QUESTION: I’ve been collecting napkin rings for quite a while. To date, I have about 50 or 60. I’ve always been intrigued by the multitude of designs and materials from which they’re made. Recently, I was thinking that I don’t really know how they got started. Can you tell me the origin of napkin rings? To they go back a long time or are they a relatively recent invention?
ANSWER: While most people today use napkin rings for special holiday dinners or special dinner parties, in fact, they had a totally different use when they first appeared.
People use napkin rings, sometimes called christening bangles, to hold table napkins neatly on a dining table. Historians believe they were originally handmade from strips of fabric and used to identify the napkin of each user between weekly wash days so each person could continue using the exact same one as a way of keeping illnesses at bay.
The Chinese invented paper in the 2nd century BCE and soon after created paper napkins. People used paper folded in squares, known as chih pha, when serving tea.
Around 1800, members of the French bourgeoisie originally gave single silver napkin rings engraved with the name of the owner as christening gifts and pairs of them as wedding gifts. Soon, they became available in numbered sets of 4, 6, 8, 10, or 12 in all countries of the western world. Most 19th century napkin ring makers made them of silver or silver plate, as well as bone, wood, pearl embroidery, porcelain, glass, and other materials. In the 20th century, bakelite and other new materials were used.
Napkin rings appear as single items with the name or initials of the owner, notably given as christening presents, or pairs often given as gifts at weddings and silver weddings. In the English speaking countries, numbered sets of 4, 6, 8, 10 or 12 napkin rings are found. Napkin rings are an invention of the European bourgeoisie, first appearing in France about 1800 and soon spreading to all countries in the western world. Most 19th century napkin rings were made of silver or silver plate, but others were made in bone, wood, pearl embroidery, porcelain, glass, and other materials. In the 20th century, they used Bakelite and other plastics.
Almost every silversmith in Europe and in the United States made sterling silver and plated napkin rings. Even the basic rings sometimes had fluted borders, scrolled patterns, and sections of satin finish.
Americans loved figural napkin rings—a simple napkin ring part of which was a small figure or sculpture that could take any shape and show any motif. Special rings made for children with little chicks, dogs, and cats were a favorite gift for christenings and Christmas. But beautifully designed rings with floral motifs, monograms and other design elements were just as popular.
Upper middle and upper class Victorian families used napkin rings for fashionable and refined dining from shortly after the Civil War to shortly before World War I. During this time, napkin rings were especially elaborate and artistic. Many makers created napkin rings set on a platform base along with an ornate figure of a bird, flower, or cherub.
People considered napkin rings personal items, so they had them engraved with an individual's name, initials, or family designation such as Mother and Father.
Sculptured fruit such as cherries and gooseberries, flowers including lilies and roses, a snail and shell, a frog and lily pad, a dog house with a dog at the door, butterflies and fans, are only a few of the Victorian fancies now available to the collector as a result of the variety which were manufactured.
The Meriden Britannia Company Probably was the largest and most prolific of the silver plated napkin ring manufacturers. Their catalogs sometimes included a half dozen pages of just rings.
Other sterling silver napkin rings came from Reed and Barton, William Rogers, Gorham, Tufts, Unger Brothers, Wilcox and even the legendary Tiffany. By 1893 Marshal Field Company of Chicago was proudly offering napkin rings of "engraved satin” or of 'bright silver and gold lined."
To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my Web site. And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the early 20th century in the Fall 2018 Edition, "20th Century Ltd.," online now.