This section is from the book "The Steward's Handbook And Guide To Party Catering", by Jessup Whitehead. Also available from Amazon: Larousse Gastronomique.
The law of the napkin is but vaguely understood. One of our esteemed metropolitan contemporaries informs an eager inquirer that it is bad to fold the napkin after dinner, that the proper thing is to throw it with negligent disregard on the table beside the plate, as to fold it would be a reflection on the host, and imply a familiarity that would not benefit an invited guest. But the thoughtful reader will agree with us that this studied disorder is likely to be a good deal more trying to a fastidious hostess than an unstudied replacing of the napkin in good order beside the visitor's plate. The proper thing is to fold the fabric with unostentatious care, and lay it on the left of the plate, far from the liquids, liqueurs and coffee, and thus testify to the hostess that her care in preparing the table has been appreciated. The napkin has played famous parts in the fortunes of men and women. It was one of the points admired in Marie Stuart that, thanks to her exquisite breeding in the court of Marie de Medici, her tables were more imposing than the full court of her great rival and executioner, Elizabeth. At the table of the latter the rudest forms were maintained, the dishes were served on the table, and the great queen helped herself to the platter without fork or spoon, a page standing behind her with a silver ewer to bathe her fingers when the flesh had been torn from the roasts.
At the court of the empire Eugenie was excessively fastidious. The use of a napkin and the manner of eating an egg made or ruined the career of a guest. The great critic, Saint Beuve, was disgraced and left off the visiting list because at a breakfast with the emperor and empress at the Tuillcries he carelessly opened his napkin and spread it over his knees and cut his egg in two in the middle. The court etiquette prescribed that the half folded napkin should lie on the left knee to be used in the least obtrusive manner in touching the lips, and the egg was to be merely broken on the larger end with the edge of the spoon and drained with its tip. The truth is, luxury and invention push table appliances so far that none can be expected to know the particular conventionality that may be considered good form in any diversified society. The way for a young fellow to do is to keep his eyes open - which unless he is in love, he can do - and note what others do.