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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Napkin Ring

Author: Paul J. Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.

( Article orginally published September 1963 )

It appears that the first device employed to hold the table napkin from one meal to another was a "nef" -a silver model of a sailing ship, "silver galloons all sails set and pennons flying," made with "scrupulous accuracy" which appeared about the middle of the 12th century.

G. Bernard and Therle Hughes, in their informative work, Three Centuries of Domestic Silver, 1500-1820, point out: "The deck, supporting masts, rigging, poop, and so on, acted as a removable lid over the hollow hull in which lay the owner's personal salt cellar, his boxes of special condiments, and Oriental spices, a pair of knives, and a spoon, a napkin, and the all-important assay with which the butler tested his master's wine to prove it free from poison. Before the lord's wife stood a less splendid nef for her spice-boxes and napkin."

These writers, moreover, state: "Ships have been recorded in Court circles without intermission from the middle of the twelfth century, when Henry II brought from his French province of Anjou two richly-wrought golden nefs with diamonds and pearls. Piers Vaeston at the Court of Edward II in 1320 boasted a silver-gilt nef on four wheels, the earliest recorded example of an undercarriage. Edward III, ten years later, was proud of a magnificent pedestal nef, its hull enriched with gilt dragons and provided with lock and key." They further indicate: "In early days the possession of a nef was confined by a rigid code of etiquette to royalty, the higher clergy, and nobles from the rank of earl, and such vessels were set before them with princely ceremony as they took their places at the higher table."

The British Museum has such a nef of the period around 1530. They were used as late as 1700. Hughes states that the nef, abandoned during the Cromwellian period, was again used with the restoration of the monarchy, but was now mounted on silver wheels with the hull designed to hold and serve wine, poured from a spout. Accordingly the wheeled nef was employed for about two centuries. The Papal collection records a wheeled nef about 1392. Moreover, some wheeled nefs were later placed on the dining table as centerpieces, containing sweetmeats.

A similar vessel, a navette, "graceful hulls, hand-raised, embossed, and silver-gilt without decks or riggings hold only the napkin." They seem to have been used in England around 1400. Sometimes they also held a silver spoon. Drepperd, in his Dictionary of American Antiques, defines a navette : "(1) a nef; a boat-shaped vessel of ecclesiastical usage for holding incense. (2) a sweetmeat box of ship form for a table. Some have clock movements and dials. Date is from 15th century or earlier."

On the other hand, Hayward in her work, The Connoisseur's Handbook of Antique Collecting, a dictionary, makes no mention of a navette, although she does define a nef as: "a vessel shaped like a ship and used in the later Middle Ages for the lord's napkin, knife and spoon."

As for the appearance of napkin rings, the Art Division of the New York Public Library writes: "According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known appearance of the term `napkin ring' in literature was on page 275 in a book entitled Workwoman's Guide, published in London in 1838. This handbook of needlework, knitting, etc. contained directions for knitting `checked napkin rings' to be stiffened with wire or buckram. Although the appearance of napkin rings in literature does not prove the date of their origin, it might be a clue as to the period in which they came into general use."

Mr. E. A. Lane, Keeper of the Department of Ceramics, Victoria and Albert Museum, writes: "The earliest reference to napkin-rings given in the New English Dictionary is 1839, and our Metalwork Department say that they can find no record of metal rings having been made before that date. It seems likely therefore that napkin rings were introduced in this country [England] in about the 1830s."

The DuPont Winterthur Museum mentions: "A glance at the Oxford English Dictionary reveals no reference to rings before 1839, and no reference to materials other than ivory (1860)." This museum also states: "The Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy (New York, 1845) which lists `the usual articles in silver required to furnish the table' . . . does not mention napkin rings. No mention of them is made in the listing of duties of various members of the household staff." Mrs. Kathryn Buhler, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, finds that in colonial times in New England: "In the inventory of Thomas Thacher (Suffolk Probate Court, Boston) in 1678, his plate included `& a napkin hooke.' In no other inventories have I chanced upon a similar silver piece."

