Napkin Technique

Damon Runyon

Abe Lastfogel, the New York theatrical booking agent, wants to know if it is proper to tuck the napkin in around the shirt collar when dining.

One corner of the serviette should be inserted in the collar just below the Adam’s apple and tucked down with the index finger about half an inch, so that it will not be dislodged by the undulations of the throat muscles in the process of swallowing. The rest of the napkin should be permitted to flow triangular-wise across the chest like an old-fashioned dickey.

If it is a napkin expansive enough to permit two other corners to be secured under the suspenders on either side of the diner’s chest, so much the better. This will give a flat, smooth effect, which is much neater than when the napkin just dangles downward by one corner from the collar as if it were on a washline. It is also much more protective, especially on soup which sometimes sprays off at unexpected angles from the spoon when you blow on it for cooling purposes.

We realize that in speaking for the flat effect we are disagreeing with those authorities who hold that the bulk of the napkin should be bunched up under the chin. We consider this arrangement inartistic and also old-fashioned. It probably goes back to the days when many gentlemen diners wore beards and it was considered a good scheme to mop up the overflow as near the source as possible.

We realize, too, that we are at variance with that school of thought that contends for the napkin laid across the lap and sneers at the napkin suspended from the collar as a breach of etiquette. However, we are inclined to dismiss the napkin in the lap as sheer affectation. We defy anyone to prove that the napkin so located is either decorative or effective, save as it serves the lady diners as a buffer for their finger nails or as a wiper for their lipstick and even they could just as well use the edge of the tablecloth.

Surely it will not be denied that there is much waste motion involved in the napkin in the lap which is eliminated by the napkin in the collar. The thing is elemental. A gentleman diner in the course of a single meal will lift his napkin from his lap and replace it at least a half dozen times, which represents a certain loss of muscular energy. If he has his napkin in his collar he can employ all his strength on his food, without even lowering his hands below the surface of the table.

If in the course of his dining his countenance requires the occasional attention of that delicate nature for which the napkin is designed, his wife ought to be able to take care of the matter with a few loving dabs with her kerchief. A man at his dining should not be troubled by details. Nor should he have to deal with the element of worry which enters into the situation of the napkin in the lap.

A gentleman diner with his napkin so placed has to keep thinking about the hazards of spots on his necktie and weskit, or, if in evening clothes, on his shirt bosom. This is mental disturbance and doctors will tell you that mental disturbance reduces appetite. It is a scientific fact that no man with his napkin in his lap can eat as heartily as the diner who wears it in his collar.

The difference in food consumption between these diners when they are in street clothes is perhaps 25 per cent, in evening clothes it is 50 per cent. That is to say, the man in evening clothes dining with the napkin in his lap will eat only half as much food as a diner in evening clothes with his napkin in his collar. The former will not only be worrying about spotting his shirt bosom but about the remarks his wife will make if he does.

We do not know who first conceived the idea of the napkin in the lap but it may have been some laundryman of the genius of a George Preston Marshall who wanted to increase the laundry business. Certainly it could not have been with any thought of beautifying the appearance of diners, especially the ladies when they are dining in those evening gowns with the low necks. We think some of them would be much improved if they tied their napkins around their necks and thus provided themselves with awnings.

Maybe the same genius who thought up the idea of the napkin in the lap also invented the paper napkin, which is a total loss to a man who likes to tuck his napkin in his collar. The liquids seep right through the paper and even as soft an object as a loose boiled potato bouncing off the chest is apt to cut right through a paper napkin and scatter. The only thing to do in an establishment that insists on providing paper napkins is to borrow a bib.

Much of the romance and picturesqueness of dining would pass away if the napkin in the collar was abolished. The spectacle of a diner so panoplied is cheerful and argues a well-fed fellow, who enjoys his food. Moreover, it is a democratic gesture of which we have too few left in this country.

The napkin in the lap has its staunch adherents. They are mostly skinny persons. However, we think that even they will concede the superiority of the napkin in the collar when they are advised of the origin of the napkin in the lap as explained by William Moffitt. Mr. Moffitt states that the napkin in the lap was born of skulduggery. He says it goes back to a most corrupt era in England in the 18th century, when Walpole was Prime Minister.

It seems that Walpole used to like to pass a little money around among his deserving political followers, especially those in the social set. He would give big dinners and the guests would find theirs in their folded napkins. It was much more genteel than just taking them into the powder room or up an alleyway and handing it to them in an envelope.

Before Walpole introduced this classy method of taking care of the boys, the napkin in the collar was the vogue. But naturally a guest at a Walpole dinner soon got leery of shaking out his napkin preparatory to unfurling it ’neath his second chin, lest he inadvertently strike a lady across the table in the eye with a flying pound sterling.

That would have caused gossip. The guests soon learned to drop the napkins unfolded in their laps and to transfer the packet to the pocket from there. As they were the hot men of society in those days the rabble got the idea that this was the proper place to wear the napkin, and thus the napkin in the lap became a custom which endures to this day in many circles.

We mentioned Mr. Moffitt’s explanation of the origin of the custom to an old-time New York politician, and he said Walpole’s guests must have been a lot of cheap skates to be satisfied with just what you could get in a napkin, unless they had napkins in that period the size of Ringling’s maintop. He said he certainly did not see how you could hide a tin box in an ordinary napkin.

The tin box became somewhat noted in New York political circles a few years back as the place where a politician might happen upon surprising sums of money if he looked hard. The tin box was perhaps the lineal descendant of the black bag of a more remote political period in the United States.

We do not recall any notable discoveries in napkins in our time, but we remember when some big league baseball players got to finding money under their pillows. It was wrong money, as it turned out. Twenty-one years ago, come next World Series, it was. The Cincinnati Reds had won the National League championship and were opposed to the Chicago Sox of the American League and the Sox were as good a ball club as was ever mobilized and figured to massacre the Reds. Then gamblers made a deal with important members of the Sox to throw the Series. The ball players put it over, too. They were paid various amounts, the sum total a mere pittance compared to what the gamblers won, and when the exposé came and the players had to explain where they got the money, some of them said they found it under their pillows. The explanation was deemed implausible. In those days practically nobody was going around placing anything under anybody’s pillow.

The guilty ball players were given the hoovus-goovus from baseball for the rest of their lives. Among them were some of the greatest players that ever laced on cleated shoes—Buck Weaver, a third baseman, for one, and “Shoeless Joe” Jackson for another. “Shoeless Joe,” as he was then, would now be worth $300,000 of any ball club’s money. He was the greatest natural hitter we ever saw, not barring Babe Ruth or the mighty Ty Cobb.

Against that lively ball of today, “Shoeless Joe” would be hitting ’em across townships. He could hit .350 when he was just clowning and better .400 when he was serious. You talk about hitters—why that old “Shoeless Joe” could drive the ball farther with the breeze on his missed strikes than most ball players can send it off their bats. Ask anybody that ever saw him in action, or look up the book on him.

We felt sorrier for Joe than any of the others. He was not a smart fellow except up at that plate. There he was the wisest man in the world. We do not remember now where he said he found his bit of the wrong money. Maybe he was one of the pillow men. It is a cinch he did not find it in his napkin because “Shoeless Joe” was strictly a devotee of the napkin in the collar, a fact that causes us to doubt that the napkin there, protective and democratic though it may be, is always the badge of complete integrity.