Let’s Bring Back the Finger Bowl! (Or Maybe Not…)

1920s entertaining tips

When I told my husband I was going to write about finger bowls, he might have rolled his eyes.

Then he made a very good point: Isn’t this exactly the type of thing I feel gives etiquette a bad name?

It is.

But I’ve committed myself to trying out a piece of advice from an old etiquette or entertaining book once a month, without prior judgement. For whatever reason, finger bowls just spoke to me this month.

There was one practical reason why. We were having friends over for an indoor upscale-ish Southern picnic. My husband’s fried chicken was on the menu, which we debated because it’s such a messy thing to eat. Maybe finger bowls were just the thing to combat the mess?

I’m taking my cues on finger bowls from a 1926 book called The New Book of Etiquette by Lillian Eichler.

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Here’s her advice on how to use a finger bowl:

The finger bowl, which follows a fruit course or comes at the end of dinner, is half filled with tepid water and set upon a separate plate or doily. The fingers are dipped lightly into the bowl, one hand at a time, and then dried on the napkin. Only the fingertips should touch the water. It hardly seems necessary to add that well-bred people do not splash the water about, nor do they perform thorough ablutions at table.

Indeed, it wasn’t necessary to add that.

A little about finger bowls:

  • They typically were used after the fruit course to avoid staining napkins with berry juices. (Which I guess means fancy people of the past were popping berries in their mouths with their fingers.)
  • Lillian Eichler recommends you float a fragrant leaf in them, such as mint.
  • They fell out of favor after World War II when everyone was encouraged to minimize excess.
  • There is very little information about them on the Internet.

They seemed to me a variation of the hot wet napkin you sometimes get at Japanese restaurants or the Wet Nap you receive at the end of the meal at a rib joint. The finger bowl feels like a practical version of that for home entertaining. But they do give the evening a formal vibe, which wasn’t entirely in sync with our indoor picnic themed dinner.

Southern indoor picnic

I may not be rushing to place them on the table again, but I wouldn’t hesitate to try them out again for a meal where I thought they’d be helpful. One guest thought they’d be especially useful at a crab boil.

Shall we bring back the finger bowl? Maybe? Maybe not?

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2 Comments

  1. Louis

    I think the finger bowl is a great idea, depending. The fact is that there are a lot of foods served these days which cannot easily be eaten with a knife and fork which make a sticky annoying mess on one’s hands (burgers, BBQ chicken, shellfish, etc.) and a napkin alone just doesn’t cut it. But at any proper formal dinner a host should NOT serve food which requires direct contact between hands and sticky/greasy/staining foods in the first place. Berries, for that matter, can be eaten with a spoon, provided they don’t have the stems attached (if it’s truly a formal dinner, the host should not be so lazy as to leave the stems on), so a napkin alone would suffice. Therefore, providing an additional means of cleaning one’s digits when serving less than formal fare, especially a time-honored method from the Victorian era, is hardly improper, as I see it.

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