Mrs. Duncan of Colonial Williamsburg Museum states: "The Williamsburg collection does not have a napkin ring in its collection. As far as I know there is no reference to them in our inventories nor are they advertised for sale in the 18th century Virginia Gazette published in Williamsburg."

One is inclined to believe that the napkin ring in the United States was employed during the latter part of the 19th century, possibly an influence of the Victorian age. Gibb, in his Harvard study, The White-Smiths of Taunton: A History of Reed and Barton, 1824-1943, reproduces the "Prices of Ware: Earliest Known Company Price List, 1837," reporting prices on over 20 items; no mention is made of napkin rings. Moreover, his table of "Sales by Product, September 1-October 20, 1857 for Plated Wares and Unplated Wares," mentions over 30 products; again no mention of napkin rings.

However, from the company's "Order Book, 1865-66," he shows that: "In 1865 Rogers and Brothers was one of the largest company customers, ordering 416 baskets, 32 pitchers, 37 fruit baskets, 25 vases, 38 syrups, 184 caster frames, 103 butter dishes, 28 urns, 307 goblets, 24 card stands, 131 napkin rings, 104 cups, 70 tea sets, and a large number of other items."

Thus, for the first time, napkin rings are mentioned.

Freeman and Beaumont, in Early American Plated Silver, claim: "The first patent for napkin rings was granted in 1869, and many subsequent design patents were registered until the early 1900s. Then the celluloid ring came into favor, all but eclipsing the silver type."

The Historical Research Library, The International Silver Company, a merger of early silversmiths in that area, reports: "We have looked back to our earliest catalogs dated 1853 and 1855 and there were no napkin rings listed at that time. Our next catalog is dated 1860 and there are three styles listed but not illustrated. These three were Oval, Concave, and Octagon, and they could be purchased plain or engraved. In 1871, the rings were still just plain bands, but by 1879 the era of very fancy napkin rings had set in and this period lasted until the 1890s. There were not only individual napkin rings but the rings were made in combination with other pieces such as a vase, butter dishes, or salts and peppers. Birds, animals and children were all very fashionable and the rings of this period were all very elaborate; many people have a hobby of collecting them."

Dauterman of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, a leading authority on antiques, writes in his Answer Box in the April 11, 1958 issue of the New York World-Telegram and Sun: "The history of napkin rings is one of the neglected areas of research among things collectible. Most napkin rings we have seen derive from the late years of the 19th century, when the designers of silver plate were having a spree."

As for cut glass napkin rings, it would seem they appeared late in the 19th century when cut glass was much in vogue. On the other hand, Daniel's excellent book, Cut and Engraved Glass, shows a photo of a cut glass napkin ring "probably made from Robinson glass by Eichbaum," who was a famous early Pittsburgh cutter around 1810.

The use of napkin rings was revived by some persons in the White House during the Eisenhower Administration as revealed by the Washington (D.C.) Sunday Star in its February 22, 1959 issue: "Although the Navy 'mess' at the White House was long for `men only,' it is now open to three women staff members. . . . Regulars at the `mess' have their own napkin rings, too, with their name in gold letters."

The convenience of paper napkins may be cited as the chief reason for the decline of napkin rings in private homes and boarding schools.

While it is beyond the scope of this study to trace the origin and development of table napkins, it may, be of some historical interest to record the brief statement of Good Housekeeping in their issue of December 1956: "The first table napkin made its appearance in Reims, France, in the court of Charles VII. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, napkins were a luxury, lace-trimmed and elaborately embroidered. They were used exclusively in the palaces of kings and princes. Later, in the seventeenth century, they began to play an important decorative part in table setting-folded and pleated to represent birds, flowers, and the like.

"In Europe these ornate foldings are still sometimes used, and the famous chef, Brillat-Savarin, claimed there were 400 ways to fold a napkin. In the United States today, however, simpler foldings are preferred."

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