Linens and things — part I

I hadn’t thought about this until I started to write this post but now I realize that I’m picky about restaurant napkins. I abhor polyester and am sort of iffy about colors. My favorite fold is a compact, squarish one called “the book.” Last night I went to a very nice place in Western Massachusetts. The food was delicious and everything was perfect – almost. Approaching the table, I felt the tiniest inadvertent ripple of irritation at seeing napkins folded to resemble a tuxedo. (Thought that flashed through my mind: Do they think their guests are that “easy”?) Please, no trickiness. No bishop’s hats [pictured below], and especially no fans with either side hanging limply from a goblet.

Do restaurateurs imagine that guests will critique their napkin folds? I hope they have better things to focus on. Actually though, it’s not really a new area of complaint. Twentieth-century consultants advised that men disliked small, ladylike napkins or ones that left lint on dark suits. But it was the lack of cleanliness in table linens that drew the most disapproval from guests, especially in the 19th century. How endless were the complaints about filthy tablecloths, themselves sometimes used as napkins for hands and mouths when none were provided – which was often.

After the hungry hordes finished breakfast in American hotels, one London visitor remarked in the 1840s, they left behind tablecloths littered with food fragments and overturned crockery and “defiled with stains of eggs, coffee, gravy.” In cheap restaurants the stains could accumulate for days before the cloth would be replaced.

Increasingly a first-class restaurant was distinguished by its immaculate linens. Some said Delmonico’s taught discriminating diners to expect this. However, in the 1890s, and no doubt later, some lunch counters furnished nothing more than a common towel hanging from a hook. Other restaurants, clearly not first-class, folded napkins nicely and placed them in a glass but, trouble was, they had already been used by other people.

As early as 1885 some eating places began to substitute paper napkins for cloth, a move that was hailed by the hygiene-minded. A Philadelphia restaurant run by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union adopted them in the 1890s, as did modern self-service chain lunch rooms which placed table casters on tabletops which held napkins, condiments, and silverware [though in this image the napkins look like cloth].

In the early 20th century almost all tea rooms used paper napkins, often dainty ones imported from Japan or China. They also did away with tablecloths, leaving tabletops bare or using doilies or placemats. Tea room proprietors were motivated not only by a wish to cut laundry expense but also because they were of a time and social class that believed it was more sanitary to rid interiors of the excessive furbelows of the Victorian age. Reflecting this mentality, Alice Foote MacDougall remarked in a 1928 article titled “Eating Aesthetically,” “There is nothing particularly alluring about long rows of tables, standing like shrouded sepulchers in winding sheets of more or less unsanitary tablecloths.”

As the 20th century wore on most restaurants got rid of tablecloths making them something of a rarity, resulting in the term “white-tablecloth restaurant” for more luxurious establishments.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

3 Comments

Filed under restaurant customs

3 responses to “Linens and things — part I

  1. I’ve been following this blog for a while. Each post is a fascinating little delight. Thanks!

  2. murphy

    I do have a soft spot for the pigeonholes in French restaurants, where the regulars could store their individual linen napkins. They looked like mailboxes from a hotel or something — is this a thing of the past, too?

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