In the United States, when setting the table, the napkin is typically placed to the left of the cover (one’s setting spot at the table), while in Europe, it is placed to the right of the spoon (think of the napkin as a car in each place- easy enough to remember!).
In the 16th century, napkins became an accepted form of refinement in dining, and by the 17th century, the standard napkin was about 35 inches wide by 45 inches long (this was a time when people ate with their hands and needed to wipe more food stuff off). In the 18th century, the fork was accepted by all classes of society and brought neatness to dining that reduced the size of the napkin to approximate 30×36 inches (whereas it had been much larger before). Today, napkins are made in a variety of sizes, but typically for a formal, multi-course meal, a large square napkin (between 22 and 26 inches on each side) is used.
At a formal affair, to save space at a place setting, the napkin is placed directly on the table or on a service plate (if one is already in place when guests are seated) in the center of a cover. At an informal meal, the napkin is placed wherever and however the host/hostess likes.
Napkins are sometimes folded into fun and/or fancy shapes. the 18″ napkin is easiest to fold in a decorative manner, and you can even create these artistic centerpieces at home! Your guests will love it. To retain shape, before folding a napkin, you can lightly starch the fabric and iron out any creases. Heavier fabrics will hold shape well, whereas lightweight fabrics are recommended for horizontal (closer to the table) folds. A wise hostess will have extra napkins ready just in case.
When you are dining, your napkin should be unfolded and placed in your lap. It should be kept there at all times until you leave the table. When you leave the table, be careful not to drop it on the floor, and do not leave it in a heap at your spot. Fold it (however you’d like) and place it along the left side of your place setting (so as to leave room for the next course to arrive in the center if you are away) or fold it (soiled side up) on your chair.
Note: I’ve had a number of people send their napkins back on their plates after the main course. I would not recommend making this a habit because:
1) you may need it for dessert as well.
2) the main course often has juices on the plate and the napkin will get even messier there than it did when you used it for your face and hands.
3) it makes it more difficult for servers to clear when they have to consider napkins as well. Their focus at that point is on getting your dishes back to the kitchen so that they can bring you the next part of your meal (which might be coffee or cake), so let them work! 🙂
A Few More Napkin Etiquette Notes:
– Before unfolding your napkin at a seated meal, wait for the hostess to remove her napkin from the table and unfold it in her lap. If the meal is buffet style, unfold it when you are ready.
– When messy finger food is served, such as shellfish or spare ribs, before tucking your napkin under your chin or tying it around your neck, look to the host to see if he does the same.
– Use the napkin to blot the lips, not wipe the mouth.
– When a napkin ring is provided, place it to the top left of the cover above the forks.
– Ladies: Please refrain from replenishing your lipstick before sitting down at the table. This is done to prevent an imprint of lipstick on the rim of a glass or a napkin.
Here are a few fun folds you can try yourself! I did these at home with napkins we got at Kohls and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Nothing super fancy, but they look pretty special, don’t they?!
– When sneezing or coughing at the table is unavoidable, turn your head to the side (careful not to sneeze on your neighbor or anyone’s food), cover your nose or mouth with a napkin and proceed as quietly as possible. Never use your napkin to wipe/blow your nose. Use a handkerchief or a tissue instead, and if needed, excuse yourself to go elsewhere and get a tissue or some toilet paper if you do not have anything.
– If you have to burp, cover your mouth with a napkin, quietly burp and softly say, “Excuse me”.
– If you have the hiccups, excuse yourself from the table until they have passed. Say sorry quietly when you return and move on 🙂 No biggie.