The earliest-known napkins were actually pieces of dough called “apomagdlies,” which the Spartans rolled and kneaded to clean their hands during meals. Before we arrived at the familiar cloth napkins that cover your lap, ancient diners used tablecloths, communal towels, or the edges of their garments to keep their hands clean while eating.
But beginning in the late Middle Ages, a few wealthy Europeans adopted napkins made of cotton, linen, or silk for their most ceremonious meals. During this period, the placement and size of napkins varied depending on the rank of the person using them.
In the 17th century, the court of King Louis XV at Versailles set the trend for table settings, which included utensils and napkins for each guest, though they were a bit larger than those we use today. Soon, Europe’s finest culinary experience required elaborately folded napkins, mimicking everything from animals to architecture, which held place cards, menus, or even parts of a meal.
By the mid-18th century, manufacturers began producing matching sets of tablecloths and napkins, often made from the finest linen. Stemming from the looks of fashionable royal table settings, monogrammed napkins became common for refined place settings in middle-class homes during the 19th century.
Throughout the 20th century, napkin styles followed other fabric trends incorporating embroidery, lace, crochet, cutwork, textile prints, and, eventually, synthetic materials. Today, collectors often search for napkins on a certain theme, whether it’s seasonal paper designs, embroidered cocktail napkins, or those made by a specific designer, like the prolific mid-century artist Vera Neumann.