One thing that has caused a great discussion over the 20th century is the simple question, what is the correct term, Napkin or Serviette? What exactly is a Napkin and a Serviette? Well, before we go into the correct term, lets solve the issue as to what exactly they are.
Napkins, Serviettes or face cloths are pieces of cloth used in dining situations for wiping the mouth and fingers to clean excess food etc from your face and protect you from spills and crumbs which you may acquire during a meal. The word Napkin comes from the French word nappe which is a cloth for covering a table.
Before we used the cloth we have today, the Romans would use a lump of dough (bread) to wipe their hands. The Romans then had a cloth which was pocket sized and would be carried by them which they would use to mop their brow and was called a sudaria. They also had another cloth called the mappae which was made in medium and large lengths. This went over the edge of the sofa as a protection for the food they took in a reclining position. The fabric was also used to blot the lips. The mappae was used to take away leftovers, so in theory the first ever doggy bag.
During the middle ages the napkin disappeared and you would wipe your hands on whatever came to hand. It was not long until cloths began to be laid on the table of which there were three. These cloths were of a certain length and one was used to wipe your hands and mouth and this evolved to a piece of fabric draped over the arm of the servant. By the 16th century, napkins began to be made of different sizes for different events. In the seventeenth century, the napkin was 35 inches wide and 45 inches long, however when forks became part of fine dining, the napkin reduced in size as diners were less messy thanks to the use of knives and forks together.
The French court had codes of etiquette for the aristocracy, which included how to use a napkin, when to use it and finally how far to unfold it in the lap. A French treatise dating from 1729 stated that "It is ungentlemanly to use a napkin for wiping the face or scraping the teeth and a most vulgar error to wipe one's nose with it.” This of course is very much still the rule for using a napkin to this day. In 1740 table cloths were made with matching napkins. Dining Napkins can be from 18” x 18” up to 27” x 27”.
Now to a Serviette which is a also piece of cloth or paper and again similar to a napkin but this was used more for meals where you stand up, similar to cocktail napkins. The Chinese are believed to have used paper napkins in 2 BC. A serviette is an old French meaning “to serve”.
In 1954 Nancy Mitford wrote in her essay on “The English Aristocracy” that to say serviette was not correct and the right term is napkin. This of course is a debate that continues as some people mistakenly think that a paper napkin is a serviette which is course is incorrect as a napkin is made from paper as well as cloth. As mentioned, napkin means cloth which is exactly what we use to this very day for formal meals. Paper Napkins tend to be used for cocktail receptions and similar.
When it comes to using a Napkin, it is opened and placed on the lap. It is normally opened fully to protect you from crumbs, however on occasions ladies and gentlemen will place it on the chest, below the neck to protect the clothes especially when wearing ballgowns etc. Ladies may also place the napkin on their laps with the napkin half folded with the crease away from them so they can use a corner nearest to dab their lips and then place back down so any possible lip stick stains are hidden. Napkins only get placed on the table once the meal is finished, however if you need to leave the table during the meal then the napkin is placed on the chair.