The Surprisingly Interesting History of the Napkin

The history of the napkin is not as straightforward as you might expect.

It might surprise you to learn that the first napkins were edible!

Yes, that’s right, you could eat them.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, wiping food from your mouth with more food is both counterintuitive and counterproductive, and you’re not wrong.

But the Ancient Greeks had a number of little quirks that made them the funny toga-donning olive-lovers we knew them to be.

Quite simply, they used a form soft dough, called apomagdalia, which referred to the bread on the inside of the crust, known as the crumb.

The Ancient Greeks used this to wipe their fingers after overdoing it with the tzatziki!

thing napkin bread

Following this practice, we have the Romans, who, in all their sophisticated and civilized splendor, introduced two forms of cloth:

The first was the sudarium (“sweat cloth”) which was used by the Romans much like a flanel to wipe their brows in the sweltering mediterranean heat.

The second cloth was the mappa, which was a large cloth that one would drape over themselves while reclining and eating, a favoured Roman position, as you often see depicted.

Of course, had they been told by their mother, like everyone at Takeaway Packaging HQ was, that you should sit up properly when eating and that slouching is bad for digestion, then they could have gotten away with just one cloth!

But then again, if they had realised this, then, maybe, we would have never had napkins!

roman napkin

Meanwhile, in the far East, the Chinese were using something akin to our beloved napkin.

Having invented paper in the 2nd century BC, little pieces of paper, known as chih pha, were folded into squares and used for serving tea.

According to some sources, they were used inside the baskets that held tea cups – old fashioned bubble wrap if you will.

ancient chinese napkin

Further along in time, back in Europe, napkins still hadn’t really become anything yet, and unlike Ancient Rome, there was far less reclining and certainly less sweating in the sun!

Regardless, people still ate with their hands and most people in the Middle Ages, whether peasant or King, would become quite the mucky pup toward the end of a meal (assuming they were lucky enough to get one!).

To clean themselves up people wiped their hands and faces with bread, their shirts, whatever was around.

Napkins in a more conventional sense did eventually make their entrance at the dinner table in the Middle Ages through a desire by the wealthy and privileged to create more formal settings.

A variation of the tablecloth known as a surnape was provided to guests and diners at the table.

After a while, possibly due to the cloth being easier to come by and the added bonus of protecting the table, these surnapes made it onto the table during less formal occasions as well.

Dinner table cloth-related practice continued in this way for some time.

king arthur napkin

Though you might think that the humble napkin became something of a post-medieval sensation, the tale dwindles out here somewhat, suffering from a three-pronged attack…

It’s all do with the rise of the fork!

Writing in a 1987 edition of the Good Housekeeping magazine, Albert Aylmer wrote:

“The introduction of the fork, however, caused eating to become so cleanly a process, especially in contrast to the recent past, that the napkin no longer held its ground as an article of use, but became merely an ornament and a thing of ceremony.

It was found that, with a little care, one could retire from the table without the necessity for cleansing the hands.”

And with that, the poor napkin become a thing of pomp and ceremony!

napkin killed the fork
napkin for ceremony

As for paper napkins, it was branded souvenir table napkins from Japan that set the trend late in the 19th century.

In 1887, British firm John Dickinson Ltd. acquired decorated napkins from Japan and had the inspired idea of printing logos and other marketing-related information on top of the paper napkins, effectively turning them into souvenirs and leaflets.

Behold, the branded paper napkin!

In 2018, the paper napkin appetite couldn’t be greater, and as such, Takeaway Packaging produce branded napkins in a variety of sizes, styles and qualities.

We can print them with your logo and artwork allowing you to combine marketing, functionality and a wonderful rich history!