From ancient roots, the napkin adds a finishing touch to the table

by Betty Wrenn Day - Posted on Sep 12, 2012 - 02:45 PM

Photo: Napkins may be used properly in many shapes and forms: from left, a regular folded napkin, a candle-shaped napkin, flatware folded in a napkin, a sail napkin, a napkin draped from stemware and a napkin placed in a napkin ring. Photo by Betty Wrenn Day

Napkins may be used properly in many shapes and forms: from left, a regular folded napkin, a candle-shaped napkin, flatware folded in a napkin, a sail napkin, a napkin draped from stemware and a napkin placed in a napkin ring. Photo by Betty Wrenn Day

What began as a lump of dough used by the Spartans called apomagdalie has developed in today’s world as a magnificent square or rectangular piece of material, or a beautifully decorated piece of paper, the napkin.

The apomagdalie was a dough mixture cut into small pieces and rolled and kneaded at the table. It was this custom that led to using sliced bread to wipe hands.

Napkins have been used from the times of the ancient Roman Empire and prior to that in ancient Greece. Reference to the word napkin dates to 1384 AD. Its name comes from the French word "nappe" meaning table cloth (derived from the Latin word "mappe" or "mappae") suffixed with the word "kin" to indicate its shorter size or form as compared to a table cloth.

The ancient Romans (1st to 5th century AD) were known to have used cloth napkins, then called mappa, to protect from food spills and to wipe their mouths. Guests always brought their own napkins and carried away left-over goodies in their mappa (a custom that continues today in restaurants’ doggy bags).

In the early Middle Ages, the napkin disappeared from the table, when hands and mouths were wiped on whatever was available—the back of the hand, clothing, or a piece of bread.