Linen Napkins – The History


      In historical terms, the appearance of linen napkins for dining took some time to develop.

     First, the the table had to be invented:

     Early Egyptians used stone pedestals with trays on top to raise food and drinks off the floor and the Chinese made small tables for writing and painting.  However, the concept of using a table to serve and eat food is believed to have begun with the ancient Greeks, who used small individual tables set in front of them, the first T.V. trays!  The Romans advanced that concept by using large tables made from marble or exotic woods of citrus trees.  With the appearance of the dining table came the need to protect it, and various table coverings came into use.

Tablecloths as Napkins

    Tablecloths not only protected these prized tables, they offered a way for diners to remove the crumbs or grease from their fingers between bites.  Since forks and knives were also yet to be developed, people ate with their hands. To clean them, they used whatever was within reach. Sometimes this was their shirts, but if the host were kind enough to drape the table in a cloth, so much the better. Often, the tablecloth became so disgustingly dirty that it had to be changed between courses. As linen was not cheap, keeping an adequate supply of linens on hand could present a challenge to all but the wealthiest of families.

The Birth of Linen Napkins

    Around the dawn of the Middle Ages, someone had the idea to provide long cloths that would stretch the entire length of the table and would be shared by many diners.  An example of this is found in the  painting “The Last Supper,” by Dieric Bouts (1425-1475).


    The first individual linen napkins were brought into style around the 16th Century. They were larger than those in use today, measuring around 45 inches square, but they offered ample room for the guest to find a clean spot while eating an entire meal with his hands.

   By the 17th century, royalty accepted the use of the fork and napkins began to shrink in size, as being neat and tidy was strictly emphasized.

   By the beginning of the 18th century linen napkins had become staples in most linen closets.

   There was one curious fact about the use of napkins, however, that persisted for the next two centuries:  Napkins were not laundered between meals. In fact, they might be used for several days before they were washed. Each family member had their own napkin, and at the end of the meal, individuals placed his or her napkin in its special spot. Napkin rings made this process easier, keeping the used napkins organized so each person could find their napkin.

Styles and Colors

     Early on, table linens were not thought of as a style or decorative aspect of the home.  Most table linens were natually colored or white as there made of hemp or linen.  It was difficult to find dyes that would withstand the rough conditions napkins endured during laundering.  Dyes were made from vegetable and animal extracts.

     During the Victorian era (1837-1901) things began to change.  Chemists formulated new and inexpensive dyes in many bright and water resistant colors.  This allowed table linens to be dyed in a wider range of colors to match the home’s decor.

     In the 21st Century napkins come in many different fabrics colors and sizes.  Napkin rings are no longer used to identify which napkin goes to who but are used as decorative accessories.  At The Linen Napkin I strive to keep the history alive in the pieces I create while moving forward into the future.


Comments are closed.