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Shakespeare’s plays refer to a napkin at least 20 times, including As You Like It where Rosalind mentions a bloody napkin, in Hamlet the title character is offered a napkin to “rub thy brows.” In Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff talks about someone’s shirt being made of “two napkins” sewn together, Merry Wives of Windsor scorns the greasy napkin, while Othello complains that Desdemona’s napkin is too small. When it comes to sizes, shapes, material, and uses for napkins in Shakespeare’s lifetime, we are looking to Maura Graber, Director of the RSVP institute for Etiquette, and the founder of Etiquipedia, the online encyclopedia of Etiquette, to walk us through the history of napkins and their uses for Shakespeare’s lifetime. Maura Graber is here for two episodes with us on dining and etiquette for the 16th century. Today is Part 1 in our series with Maura on Table History, come back next week for Part 2.

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Maura J. Graber, author and consultant, is the site creator and editor for the Etiquipedia Etiquette Encyclopedia, a free online resource for all things etiquette and etiquette history. (Also on Twitter) Maura has been teaching Etiquette since 1990 and runs The Rsvp Institute Of Etiquette at the historic Graber Olive House in Ontario California. Her books, “Reaching for the Right Fork” and “What Have We Here?” are best sellers among those who study etiquette, antiques for the table, and dining history. Most recently she has worked as a historical Etiquette Consultant for Julian Fellowes’ HBO show, The Gilded Age. 

I’ll be asking Maura Graber about:

  • What materials were napkins made of in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and were they all uniform in size or design? 
  • In several of Shakespeare’s plays, napkins are referred to as being covered in blood or used for cleaning blood or sometimes sweat. Were napkins typically used for eating food, or were they primarily used for personal hygiene?  
  • When napkins were used at the table, was it customary to have napkins at every meal?
  • …and more!

At The King’s Table:  –shows depictions at Whitehall 

The Joy of Eating by Katie Steweart

Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser  

“Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows.”

— Hamlet (V.2)

Napkin Material and Shapes

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, napkins were made of multiple types of material and featured everything from plain to elaborate designs.

They could be very elaborate. There’s one at the V&A where it’s a damask napkin with Elizabeth I next to Anne Boleyn all woven into it. Damask linen with images into them was the wealthy and the upper classes. A linen could mean any type of cloth, and a napkin could be any kind of cloth.  

In several of Shakespeare’s plays, napkins are referred to as being covered in blood or used for cleaning blood or sometimes sweat. His references demonstrate that napkins were used for more than just eating food or cleaning up at the table, they were also functional for personal hygiene. 

“There’s but a shirt and a half in all my company; and the half shirt is two napkins tacked together and thrown over the shoulders like an herald’s coat without sleeves.”

— Henry IV Part 1 (IV.2)

Group of people dining at a table, holding napkins and featuring a large table covering. The small child to the left of the parrots seems to have a napkin draped over his right shoulder. This painting was done in 1630-1635 by Frans Francken the Younger | Public Domain | Source

Napkins Provided By The Host

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, cutlery was a very personal item. Each dinner patron would typically bring their own cutlery to the table. With napkins, the tradition was opposite, and the host of the dinner party would provide everyone attending with a stack of large napkins to use when eating.

Fork Brigitte Webster Ep 112

16th Century Cutlery and Forks

Join our guest and expert Tudor Food historian, Brigitte Webster, as she takes us on a tour of what forks, knives, and table cutlery were used for Shakespeare’s lifetime.

A person would have a handkerchief at the table, and they were warned not to clean their teeth with toothpicks or rubbing their teeth with a napkin. Napkins change in size from bath sheets or beach towel size over their shoulder to wipe their hands on to later you would have a table cloth and you wiped your hands on that. By the 1500s, kids and adults were warned not to use the table cloth, to use their napkins, and often long enough to share between several people as one long piece. Until the invention of the forks, you basically had larger napkins and around the 1500s they were between 36-45 inches. There were very specific rules about when to pick it up. You wait until the host or hostess picks up their napkin and put in your lap, and you follow suit.

