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Napkin Rings and Saving Ways

by Julia Sneden

A few years ago as I was strolling through the china department of a local department store, I came across a dining table display that set me to giggling. The linens, china, crystal and silver were all quite elegant and carefully coordinated. The flower arrangement was a stunner. What set me off was the sight of twelve perfectly matched napkin rings, each correctly placed on the napkin to the left of the forks.

The fad for matched napkin rings has grown since then, and nowadays even the catalogues feature such sets. Excuse me, but doesn't anybody in this modern generation realize why we HAD napkin rings in the old days? They weren't meant for decor, and they certainly weren't meant to match. They were simply a means of identification that allowed us to reuse our napkins, usually for a week at a time. In the days before miracle laundry machines, before detergents with or without bleach, (never mind cold-water soaps or power boosters) people didn't toss napkins into the laundry after every meal.

Anyone who has ever hand-scrubbed a damask napkin across a washboard, rinsed it, set it in the sun to bleach, hung it on the line to dry, dampened it before ironing, and then ironed and folded it and placed it back in the drawer, is not about to take on the task more often than necessary. Unless there had been an utter disaster like a spill of grape juice, or an emergency napkin thrown on spilled gravy to keep it from flowing over the edge of the table, or an uncle who had had a bit too much Scotch and thoughtlessly blew his nose on the best double damask, we refolded our napkins at meal's end and placed them neatly in napkin rings that were clearly ours, each one different from anyone else's. If they weren't of different design, at least they sported one's initials engraved in the silver. Those who couldn't afford silver often crocheted the rings in a different color or pattern for each family member, so that from meal to meal you used the same napkin and contended with your own germs only.

The idea of mistakenly using someone else's napkin would have caused us as much disgust as the younger generations now feel at the idea of actually reusing a napkin for seven days in a row. I can still in my mind's eye see the napkin rings that belonged to each of the seven members of my family, perhaps because setting the table was my job from the age of about four, as was polishing the silver rings every couple of months.

Daddy had inherited his Grandpa Barnhart's napkin ring, a very heavy, masculine circle of silver edged with parallel, raised silver bands. Mother's was a flat clip, silver in a triangular floral design with her name, "Mary," engraved in the center. My grandmother Kelsey had a wide silver band, chased with pretty curlicues, flowers, and stars, and a raised, fluted edge. Great Aunt Martha's was a narrow one that had belonged to her mother, with the initials APB (Abigail Pomeroy Burleson) in script on it. Grandmother Brown had one that had a scalloped edge. My brother's resembled a drum. Mine was an absolutely plain band about an inch and a half wide that my grandmother Kelsey gave me with the promise that she would one day have it engraved with "Whatever your initials will be," meaning that I was expected to grow up and get married and have a new last name. I never got around to taking her up on that, and after my first marriage went awry, was glad that I hadn't, or I'd have had to wait for a second husband whose surname began with a "C"! I use that ring to this day. It is still perfectly plain, and it suits me fine.

There is one other ring, one that my mother used from time to time for company. It is quite ornate: a concave silver ring, with delicate, raised silver roping at the flared top and bottom edges. There are large initials in fancy script elegantly engraved around the center: "M.S.A.K. from G.W.R.," with attendant small designs. My great uncle Otto, who inherited the ring from his aunt M.S.A.K., had an additional, explanatory message engraved, just under the roping: "Georgie W. Richmond to Miranda Sarah Ann Kelsey" around the top, and at the bottom: "Then to Otto Kelsey, November 1876."

We know that Miranda was born in 1817, and died in 1871. She never married, and was lady principal of the school where my great grandfather (her brother) met my great grandmother (her pupil). Legend has it that the first night he went into the dining room during a visit to his sister's school, Great Grandfather looked up and saw a beautiful girl coming down the stairs. "Who is that?" he demanded.

"Oh, Charlie," his sister snapped, "she's just some farmer's daughter from over t' Wyoming County. You can do better than that!" Apparently Charlie didn't think so. He married her and fathered four children, the youngest of whom eventually became my grandfather.

Of Georgie W. Richmond, we know nothing. Nor do we know the occasion for her gift of an engraved napkin ring. The mind creates its own scenarios: Was she a former student with a crush? (Unlikely: surely she'd never have addressed her teacher as anything but "Miss Kelsey"); a teacher in the school? an old friend or neighbor? Was the relationship perhaps one of those Victorian "passionate friendships?" Or was Georgie perhaps a man?

We'll never know, of course, nor will we know how the napkin ring came into the hands of Uncle Otto five years after Miranda Sarah Ann's death. She died in Iowa, and by then her nephew Otto was a young lawyer in Geneseo, NY. But Miranda Sarah Ann Kelsey and Georgie W. Richmond live on in my imagination, and the napkin ring lies in a drawer with the good napkins.

