Even if they were fancy people, the Washingtons had to wipe food off their faces just like the rest of us. Luckily they had some very fancy napkins.
Sometime in the 1790s George Washington purchased a set of 48 napkins with a neoclassical design of lacy swags, flower-filled urns and florid vines. Back then tableware, including linens and napkins for each guest, were critical for establishing societal status.
Washington’s table napkins were no exception, and either he or Martha Washington had each one numbered with an embroidered laundry mark so that they could be rotated for use, thereby wearing them out at a greatly reduced rate. Napkins and linens were often marked with the owner’s initials and the number of items in the set, but the individual numbering of each item was not as common.
Perhaps this fastidious record keeping was due in some small part to Washington’s propensity to notice such napery. In 1760 he noted scornfully after attending one ball that “pocket handkerchiefs served the purposes of Tablecloths & Napkins.”
Slaves would have ironed the napkin, whose origin was likely Ireland. The cross stitching was likely carried out by a paid servant or a slave.
Linen damask napkins have been in use since the sixteenth century. Although they were originally for aristocrats, by the time the Washingtons were daubing and wiping their mouths with them, they were commonly used by the gentry and those aspiring to that status.
By the mid-eighteenth century, napkin decorum was much the same as it is today: napkins were placed beside or on top of a plate and then kept in the lap to prevent stains and wipe the mouth.
Looks like a lot of things – including people’s propensity to spill food – haven’t changed in the past few hundred years.
Assistant Curator Alison Bliss contributed to this report.
Object Spotlight is a regular feature that highlights household belongings used by the Washingtons. Check out Mount Vernon’s eMuseum to explore more Washington-related objects.
Gift of Constance Lee Peterkin, 1926 [W-582]