The term itself is all encompassing and its nature all the more variegated in serving a wide range of purposes but the ubiquitous understanding of napkins as squares of cloth or paper to prevent a mess of any sort from creating ruckus is what establishes it as an item of all versatility. From fabric napkins that are intended to protect areas not meant for foodie indulgences to paper makes mostly used to soak up excess oil from fried foods, these integral necessities of the culinary world sum up though only one aspect of their wide repertoire of usage in everyday life and style of the modern human.
Also adept in other measures of the cleaning kind, whether that be in lending itself to wipe fingers and/ or mouths from any kind of food residue as well as in offering its immaculate expanse to needs as essential as blowing of noses, taking upon itself in either case a reference of the kerchief, or in even furthering this extent of the spick and span necessity to purposes as exclusive as serving as a baby’s nappy or catering instead to demands of the female biological identity as sanitary towels, napkins truly are a wonder the world wonders what it would be doing without.
Ever since its early extant of existence- which goes back quite a long way though appearing in forms that is not very much like what we know them of as today, it makes for quite a discovery indeed to navigate through the not so ordinary narrative of the napkin. Concerning ourselves exclusively with the dynamic ‘designation’ that these commonplace commodities of little extents and light essence have come to be seated in within the gourmet world of the gastronomic and this particular unwinding of the square shaped serviette as well takes on an even interesting interpretation of its identity through the times.
As a definite term referring to precisely the thing meant to wipe faces and mouths free from food traces, the napkin etymology is fairly recent. Derived from the Late Middle English nappekin, from Old French nappe (tablecloth, from Latin mappa), with the suffix -kin to indicate the shorter size in relation to the unfurling of an entire tablecloth, the name of this routine rub with civility in the culinary kingdom is only a 14th century stemming. Contrast that with the existence of it in some form or the other, substantiated by its serving of the same purpose as in today’s times, since at least the times of the ancient Greeks and the notion of nativity of the napkin certainly isn’t any novelty. The current character of it surely is though since back when it first emerged, the ‘napkin’ wasn’t alluding of course to the modern convenience in disposability. Rather strikingly instead, such early versions of the napkins tended in fact to be edible!
Not very surprisingly therefore, napkins then weren’t paper or cloth based ‘beings’ but obviously ‘kneaded’ out of something ‘food grade’ instead. Called apomagdalie, these were made out of a dough mixture cut into small pieces and rolled and kneaded at the table that were then used to clean up the fingers. It was from this custom of preparing something very much food like indeed to serve an associated purpose in eating that there emerged yet another custom related to food still but this time adhering more to the essence of its edibleness.
This essence in napkins being not something any different from food led to the tradition of using sliced bread to wipe up the fingers someway across the European epicurean expanse of a later date. Unlike the Spartans of the Before Christ era, the early Romans of the Common Era relied on cloth to make out of it two definite types of napkins for as distinct a couple of functions. The one called the mappae tended to be a large enough piece of fabric specifically designed to take care of truly enjoyable eating. Spread out over the edge of the couch would be this mappa that attended to food spills and/ or drops availed out of partaking the gastronomic experience in leisurely reclination while also used to blot the lips as well.
The other assertion of the sudaria functioned as more a handkerchief, small enough to warrant as a pocket sized piece of ‘sweat cloth’ used to blot instead the brow in between meal indulgences as necessitated by the warm Mediterranean climate. Interestingly for the mappa that was brought by each guest upon their own person, the servicing of purpose also encompassed the essential custom almost of doubling up as pouches in which the leftover food could be carried from the feast- something that finds resonance in the modern day popularity of the doggy bag perhaps.
Sometime after the Romans were innovating already with cloth as a rather practical medium for napkins to be made out of in all consideration of functionality, the Chinese had veritably set in motion their trailblazing invention of paper to cater also to the napkin crafting in convenience. It had been times as early as the years identifying as the Tang era during the 7th to the 10th century that a certain type of paper napkin called chih pha was already in use in China. Quite similar to the modern day cocktail napkins would be these first of the paper napkins so ubiquitous today that were folded in squares and used inside baskets that held tea cups.
Early accounts as these predate very evidently the modern day mass popularity of the napkin that came to experience this particular surge in commonplace fame only very recently. Interestingly, this despite the fact that napkins today tend to be more customary than utilitarian though the scope of their character remains the same vast multitude in all essence like they have always been. This essence had however faded almost into oblivion during the early days of the Medieval Period when elements as diverse as breads and shirts seemed to serve fairly well the function expected of napkins. But the significance of them still returned to rule shortly thereafter with a special form of it called the surnap.
Much like the mappa of yore, the surnap of a yore less stretched to ancientry would also be a tablecloth that efficiently carried out duties of a napkin. But it wasn’t just the napkin that the surnap managed to bring back into the picture, also accompanying was the heaving high of the ‘hierarchy’ explored in such avenues that saw the wealthy and the privileged play out their status through the flair that an extra large ‘napkin’ would bring upon their tables and dinners in a formal setting.
The eventual coming to govern also the less formal setup of meals and dining by the surnap would be a draw upon its sprawling properties of protecting not only the diners in its communal usage in wiping but also the table from the splashes and spills of food that are but natural agents in characterising the eating indulgence. Following shortly on this evolutionary trail of the napkin would be such developments that might not have manifested in any new manner the physical appearance of the entity itself but still made for a rather definitive moment in the nuances of the nomenclatural. As one of the earliest references to table napkins in English occurred sometime in 1384- 85 in all certainty, the 14th century would be the harbinger indeed of a continuing chronicle much significant even in its amusing connection to the napkin of specifically the cloth kind.
Attributed to none other than Mona Lisa fame artist Leonardo da Vinci is the invention of the paper napkin precisely in 1491, that though is merely a myth in all its wide circulation. The tale goes that da Vinci disapproved of a particular act of the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza who tied live rabbits to guests’ chairs for them to wipe their hands on, advocating instead for cloth to be entrusted that responsibility in self cleaning thus creating the now ordinary paper napkin. That though is more tall tale than truth, availed as it is an account out of a 20th century prank book notorious for its detailing of other such non existent realities.
Following this alleged introduction of the paper napkin by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 15th century, the 1500s saw more realer attributes coming to define the dimensions of the by then refined resplendence of the napkin. There would thus be the diaper referring to a white cotton or line fabric woven in a small and recurring diamond shaped pattern, a large napkin called the serviette used at the table, a smaller version of the serviette de collation specifically meant for use while standing to eat as well as a roller towel or a touaille used as a communal towel or alternatively enclosing bread that would testify like always the never singular specialness of the napkin.
For all its multi resourcefulness though, it amounts to quite a shame that the character of the napkin was made to undergo a sea change by the increasingly fancied use of the fork as an equipment in clean and sophisticated eating. Reducing thus the area and extent of work for the napkin’s foremost fame in wiping and unmessing up experiences of the epicurean, the fork superimposed itself upon this humble sheet of squareness of either fabric or paper. It would take an entire exclusive unfurling of branded souvenir table napkins from Japan in the 19th century for napkins to reclaim their now and again dented pride in all prejudice against them.
This prejudice would not die out yet, at least not completely, as paper napkins were viewed as a faux pas in social settings well until the 1950s. That said though, branded paper napkins were already a phenomenon by the late 1800s even when they had their fair share of both popularity and unpopularity. Fast forward to the years of the new century aka the new millennium and in the 2000s and 2010s and 2020s, there is no fussing much over a napkin no matter how prominently plain or popularly printed they might be. From dough to cloth and thereon to bread and finally upon paper, the imprint of the napkin is indelible even in its efficiently effective essence of erasing every trace of all things undesired.