The humble table napkin has a surprisingly long and varied history. The Spartans used lumps of dough called apomagdalie, cut, rolled, and kneaded at table, to wipe their hands. The ancient Romans used lengths of cloth called mappa at the edges of eating couches to protect the furnishings.
In the early Middle Ages, people tended to wipe their hands and mouth with the tablecloth, so the French began putting smaller cloths on top of the tablecloth for guests to use (and so that the large tablecloth wouldn’t have to be changed so frequently).
By the Renaissance, the standard large napkin for table use was still extremely large, meant for people who ate mostly with knife and fingers. When forks became common during the 17th and 18th centuries, people began to value neatness in dining so greatly that they often didn’t use a napkin at all, or if they did, tried to keep it spotless.
Eventually, 30″ × 36 became the standard. As dining became more formalised, so did napkin rules. French etiquette guides called it “ungentlemanly to use a napkin for wiping the face or scraping the teeth, and a most vulgar error to wipe one’s nose with it,” and dictated that diners should not unfold their own napkin until the “person of highest rank” had.
Paper napkins, originating in medieval China, arrived in the West in the early 20th century.