Most girls have a thing for shoes, diamonds, or pretty nails. I have a thing for beautiful table settings. I adore china patterns, love creative centerpieces, and as of late, I have a desire for cloth dinner napkins.
Paper napkins are actually quite new, gaining their popularity over the last 50 years. They certainly make for easy clean up and are economical. And they are nice to have for those really messy meals, like barbecue ribs. However, they just don't have the charm of a cloth napkin and none of the interesting history. Here are a few fun facts from Suzanne von Drachenfels's The Art of the Table:
The Spartans used a type of sliced bread, called apomagdalie, to wipe their hands on. (Whew! Glad we don't have to use that one!)
In ancient Rome, various size napkins were used including one that was small, like a handkerchief, to blot the brow during meals due to the warm climate in the Mediterranean.
In the early Middle Ages, the napkin disappeared from the table and folks used whatever was handy, even if it meant their own clothing!
Later, three cloths were added to the table. The first, called a couch, was laid out for the head of the table. Then the surnappe, was placed on top to designate a place for an honored guest. Finally, a communal cloth hung like a swag from the edge of the table for everyone else to use. Dieric Bouts painted such a cloth in his work The Last Supper as seen at the right (photo from Web Gallery). Finally, in the late part of the middle ages, it was reduced to the size of a bath towel.
Jumping to the sixteenth century, napkins became an accepted form of refined dining. Several sizes continued to be used depending on the type of meal served, whether one was standing or sitting. Remember, utensils were not commonly used, so one ate with his or her hands making a napkin an essential item. But as refined dining gained prominence, the fork was added and thus the size of the napkin was reduced to accommodate just keeping the mouth tidy. By the 18th century it was common to find such items on the tables of all classes.
But enough history, I want to talk twenty-first century. I'd like to add that you're really saving the environment if you use cloth napkins, but I'm not sure it's a strong argument. It may save a tree, but the cloth napkins must be washed and will require detergents. Also, I suspect most paper napkins are biodegradable and can be easily composted. On the other hand, many of us use high efficiency washers and safer laundry soaps. Then there is the fact that cloth napkins are made from sources that are quickly renewable, so perhaps it would be a benefit.
Paper napkins are very inexpensive, but they must be purchased again and again. Cloth napkins are initially more expensive, but are used for a longer period of time. Then again, one would incur expenses for caring for cloth napkins. Eventually, they would need to be replaced. (What fun! I love the different fabrics!)
Time is a factor as well. Paper napkins require two seconds worth of time. Cloth napkins...well, let's say you would have to really love using them and like to iron! (More electricity... but, my tweens have always loved to iron napkins. It's a great item to start learning on.)
I could go on and on battling this back and forth. But let's face it. We've lost the art of gracious dining. Our families eat on the run and rarely do families sit down together for a meal. If they do, it probably is only once or twice a week; certainly not the norm. We treat our guests better than our own. Can't we treat both our guests and our family like we care? Wouldn't it be a gift to our family to occasionally set a lovely table just for them, because we love and value them?
I've been picking up napkins lately in bunches of 8 or 12. When I find a pattern or fabric I really like, I can hardly resist. (I try to watch for sales and I've considered making some of my own.) Regardless, I find that the napkins stay in the dinning room drawer - waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more.