My family's use of fine linen napkins and silver napkin rings labeled us as dinosaurs even when I was young. We fortunately had a washing machine, even though we didn't get a dryer until the early '50s. But we also had three elderly ladies living in our household, all of them eager to be helpful. My wise mother gratefully accepted their services for simple chores like ironing or mending. Not only was she relieved from those chores; the grandmothers and auntie felt (and were) useful. The two grandmothers took turns ironing the napkins, and Aunt Martha would sit nearby, reading aloud. It was a pretty good deal. Nowadays when I iron, I listen to music or turn on the television, but neither one of those can touch the magic of Aunt Martha's voice.

I must confess that I no longer use the damask napkins except for holiday dinners. Wash and wear is definitely the way to go. Nor do I keep napkins on the table for a whole week. But I do use the napkin rings, and I don't wash the napkins after one use. I dare say I've saved precious little in the way of detergent and water by using them as I do, but they're certainly cheaper than paper napkins.

We children of the Depression had all sorts of small, saving ways drummed into us.

    • If you got a spot on your blouse, you didn't toss it into the hamper; you "spot-cleaned" it at once. Clothes were worn much longer between washings, and as a result, they lasted longer, too.

    • If you left a room, you turned out the lights.

    • When you brought groceries into the kitchen, you sorted out all the items that needed to be refrigerated, stacking them next to the 'fridge so that you had to open the door only once to put everything away. My grandmother told me that that was a holdover from the days when the icebox really had a cake of ice in it, and you wanted to let in as little warm air as possible. It seems to me that in these days of power shortages, it's still a good idea.

    • At night, the thermostat was turned down to 55 and we burrowed under quilts. Oh, how cold those floors seemed when we stepped out on a winter morning! Mind you, this was California, where the temperature rarely dropped below 40. My grandmother used to laugh and tell me that when she was a girl in Minnesota, there was often ice on the water she had to use to wash her face, because the washstand stood near the window!

    • Out by the chimney, there was a large, covered barrel of rainwater that was meant for watering flowers in case an exceptionally dry summer brought on water rationing. We children thought it would also be useful to fight a fire, although anyone who has ever seen a dry grass wildfire knows that a barrel of rainwater, no matter how large, would not be very effective.

    • Thrifty habits came into the meal planning, too. During the war, gas rationing meant that my mother did her grocery shopping once a week at best, so menus were carefully coordinated and planned. Leftovers were cleverly made into soups. Unused pancake or waffle batter became the base for wonderful bread for supper. Scraps of pastry were folded over a dollop of fruit, baked, and put into our lunch boxes for dessert, or sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, twisted, and baked to make a kind of cookie. No one could get every last scrap and scrape out of a jar like my Aunt Martha, who was also renowned for the amount of time she'd spend running her finger along the inside of an eggshell, making sure that every bit of the white went into the pan.

    • In those days, we didn't recycle, although we did save scrap metal for the war effort. Schools encouraged children to bring in cans and tin foil. We lived high on a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay and the towns that were strung along the railroad track that ran parallel to the bay. I can still remember looking down at freight trains, so small in the distance that they resembled my brother's set of Lionel electric trains. They rolled along several times a day, pulling great strings of flatcars filled with scrap metal that winked up at us in the bright sunlight.

    • Women were reminded to pour off cooking fat into a container to deliver to the grocery store for the war effort. ("Ladies, bring your fat cans to your butcher!"). We never figured out what they did with all that grease.

    • We did our own kind of recycling, I guess. Canning jars, of course, were reused. Inner tubes with holes in them were patched and used again, or, if they were too worn, used with joy by the children at a local lake. Tires that had seen too much wear became swings. Great Grandmother's petticoat was remade into a pinafore for me. A cousin in the navy in the Pacific sent us a captured Japanese parachute made of sturdy silk, which my grandmothers and Aunt Martha proceeded to turn into underwear for all the family's females, from 83-year-old auntie to six-year-old daughter (me). Aunt Martha even recycled hair: whenever anyone in the family had a haircut, she'd sweep up the wisps and stuff them into sewn-up fabric scraps to make pin cushions, because she claimed that the oil in the hair kept pins and needles from getting rusty.

At times, my grandmother was a little embarrassed about her saving ways. "It's my New England ancestors," she'd say as she wound 12 inches of unused thread back onto a spool. "They nag me from the grave when I start to throw things away." The other day I found myself labeling a small box: "Bent Nails to be Straightened." I guess my ancestors are nagging me, too, even if the most recent ones came from California, not New England. Somehow in this age of over consumption and throwaways, I'm not a bit embarrassed to claim them.



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