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A rolled napkin in a napkin ring

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 also sometimes used as a bib by tucking it into a shirt collar. It is usually small and folded, sometimes in intricate designs and shapes.[citation needed]

Etymology and terminology


The term 'napkin' 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.[1] The word derives from the Late Middle English nappekin, from Old French nappe (tablecloth, from Latin mappa), with the suffix -kin.[2]

A 'napkin' can also refer to a small cloth or towel, such as a handkerchief in dialectal British, or a kerchief in Scotland.[3]

'Napkin' may also be short for "sanitary napkin".[4]


A folded napkin

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 [citation needed]. 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.[5] 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".[6] Napkins were also used in ancient Roman times.[citation needed]

One of the earliest references to table napkins in English dates to 1384–85.[7][full citation needed]

Paper napkins


The use of paper napkins is documented in ancient China, where paper was invented in the 2nd century BC.[8] 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.[9]

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."[10][11]

Leonardo Da Vinci


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. Leonardo found this inappropriate, and presented a cloth for each guest.[12][13] 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.[14]

See also



  1. ^ "Definition of "napkin"". www.merriam-webster.com. Archived from the original on 3 May 2021. Retrieved 3 April 2021.
  2. ^ ""Napkin" - Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes". www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com. Archived from the original on 29 November 2020. Retrieved 3 April 2021.
  3. ^ ""Napkin" meaning and definition". topmeaning.com.
  4. ^ "Definition of "napkin" by Oxford Dictionary". lexico.com. Archived from the original on 15 February 2020.
  5. ^ "Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898". Archived from the original on 24 September 2022. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  6. ^ "Liddell and Scott, Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, 1889". Archived from the original on 2 April 2020. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  7. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  8. ^ 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}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  9. ^ 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).
  10. ^ Waters, Michael (31 October 2019). "Paper napkins are expensive and environmentally unsound. Now the industry is trying to save itself". Vox. Archived from the original on 4 November 2019. Retrieved 4 November 2019.
  11. ^ "Paper Napkins Okeh; Emily Says So". Long Beach Independent. 2 December 1948. Archived from the original on 4 November 2019. Retrieved 4 November 2019.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ "THE NAPKIN: LEONARDO DA VINCI'S INVENTION". 30 June 2016. Archived from the original on 29 April 2021. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  14. ^ CAPEL, JOSÉ CARLOS (7 September 2011). "La falsa cocina de Leonardo Da Vinci". El País. Archived from the original on 29 April 2021. Retrieved 29 April 2021.