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?
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.
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.
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?
It's good etiquette to share what you like!