Antique Napkin Rings

By Karen Parr-Moody


Well-to-do Victorians followed rigorous rules of dining etiquette. It was impolite to ask for second helpings of soup (fish chowder being the exception). They were not supposed to twirl their goblets, nor place their discarded bones on the tablecloth (hence, bone dishes). Oranges were peeled and either cut or separated, then eaten with a spoon. And Victorians could never turn a spoon over in their mouths (how rude!).


Imagine two dozen more such rules and you get the idea. There was another curious tradition: each person in a Victorian family had his or her individual napkin ring to secure a cloth napkin. These might be engraved with a name, but they might also bear a figural embellishment that was unique to its owner. One such napkin ring is featured in the photo, above right. This goddess pouring water onto flowers would be perfect for a Victorian mother ($825; GasLamp Too showcase T-103).


Why such customization? Because cloth napkins were not always in such abundance that each family member could have a fresh one between washdays. The customized napkin ring saved each person`s napkin so that it could be used multiple times – and it ensured that the napkin remained with the same user.


Red Archer, who recently opened a GasLamp Too showcase with his wife, Jude, inherited many antique, silver-plated figural napkin rings from his father. Some are featured in the Archers’ showcase, T-103.


“My dad was a collector of items from the Victorian Age,” Archer says. “He collected everything from art glass to napkin rings to pickle casters.”


Archer’s showcase features a charming array of figural napkin rings in silver plate. He explained that the non-figural rings often have names engraved on them, but, he says, “Those aren’t worth as much, unless the name is of somebody important.”  


Figural napkin rings are distinct in that each embellishment gives us a glimpse into its original owner’s personality or hobbies, Archer says. For example, the mom’s ring might include a flourish that references a love of birds or gardening. A father’s ring might bear the figure of a soldier, horse or hunter, or an object, such as a hat, a pair of boots or even a chariot. Cherubs and charming pets? Those were the domain of children. In fact, figures on napkin rings would often represent characters or themes in nursery rhymes and stories.


Well-made, figural napkin rings were the most popular during the latter part of the Victorian Era – in other words, the late 19th century – and are thought to have originated in France, where they were made in sterling silver. In the United States, silver manufacturers fashioned napkin rings after the French, but they tended to do so in silver plate. Among the companies that made these items were Gorham, Meriden, Tufts, Reed & Barton and Simpson, Hall, Miller & Co.


The napkin ring in the photo, above left, shows a boy with a mouse. And the photo, below right, shows a boy crawling playfully underneath a ring (each ring is $750 at T-103). Both rings were based on designs by Kate Greenaway, the famous artist and children’s book illustrator who was born in London in 1846. The naturalness and liveliness Greenaway brought to her subjects created a revolution in children's book illustration, and it can also be seen in these napkin rings.


Greenaway’s designs of children were copied by various American silver plate companies. Those napkin rings embellished with Kate Greenaway figures are particularly sought-after by collectors.


Archer says that some figural napkin rings get highly ornate. They might include an area for placing fresh flowers or small bowls for the salt and for the pepper. Some are accompanied by actual salt and pepper shakers. Archer has one ring that is embellished by a stork with a cigar in its mouth; it comes with salt and pepper shakers that are red and blue.


“It’s really rare,” he says, noting that he won’t sell it. 


But Archer is selling the charming napkin ring in the photo, left, featuring a merman blowing his horn ($775).  


The value of a figural napkin ring today depends on its condition, age, design, ornateness and what type of object is attached. Then there’s the intrinsic value.


“They’re huge when you have people over to eat for family gatherings or entertaining,” Archer says. “They’re one of those things that you collect that people can actually use and touch. A lot of times you can’t use or touch something that’s being collected.”


Archer always uses his napkin rings when he and his wife entertain. They become conversation pieces among the guests, so they are a perfect addition to a gathering. Think about it: Who could resist talking about a cherub with a bulldog on a leash (photo, right; $675)? It’s certainly far more interesting than a simple, wooden napkin ring from modern times.



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