Thursday, February 15, 2007

Apple #224: Napkins

I knew a guy who studied theater, and once upon a time he told me a tip he learned from a director. When he was supposed to be one of those people sitting at a restaurant table in the background while the main characters did their talking up front, they had to find a way to murmur believably but without distracting from the main action. So the director told my friend and his fellow background-mates that they should say actual words, just not anything in a sentence. He said good words to use -- because they included some consonants but nothing with a lot of s's -- were "watermelon" and "napkin."

So when my friend didn't know how to respond to something, he would reply with his customary filler words: "Napkin, watermelon, napkin."

I have been trying to come up with a decent Daily Apple for today, but I am drawing a blank. Since I already did an entry on watermelons, today we will learn about napkins.

(You can buy these napkins, or ones like them from MiTUSA)

  • Back in Greek & Roman times, people used to use small pieces of bread for the purpose of wiping their hands.
  • Later, people began providing cloths of different sizes so their guests could wipe their hands or blot their lips. The larger-size cloth, called a mappa, was also used to form a pouch so that the guest could take home some of the goodies from the dinner. Thus the napkin doubled as a doggie bag.
  • In the Middle Ages, people stopped using napkins and used their clothes, a piece of bread, or whatever was available.
  • The French resurrected the napkin in the 1400s, except they used their napkins firstly as a way to mark the places on the couch where guests were to sit, and then they also provided a communal napkin, more like a large towel, that hung off the end of the table for all guests to use.

In this detail from Dieric Bouts' depiction of The Last Supper, which he painted in the 1460's, you can see in the foreground the communcal napkin hanging like a swag from the edge of the table.
(Photo from the Web Gallery of Art)

  • In royal households, where they had servants who did nothing but fill water glasses and clean up after people, one servant carried around a towel and proffered it to the guests so they could wipe their hands on it. This was the beginning of the custom whereby butlers and maitre's d carry napkins draped over their forearm.
  • This person who carried the napkin around was also sometimes required to taste the food to make sure it was not poisoned. After tasting the food, the servant kissed a towel reserved specifically for the lord of the table, then draped it over his shoulder to signal the food's safety and also to give him his very own napkin to use throughout the meal.
  • In the 17th century, the napkin fell out of favor again when people started using forks. Everybody suddenly became neater eaters. But then, over time, the napkin came back into general use again, although it was generally smaller than it had been before.

A fork and a napkin together? Redundant! the 17th Century English would have cried.
(Photo from Relish)

  • I tried to find out how many paper napkins are manufactured in the U.S. each year. I was more interested in learning that data for paper napkins, since that's probably what most people encounter most days of the week.

(Photo from Ace Janitorial in the UK)

  • If I had a lot of money, I could pay for statistics that would tell me exactly how many napkins are produced in a year. But I don't have a lot of money, so I have to go with what's freely available.
  • The closest I could get is the total number of miscellaneous paper products -- that includes napkins, as well as envelopes, paper bags, paper foils and films, sanitary paper products, and paperboard -- shipped. That means produced and sent to a customer, either in the U.S. or abroad. And the number of miscellaneous paper products shipped in 2006 is just shy of $44 billion worth. That's a lot of napkins.
  • The dollar value of shipments of just straight-up paper is four times that amount.
  • That amount also represents paper products made only in the U.S. Most paper products are manufactured in Canada (they have more trees).

Packaged paper napkins, available from Wicks and Wax

  • The first sanitary napkin, or pad, for women, was manufactured in 1896 by Johnson & Johnson. It didn't sell very well because people were too embarrassed to advertise it or ask for it at the store or buy it and carry it home. It wasn't until 1926, after World War I nurses had discovered the superior absorption of paper cellulose over cloth diapers, that disposable paper sanitary pads started selling on a larger scale.

  • I found lots of sites that teach you how to fold napkins, but the steps to make some of those folds get pretty complicated.

This particular napkin fold is called the Floral Bloom. Instructions (and this photo) are available at My Paper

  • Rather than reproduce all the instructions here, I'll give you the links to some of the more appealing designs I found:
    • Make a pocket out of the napkin to stow the knife, fork, and spoon
    • The omnipresent goblet fan (which I think is a little gauche, actually; I don't want my napkin in my drinking glass)
    • The standing fan fold (If you can get all your napkins pleated like this and to stay standing for longer than five minutes, I think you should get the Napkin Prize)

Suzanne Von Drachenfels, Napkins: A Brief History, from The Art of the Table
Karen Herzog, "The royal treatment,"
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, December 24, 2006
US Census Bureau; Manufacturing, Mining and Construction Statistics; Manufacturers' Shipments, Inventories, and Orders; Historic Timeseries Documentation (NAICS Based); Shipments
The Straight Dope, Who invented tampons? June 6, 2006


  1. Great blog, Juliet! I like to use lots of napkins at a meal and Mark only uses one. I hate those napkins that have printing on them that rubs off when you wipe your mouth!!!

  2. nice collection julliet but i couldnt find anything regarding paper napkins & its uses

  3. This is a very nice blog! It pretty much discussed napkins and the like. Informative post!


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