What an interesting question!
Cloth table napkins can be traced back to Europe in the fifteenth
century. By that time most households owned at least one tablecloth
and some all-purpose pieces of cloth used for "a multitude of purposes
from wiping the mouth at table, to protecting manuscripts from greasy
hands, to grabbing a pot from the fire or drying ones face after
washing." Individual napkins were first used in the French Royal Court
These excerpts come from an article about household linen in the
Middle Ages which is full of fascinating details:
"Early tables, even in noble houses, were not graced by cloths unless
it were a banquet, but by the 12th century the custom was almost
universal throughout France and Italy. The use of tablecloths spread
quickly from the aristocracy to the merchant classes, and by the
fifteenth century, all but the poorest households would have owned at
least one such cloth."
"Napkins as they are known today traditionally originated in the city
of Rheims, noted for its fine cloth. The city presented King Charles
VII with a set of table napkins at his coronation in 1422, but it is
probable that personal table napkins were in use at court some little
time before this."
"Individual napkins became fashionable in France towards the end of
the fifteenth century, in matched sets and as singles, available in
silks and linens of varying magnificence according to desire. By the
end of the sixteenth century, they were so common they were even being
used in prisons. "
"When ruffled collars came into vogue, men knotted their napkins
around their necks, while later still they were tucked into the collar
to protect the expensive lace adorning fashionable shirtfronts. From
the beginning of the seventeenth century, napkins were being folded
into fanciful and decorative shapes for display upon the table at the
start of the meal."
"Just prior to the French Revolution, the standard size of table
napkins was 45 by 35 inches, and the standard fabric white damask,
often in matched sets, although the idea that all the table linen
should match, cloth and napkins alike, did not surface until the 18th
Read the whole article here:
Household Linen in the Middle Ages
The next development was to make the napkins themselves into a table
decoration. This reached its height in Italy in the sixteenth century.
"One of the customs was to fold table napkins into elaborate
centrepiece table decorations in the form of animals, birds, sailing
ships and other impressive models. The starched napkins were pleated,
first in one direction and then the pleated napkin was cross pleated
so that the second pleats were at right angles to the first. The
resulting doubly-pleated napkins formed a pliable medium that could
then be moulded to form the birds and other creations.
Several napkins were often used to complete the creation and they were
attached together by being stitched with red thread."
The History of Paperfolding
The ceramic napkin doll was another idea for combining table
decoration and napkins which took off in the 1950s in the USA. They
are currently very collectible and fetching good prices, with
Californian dancing napkin ladies sometimes going for over $100. In
fact they are such hot items that dealers can't get enough enough of
them and there are reproductions in circulation.
" These strange, yet pretty, ceramic women with long slits in their
skirts were a fad around the 1950s.[....]
Often [...]the hat is a candleholder; flamenco dancers may balance a
bowl a la Carmen Miranda. Sometimes, a dinner bell is suspended under
the skirt, or the lady may be holding a tray for toothpicks.
Napkin ladies are hard to find. I've asked for them at numerous
antiques stores and flea markets and only come close. A dealer at a
recent flea market said she had one in recent years and it sold the
first time she put it out."
Vintage voice: Collectors can clean up with lovely napkin ladies
Napkin ladies are now so popular with collectors that they are
included in this book:
Collectibles for the Kitchen, Bath and beyond: A Pictorial Guide, by
Ellen Bercovici, Bobbie Zucker, Bryson Deborah Gillham (2001)
I hope this is helpful. Thanks for asking an interesting question
which was fun to research. Please don't hesitate to ask for
clarification if anything needs further explanation or if any links
fail to work.
Regards - Leli
"table napkins" century cloth linen
napkin doll OR lady collectors
napkin doll OR lady collectible