also used in ancient Roman times.
The use of paper napkins is documented in ancient China, where paper was invented in the 2nd century BC. Paper napkins were known as chih pha, folded in squares, and used for the serving of tea. Textual evidence of paper napkins appears in a description of the possessions of the Yu family, from the city of Hangzhou.
Paper napkins were first imported to the US in the late 1800s but did not gain widespread acceptance until 1948, when Emily Post asserted, "It’s far better form to use paper napkins than linen napkins that were used at breakfast."
Leonardo Da Vinci myth
It has been claimed that Leonardo da Vinci invented the napkin in 1491. According to this claim, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, used to tie up live rabbits decorated with ribbons to the guest’s chairs so they could wipe their hands on the animal’s back. Da Vinci found this inappropriate, and presented a cloth for each guest. The myth stems from Leonardo's Kitchen Notebooks (1987), by Jonathan Routh and Shelagh Routh, a prank book published as an April Fools’ Day joke, that claims a long lost Codex Romanoff was found in 1481, which never really existed.
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- Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898
- Liddell and Scott, Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, 1889
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Tsien, Tsuen-Hsuin (1985). "Paper and Printing". Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Chemistry and Chemical Technology. 5 part 1. Cambridge University Press: 38. Cite journal requires
- Joseph Needham (1985). Science and Civilisation in China: Paper and Printing. Cambridge University Press. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-521-08690-5.
At this time, tea was served from baskets made of rushes which held tea cups with paper napkins (chih pha).
- Waters, Michael (31 October 2019). "Paper napkins are expensive and environmentally unsound. Now the industry is trying to save itself". Vox (website). Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- "Paper Napkins Okeh; Emily Says So". Long Beach Independent. 2 December 1948. Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- Hernández de Valle Arizpe, Claudia (2009). Porque siempre importa: de comida y cultura. Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México. p. 42. ISBN 9789689259596. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
- "THE NAPKIN: LEONARDO DA VINCI'S INVENTION". Retrieved 29 April 2021.
- CAPEL, JOSÉ CARLOS (7 September 2011). "La falsa cocina de Leonardo Da Vinci". El País. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
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