History of the Cocktail Napkin

Cocktail napkins have captured moments of discovery, groundbreaking business concepts, and revolutionary ideas. These 5″ x 5″ quarter-folded squares are ubiquitous in restaurants and bars across the world. But where did they come from?

Who had the “cocktail napkin” idea to create the original cocktail napkin?

The answer is far messier (forgive the pun) than you’d imagine.

Believe it or not, the first paper napkin that resembled the modern cocktail napkin appeared in ancient China during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE). At the time, the Chinese used the small, folded paper napkins, known as chih pha, to hold their tea cups.

But it would be another millennium before cocktail napkins caught on in the United States and around the world.

Where Did Napkins Come From in the First Place?

Historians credit the Spartans with coming up with the concept of a napkin. They used a small lump of dough, called “apomagdalie,” to wipe their hands at the table. This gave rise to using sliced bread as well.

Ancient Romans used the first cloth napkins at the table. Guests would bring their own “mappae” to use during the meal and would fill the napkin with food upon departure, giving rise to the original doggy bag.

Napkins apparently disappeared briefly during the early Middle Ages, and then returned as a cloth that was laid over the table and used communally by dinner guests. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the individual napkin became more popular. And in the 18th century, the rise of the fork and “neatness” in eating corresponded with a reduction in size of the napkin.

Industrial Papermaking Gives Rise to the Paper Napkin and Cocktail Napkin

In 1887, the John Dickinson Stationery Company used paper napkins for the first time at a company party in the United States. Paper napkins didn’t take hold until after 1931, when the Scott Paper Company began selling them in the American market.

We don’t know when cocktail napkins went mainstream, but most believe that this likely coincided with the rise of cocktails that began during Prohibition and continued into the 1940s and 1950s.

Given the role that cocktail napkins have played in history, it’s a shame we don’t know more about their origin. While we may not be clear on the precise date, time, and location they were invented, we can be certain of the impact they’ve had on business, entertainment, technology, and progress in the decades since.