Errr, do you have a pen please?

How many times have you heard those words from behind the bar? How many times have you said them yourself? Silly of us really to not go to bars fully equipped with writing implements! The bar is, after all, where we have the BEST ideas (ahem!).

There is a curious phenomenon in the bar room, and one which is more significant than you may think. Ladies and gentlemen, one of the great stars of the bar, not just the bartenders pen (please give them back when your done. Thanks.), but rather…………. the Napkin!

From the collectors site http://napkins.czi.cz/

The Napkin does many things. It is, at the very least, a placemat for your drink and a collector of spillage, but it’s uses extend way, way beyond that! It is  also an advertising sticker for the bar or brands, it props up wobbly tables, wipes the froth from your mouth, polishes your shoe before the interview (though you shouldn’t have had the cheeky half!), makes roses, provides entertainment for your fingers when trying to kick the ciggys, is instrumental in bar magic, is the writing pad for phone numbers of sweethearts, directions for strangers and much much more!

The napkin, and specifically the beverage napkin, has a few different points of origin and indeed still exists in various guises.  It’s real rise to popularity though being the 50s and 60s where there was a new activity to break up the activities of the working day and the relaxing evening: Cocktail Hour, the American appropriation of English High Tea – Genius! (1).

What started as a light repose (maybe little over 20 minutes, slowly extended and hospitality etiquette recommended providing napkins and nibbles, so as to absorb the more copius amounts of booze consumed and not have your guests dribble on the soft furnishings!

It’s more ancient history goes back to the dinner table and should be seen as an extension to the table napkin. The Hotel/Restaurant banquet style of elaborate napkin folding and presentation has it’s roots in the medieval banquet and was then refined in the 16th Century dining hall. There are earlier references to the Romans and the use of Sudarium (essentailly a handkerchief) to mop their brows whilst dining, though in the middle ages, apparently bread, the back of your hand or your clothes was more than acceptable. (2)

The Last Supper by Bouts, Dieric the Elder 1467

Interestingly, it’s rise in popularity was one of etiquette and in honouring guests. Whilst there would be a long communal napkin or ‘coucher’ placed between guests to wipe on, there would also be a smaller serviette to indicate place settings for guests. I like that this still exists and that it is still instrumental as a tool in bartending. When a guest comes in, it should direct them towards the bartender and where they know there drink will be served.  If a guest enters the room and he bartender is rushed off their feet, it is the slightest acknowledgement that makes the person feel welcome (also it’s a great way for the bartender to remember who’s who and what order he is serving in!).  I like that people serve drinks on napkins, though i do sometimes wish it was earlier in the proceedings!

Not a historical beer coaster, but a genius one!

Before I get into the fun side of other things it is used for, it is worth mentioning it’s role as significantly different to the beer mat, although not completely distant. The beer mat hails from the end of the 19th century and where the Napkin is the heritage of the upper classes, the beer mat is that of the lower.  The invention of special beer mugs with moulded tin lids for the wealthy classes meant that they had a way of preventing insects or debris from falling into theirs beverage.

The working man resorted to the use of felt mat to perform the same job. By the 1900s, this was well practiced and following industrialisation and a change to paper pulp and cardboard, soon they were everywhere and a way for breweries to promote their products. Although similar in function to the napkin, beer mats generally were (and still are) shelled out on to tables before opening, and not too dissimilarly to the old felt ones, absorb copious amounts of ale and take on the familiar stale odor of the spit and sawdust ale house. (3)

So what of these other functions?

Well in thinking of the modern day napkin (and i’m disregarding coasters now!), i cannot help but express my sadness at the piles and piles of napkins in many bars which are placed into those bar caddy things lovingly branded by the big brands and then rarely used! If i am given a napkin, i will hold on to it until my drink is finished (sometimes they’ll end up in my pocket if i have nowhere to dispose of it or have maybe had a few too many!). I like them in all their shapes and sizes. Black ones make drinks look mean and sexy, circular frilly ones make a martini look fancy and elegant, funny ones provide endless entertainment and branded ones end up propping up the table. My favourite ones though, by far, are white ones!

Proposal by Rollin Kings in 1967 to Herb Kelleher for a new 'Southwest Airline'

Many a bartender will have written recipe ideas down on these little bits of paper, guys will have awoken to find the girl’s number stuffed lovingly into their wallets and sometimes, just sometimes, some magical idea will be noted down between friends or colleagues and be a turning point in history.  I’m not talking some hair brained crazy scheme of how to winch a grand piano into a 10th floor flat, rather the origins of enterprise.  I have been privvy to a few occasions where the particulars of finance and principal shareholding agreements have been drawn up on napkins.  And it’s more common than you may think!

I urge you all to read the article below on the napkin as Magna Carta, which details an exhibition called the ‘American Corporate Hall of Fame” in Toledo, Ohio with over 1000 napkins blemished with etchings and drawings that have formed the basis for huge business success stories (see image above for the birth of Southwest Airlines!) (4)

So the next time you’re at the bar by yourself, tearing the edges of napkin from around the base of your glass, think of the potential held in those little paper fibres and strike up a conversation.

Maybe get a number, maybe make your millions!

Good luck!

(1) http://www.webtender.com/handbook/shaker.html

(2) http://www.foodreference.com/html/art-history-napkins-729.html

(3) http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art45069.asp

(4) http://www.chiefexecutive.net/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&tier=4&id=35A5C7DCFCF64617B1151F4CD65D8927


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