The 11 napkins in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection

The eleven napkins of the Art Institute of Chicago

The fine art of napkins. Art that you can wipe your mouth with. The Art Institute currently has 11 napkins in their permanent collection. The height of the napkin collecting craze occured from 1983 to 1996. Nine of the eleven napkins were folded into the Art Institute collection during this 13-year span. (the other two napkins coming in at 1947 and 1972).


Why would the Art Institute catch the napkin fever during the 1980s and early 1990s? Perhaps the Art Institute has actually only dipped their toes into the napkin world. 7,858 textiles are in the Art Institute’s collection. Just one-tenth of a percent of their textiles are napkins. Out of every 700 pieces of textile art in their collection, there is one napkin. One.


Given the rarity of napkins in the Art Institute’s collection, let’s take a look at each one. Along with each napkin is my commentary on its significance in the lore of napkin history.



Napkin Commemorating the Marriage of Louis XIV


Table Napkin Commemorating the Marriage of Louis XIV (1638–1715) and Marie-Therese (1638–1683) in 1660, c. 1660



You’d have to think that someone stole this napkin while at the Louis XIV’s wedding. Do you think it was customary in the 1600s to take the wedding napkins home with you?



Napkin from the Linnelinjen (Linen Line),


Napkin from the Linnelinjen (Linen Line), 1955

Designed by Astrid Sampe (Swedish, 1909–2002)

Sweden, Dalsjöfors


The four bars signify the four course meal served with this napkin. For every course, you wipe your mouth on one of the bars. This particular napkin has been laundered, thus, you cannot see what was served at this particular meal. A shame, really.



Napkin, c. 1800


Napkin, c. 1800

Produced by David Dewar Son & Sons

Scotland, Dunfermline


I’d like to have the napkin professor from the school of napkinology explain the signficance of the the pattern of this napkin



Napkin Depicting The Five Senses, 1891


Napkin Depicting The Five Senses, 1891

Designed by Walter Crane

England, London


A napkin for the five senses. We often think of napkins being for taste. But what if we had a napkin for hearing? After going to a loud rock concert (or in this case, in the 1800s a raucous classical concert) you would wipe your ears from the intensity.


Napkin, c. 1904

Napkin, c. 1904

Designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich (German, 1867–1908)

Germany, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt


I have a feeling that Joseph Maria Olbrich knew about the Transformers before we did.



Napkin, c. 1900

Napkin, c. 1900

Designed by Walter Crane

English, 1845–1915

Can we get out the blacklight? I feel like there is a hidden image in here.



Napkin, c. 1600


Napkin, c. 1600

Flanders or Netherlands


This comes from the time when napkins were made from xeroxed blueprints.


Napkin, c. 1665

Napkin, c. 1665

Northern Netherlands, Castle Nienoor (Provenance of Groningen) near Midwolde where they were buried near the church


This napkin was used for children as it gave them a maze to figure their way through.


Napkin, 1699

Napkin, 1699


Possibly Netherlands

The precursor to folding paper towels.



Napkin, 18th century


Napkin, 18th century



This section of Germany was known for their burly industrial workers. They were such big eaters that cloth napkins were not sufficient for their verocious appetites. Instead, they turned to using carpeting to brush the food from their face.


Napkin, 1901/50

Italy, probably Venice or Burano

The invisible napkin. No photo available.

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