Napkin Rings and Saving Ways: Initials Engraved in Silver, Rings That Were Clearly Ours, Each One Different From Anyone Else's
Family heirloom silver napkin rings; Wikipedia
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.
Library of Congress image: Poster for the Philadelphia Salvage Committee encouraging scrap drives to aid the war effort. Prints and Photographs Division.
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