Conventionally, the napkin is often folded and placed to the left of the place setting, outside the outermost fork. In a restaurant setting or a caterer's hall, it may be folded into more elaborate shapes and displayed on the empty plate. Origami techniques can be used to create a three-dimensional design. A napkin may also be held together in a bundle with cutlery by a napkin ring. Alternatively, paper napkins may be contained with a napkin holder.
Napkins were used in ancient Roman times. One of the earliest references to table napkins in English dates to 1384–85.
Summaries of napkin history often say that the ancient Greeks used bread to wipe their hands. This is suggested by a passage in one of Alciphron's letters (3:44), and some remarks by the sausage seller in Aristophanes' play, The Knights.The bread in both texts is referred to as apomagdalia, which simply means bread from inside the crust known as the crumb, and not special "napkin bread".The use of paper napkins is documented in ancient China, where paper was invented in the 2nd century BC. Paper napkins were known as chih pha, folded in squares, and used for the serving of tea. Textual evidence of paper napkins appears in a description of the possessions of the Yu family, from the city of Hangzhou.