An article in the May 30, 1909 edition of “The New York Times” stated, “We have all laughed at the story of the country guest who drank from his finger bowl, and his hostess, to put him at ease, followed suit. It would scarcely seem possible in these days for such a mistake to occur, but many well-bred people are uncertain as to finger-bowl etiquette.”
Finger bowls, once elegant components of dinner parties and high-end restaurants, were the subject of jokes and social-class-based humor in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Today the finger bowl is all but forgotten.
A finger bowl was presented at the table to a diner after the main course. The bringing of a small bowl of water to the table for cleaning the fingers addressed the issue of food that might leave residue on the hands. It left the hands clean and odor-free before the dessert course was served. A finger bowl was presented sitting on a cloth (never paper) doily, half-filled with warm water, on a dessert plate. The water would, in all proper social circles, have lemon peel or a small flower floating in it. These served no purpose other than decoration, and to perhaps add a wee whiff of fragrance.
To use a finger bowl, you would gently wiggle the tips only of one hand in the bowl before removing those fingers to the lap and drying them discretely on the napkin waiting in your lap. Then you would repeat the process with your other hand. Finger tips only, no splashing. Discrete and quick was the goal.
Once done with the finger washing, the bowl and the doily were moved to the upper left of the place setting, where the bread plate usually resides. This signified the completed ritual of finger washing, and left open the dessert plate for the next course. It was the diner’s responsibility to make the relocation of the bowl and doily, and to then adjust their dessert fork and spoon (which were left waiting above the dessert plate and finger bowl) down into the usual service area. Fork goes to the left and the spoon to the right, as in a usual place setting. The little bowl has now served its function. Most finger bowls are made of crystal glass. The idea of seeing the clean, clear water enforces the idea of cleansing. Silver finger bowls do exist, however. In the time when they were more popular, less refined restaurants utilized brass finger bowls, since crystal broke too easily and silver ones were too expensive.
The end of common use of the finger bowl in the U.S. was during World War I, when the U.S. Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware. The city of Omaha, Nebraska went so far as to outlaw finger bowls in 1915. The ordinance did make one exception – for finger bowls “made from paper or other substance which shall be delivered after being once used and not used or offered for use a second time.” The finger bowls that survived the WWI era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. In times of war, etiquette and signs of excess are often doomed.
The final word on the popular use of finger bowl has been advent of warm scented towels in elegant dining establishments and with lower-price establishments going with packaged towelettes. Finger bowls have given way to napkins and similar products, and today it is rare to find them in use outside of a rare dinner party where they evoke elegance and nostalgia. Often the lovely bowls, sometimes with matching underplates, serve as dessert or fruit bowls on modern tables, and look dashing in this updated adaptation.