Table cover edged with insertions of darned net. Insertions in multi-colored silk and metallic thread in floral serpentine. | 16-17th century | Gift of Richard C. Greenleaf Esq. in memory of his mother, Adeline Emma Greenleaf | Public Domain | Unknown artist | Source

“Your napkin is too little…”

— Othello (III.3)

Example of elaborate napkin folds in Mattia Giegher’s 1629 Trattato delle piegature (Treatise on folding). This manual was written to propose that women use elaborate folded napkins as the centerpieces of their tables. | Artwork provided by the MET New York| Image Source | More on Mattia Giegher’s Treatise.

Napkin Folds

It was fashionable in parts of Europe to have elaborate napkin folds. Maura explains that the size of napkin folds are much larger than we have today simply because the napkin itself was quite large.

Napkin folds were very popular in Italy and into animals were especially popular, but the size of them-when they are a yard long and 45 inches long. Pepys writes about having a large dinner and had someone come in to fold the napkins before hand. Really nice linen and using starch, making sure this was crips and there were weird rules throughout the time period for all table linens. There was a period in time where they had cloth presses (table cloth presses, linen presses, where the creases had to be perfect and it needed to look like a checkerboard form the linen press. An imperfect crease meant someone was going to die at the dinner—it was called a coffin. During the victorian era there was no creases at all, so they were on giant rollers to be rolled out completely flat with no creases whatsoever.  

1657 diagram of napkin folds from Gastronomie & Esskultur & Tischsitte & Serviette by Georg Philipp Harsdörffer | This file was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Deutsche Fotothek of the Saxon State Library / State and University Library Dresden (SLUB) as part of a cooperation project. The Deutsche Fotothek guarantees an authentic representation only by using copies of the original images as provided by the Digital Image Archive | Public Domain | Source

“I am glad I have found this napkin…”

— Othello (III.3)

1500s Linen napkin with woven bands in red silk depicting lions and castles. | V&A Museum | Source

Napkin Etiquette

Many Americans will be sitting down to dinner for Thanksgiving next week, and more than a few will be told to put their napkins in their laps when sitting down at the table. Were there similar rules about how a napkin was to placed, or the etiquette about using a napkin for Shakespeare’s lifetime? 

By 1600 there were napkins for every course. Use your napkin and then you’d get a new one for the next course, or it was at a side table and you’d get your next napkin for your next course. You are supposed to come to the table with clean hands. The diners would take their napkin and throw it on the floor after the course and they’d be given another one. The more money you had, the higher the pile of napkins after the meal.  

At the V&A Website, the museum lists a napkin from the 1500s (Shown at the left here) and describes it’s purpose this way:

“Linen cloths such as this with decorated bands may have had several functions in a household, including as towels to dry the hands when washed before eating, cupboard cloths on which vessels could be placed, and coverpanes. Coverpanes were the cloths used to cover the principal place setting of salt, trencher, knife, spoon and bread. “

The V&A goes on to quote a household book of 1605 that describes their use :
“The Yoeman of the Pantrie (is instructed)… to carrie the salte with the carvinge knife, clensing knife, and forke, and them to place upon the table in dewe order, with the bread at the salte, and then to cover the breade, with a fynne square clouth of cambricke, called a coverpaine (which is to bee taken of, the meate being placede on the table, and the lorde sette) by the carver and delivered to the pantler”.” (Source)

Dining table featuring a variety of melons, and demonstrating both a folded napkin (to the left on a plate), as well as the “checkerboard” pattern Maura Graber mentions in today’s episode which would have been made with a linen press. | Artist
Attributed to Huybrecht Beuckeleer (1535–1605) | Public Domain | Source

“[Musicians waiting. Enter Servingmen with napkins]”

— Stage Directions, Romeo and Juliet (I.5)

This is an upclose example of a doily (Also spelled Doilie, and a variety of other spellings). This is from the 20th century, but serves as an example of the difference between a doile and a napkin. By Maria Mackay| Public Domain | Source

Napkins Made of Lace

One material and design that was not popular for napkins but was the same shape was doilies. These were decorative items not used for eating or practical purposes.

Lace fell more into the doily category to be decorative. Napkins (and dutch still lifes from the 1500s and 1600s) there’s famous paintings from 1648, has a table and in the center of game birds, etc, to fix for dinner is a stack of pristine napkins. White napkins, they look pressed with a sad iron, and they look lovely sitting there.  

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!