Keeping It Clean - History Of The Humble Cloth Napkin

Keeping It Clean - History Of The Humble Cloth Napkin

Endlessly practical, as well as a staple within both restaurants and hospitality settings, the cloth napkin has been around for a surprisingly long time.

Endlessly practical, as well as a staple within restaurants and hospitality settings everywhere, the humble cloth napkin has been around for a surprisingly long period of time. Though there are a number of variations on this useful option, the fact remains that napkins are well worth acquiring within a number of contexts. These practical cloth items have long been used to mop up spills and efficiently soak up liquid, but has that always been the case? Or were they designed with a greater purpose in mind? Learn more within this fascinating blog post from Stalbridge Linen Services.


A Practical Product

Napkins are a necessary component of stylish table arrangements, no matter the occasion! A crucial part of dining etiquette, whether you're at a formal dinner party or a casual brunch with friends, expect a number of cloth or linen options displayed on your table. First and foremost, napkins serve the straightforward goal of practically wiping food and liquids from the mouth, while they can also be used to cover garments while eating - for example when placed upon the lap or tucked into a top.


Napkins from Stalbridge Linen Services possess plenty of aesthetic appeal in addition to being useful within a dinner party setting. You can discover a suitable option for every event thanks to the variety of designs, colours, and styles offered by us.. Not just providing plain napkins and basic designs, we’re a table linen company to rely on.


Early Napkins

As far removed as it is from the modern interpretation of the term, the first napkin was a lump of dough that the Spartans called ‘apomagdalie’, a mixture cut into small pieces and rolled or kneaded at the table. Eventually, this custom led to sliced bread being utilised as a makeshift table napkin, clearing spillages and other liquids upon the surface. Furthering this idea of a pocket-sized material being used wasn’t actually noted until the Roman ages, when  napkins known as ‘sudaria’ and ‘mappae’ were made in both small and large lengths. 


The sudarium, (Latin for handkerchief) was a pocket-stored fabric cloth, used formally to blot the brow during meals, most appropriate when dining in the warm Mediterranean climate.  The mappa on the other hand, was a larger cloth, spread over the edge of the couch as protection from food taken in a reclining position. The fabric was also used to clean food from the lips on occasion. Somewhat similar, paper napkins were also documented in ancient China, where paper was invented in the 2nd century - folded in squares and used for the serving of tea.

Developments Through Time

Somewhat of a regression from a modern viewpoint, in the early Middle Ages, the napkin disappeared from the formal table setting, at which point, hands and mouths were wiped on whatever was available (often clothing or a piece of bread). Yet another rather confusing term for a relatively straightforward object, during this period, a long towel called a ‘surnappe’ was laid over seats reserved for honoured guests.


The napkin was a regular fixture at mediaeval banquets, while the person in charge of the ceremony carried a towel that the lord and his honoured guests used to wipe their hands on. It’s fair to say that during this timeframe, napkins were seen as an item reserved for use by the higher-ups in society, though this would change soon enough with the commercialisation of these now commonplace table accessories.


Table Napkins And More

To dispel a myth, It has been claimed by some that Leonardo da Vinci invented the napkin in 1491, however, as we’ve covered - the origins of the napkin are far less spectacular! The myth stems from a work of fiction -  ‘Leonardo's Kitchen Notebooks’ by Jonathan Routh and Shelagh Routh. Though taken by some as a source of factual information, this was in fact a prank book published as an April Fools’ Day joke, claiming a long lost Codex Romanoff was found in 1481 (which never really existed).


Back in reality, by the sixteenth century napkins were an accepted refinement of dining, and not just for the wealthier members of society.. During this era, white cotton or linen fabric was woven with a small, repeating diamond-shaped pattern, used at the table. A length of fabric was also often laid on the altar or table to enclose bread. Before long, the French court imposed elaborate codes of etiquette on the aristocracy, among them the way to use a napkin, when to use it, and how far to unfold it in the lap.  A French treatise dating from 1729 even stated in detail the ways to use a napkin at the table, laying out in no uncertain terms how uncouth it was for individuals to wipe the nose with such an item.


Materials To Modern Changes

Though paper napkins were first imported to the US in the late 1800s, they did not gain widespread acceptance until the 1940s. Viewed as a better form of napkin to use than their linen counterparts at the time. The napkin received somewhat of an unexpected decline, when in 1887, writer Albert Aylmer noted in an edition of Good Housekeeping  that the cleanliness of the fork made napkins a bit less essential for most meals. The napkin no longer held its ground as an important mealtime accompaniment, yet remained a formal fixture on the dining table due to tradition more than anything else.


This brings us up to the modern day, and in 2023, napkins are designed to cater to each and every environment, from a bright and vibrant kitchen space, to a highly-stylish but understated bar. Stalbridge Linen Services can pick the colours closest to your brand, with one eye on sustainability. Available in lots of tones, and not to mention with personalised bespoke logo branding, there’s never been as much choice.


Stalbridge Linen Services: Commercial Linen And Napkin Hire

At Stalbridge, we offer a high quality range of smart chef wear, kitchen cloths, crisp white bed linen, fluffy towels and a wide selection of elegant white and coloured table linen. We cater to hotels, bars, cafés and restaurants across the country - and with 40 years of experience, you can rely on us to provide a flawless service at all times. Having offered specialist linen hire and laundry services for hotels, kitchens and restaurants throughout the UK and over the past four decades, we have become industry leaders, and garnered a reputation for excellence thanks to our high-quality product selection and dedication to providing impeccable customer service.


We work with establishments of all sizes, so whether you are running a small local café with just a few tables, or a large, city-centre hotel with hundreds of bedrooms, we can meet all of your needs. W.e have both the resources and the experience to help you enhance the customer experience at your establishment. Any queries? Don’t hesitate to contact us at your earliest opportunity.

Published on: October 11, 2023

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