A rolled napkin in a napkin ring

A napkin, serviette or face towelette is a rectangle of cloth used at the table for wiping the mouth and fingers while eating. It is usually small and folded, sometimes in intricate designs and shapes. The word comes from Middle English, borrowing the French nappe—a cloth covering for a table—and adding -kin, the diminutive suffix.


'Serviette' can be heard in the United Kingdom, Ireland, some parts of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In Australia and New Zealand, 'serviette' generally refers to the paper variety and 'napkin' refers to the cloth variety. The same distinction was used in Canada until the very early 1980s, but nowadays 'serviette' is rarely used.

In the UK, napkins are traditionally U and serviette non-U.

Description and history

A folded napkin

Conventionally, the napkin is often folded and placed to the left of the place setting, outside the outermost fork. In a restaurant setting or a caterer's hall, it may be folded into more elaborate shapes and displayed on the empty plate. Origami techniques can be used to create a three-dimensional design. A napkin may also be held together in a bundle with cutlery by a napkin ring. Alternatively, paper napkins may be contained with a napkin holder.

Napkins were used in ancient Roman times. One of the earliest references to table napkins in English dates to 1384–85.[1]

Summaries of napkin history often say that the ancient Greeks used bread to wipe their hands. This is suggested by a passage in one of Alciphron's letters (3:44), and some remarks by the sausage seller in Aristophanes' play, The Knights.[2] The bread in both texts is referred to as apomagdalia, which simply means bread from inside the crust known as the crumb, and not special "napkin bread".[3] The use of paper napkins is documented in ancient China, where paper was invented in the 2nd century BC.[4] Paper napkins were known as chih pha, folded in squares, and used for the serving of tea. Textual evidence of paper napkins appears in a description of the possessions of the Yu family, from the city of Hangzhou.[5]


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898
  3. ^ Liddell and Scott, Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, 1889
  4. ^ Tsien, Tsuen-Hsuin (1985). "Paper and Printing". Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Chemistry and Chemical Technology. 5 part 1. Cambridge University Press. p. 38. 
  5. ^ Joseph Needham (1985). Science and Civilisation in China: Paper and Printing. Cambridge University Press. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-521-08690-5. At this time, tea was served from baskets made of rushes which held tea cups with paper napkins (chih pha).