How to use a finger bowl

How to use a finger bowl

There is an urban myth about the guest who drank from her finger bowl, thinking the clear liquid was a kind of soup. In order to put her guest at ease, the hostess did the same. While finger bowls may be a thing of the past, they do exist in many private clubs across the country and are still served at some formal dinners, so it’s good to know how to use one. Plus, you may want to serve them after some casual dinners yourself, as during a cracked-crab dinner.

• After the dinner plate has been cleared, a waiter will bring each guest a finger bowl, which is a small bowl filled with water, often with a slice of lemon floating in it.

• The bowl will usually be served on a larger plate, on top of a paper or cloth doily, with a dessert fork to the left and a dessert spoon to the right of the bowl.

• After the waiter has placed the plate in front of you, remove the fork, placing it on the table to the left of the plate. Do the same thing with the spoon, placing it to the right of the bowl.

• Gently dip just the fingertips of one hand into the bowl. Wipe your fingertips dry with the napkin, holding it on your lap while doing so. Repeat with the other hand.

• Using both hands, remove the bowl from the plate, along with doily, and place them to the left of the plate so the waiter can remove them. (The bowl with its doily is placed on the left side, as the coffee cup will be on your right side.)

• The empty plate will now serve as a charger for a plated dessert (the doily is used to protect the plate).

We’ve debunked this fussy old table etiquette practice and concluded that you can leave the bowls behind.

First things first: how many out there have ever eaten a meal with a finger bowl present? A quick and informal poll of my well-mannered officemates and friends concluded that zero of them have ever shared a dinner table with this puzzling little water-filled bowl. (Editor’s note: All poll participants were under 45 years of age.) A few Google searches revealed two things: One, according to legend, some sad soul in Victorian times once drank out of a finger bowl and was never invited back for dinner. Two, finger bowls were small, typically glass and passed around to diners between the main course and dessert course to cleanse the fingers, but they generally went out of vogue after World War I because of government rationing orders. World War I, eh? I knew there must be more to these angsty little etiquette relics.

Meet Our Finger Bowl Expert

To find out what all the finger bowl fuss is about, I called the culinary antiques specialist Patrick Dunne who wrote the book, The Epicurean Collector and owns New Orleans’ famous shop, Lucullus for help and guidance on all manners related to table etiquette. Patrick has used a finger bowl, but not since he was a child in Louisiana.

The Purposeful Era of the Finger Bowl

Forks didn’t appear in Western Europe until the end of the 17th Century and they didn’t achieve mainstream popularity until the early portion of the 19th Century (The first Thanksgiving dinner was probably didn’t involve forks.). Therefore, people had a legitimate need to wash their hands before and after meals. From Ancient Roman times until the introduction of the fork, diners passed around a large, water-filled bowl and a towel to wash hands.

The Frivolous Era of the Finger Bowl

Around the rise of the Victorian times, forks and napkins were common on the tables of the masses. The class, etiquette, and object-obsessed Victorians imposed a stringent set of rules to govern the tables of the upper classes. One such rule was the use of the individual finger bowl. If someone didn’t know how to proceed with the finger bowl at the dinner table, then it could be assumed that he wasn’t brought up by the same well-mannered types as his dinner compantions. Coincidentally, the last places spotted using the finger bowl included Ireland, England, and the American South. Three places renown for respecting table manners. According to Dunne though, the practice completely fell off the Southern social radar in the mid 1950s.

How to Use a Finger Bowl Properly

Gently dip all five-finger tips of a single hand into the water at the same time and dry the hand off with your napkin as discretely as possible. Repeat with the other hand. Set the finger bowl to the top left of your dinner plate (near the bread plate). Enjoy dessert.

WATCH: How to Set the Table

What To Do with All Those Old Finger Bowls

Dunne has a few collections of finger bowls including his great aunt’s silver scalloped ones and a great set of blue glass bowls. Now, he uses them to serve sauces and olives (kind of like a fancy ramekin!). If you’re looking for finger bowls to collect, Dunne recommends Irish and British-made bowls.

Published: 06-16-2009
Views: 86,079
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Nancy R. Mitchell is an established protocol and etiquette consultant and advisor with more than 30 years of experience in the field. Currently, she is an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University, where she developed and teaches protocol courses to Event Management Certificate Program students in the School of Business and Public Management, and at Stratford University, Falls Church, VA. She serves also as protocol and special events consultant to the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library and cultural center. For 23 years, Mitchell was Director of Special Events and Public Programs at the Library of Congress where she and her staff were responsible for planning and managing over 400 events each year. She coordinated the institution’s major special events, visits of heads of state and other foreign dignitaries, fundraising galas, conferences and meetings. As the Library’s chief protocol advisor, she served as liaison to the White House, U.S Department of State, the Congress, the Supreme Court and other government agencies, foreign embassies, academia and corporations. Mitchell owns The Etiquette Advocate, Inc., a firm providing etiquette and protocol training to corporations, universities, embassies, government agencies, non-profit organizations and individuals. She is the etiquette consultant to Engaged! magazine, has been featured on Good Morning America, Fox 5 News, WTOP Radio and National Public Radio, and is quoted on matters of etiquette and protocol by the New York Times, Washington Business Journal, and the Washington Post. She is a co-owner of the firm, Protocol Partners-Washington Center for Protocol, Inc., and is a member of the Protocol and Diplomacy International Protocol Officers Association and the Women Business Owners of Montgomery Country (MD).


Nancy Mitchell: Hello, I am Nancy Mitchell with the Etiquette Advocate and we are talking about dining etiquette. I would like to tell you now about how to use a finger bowl. A finger bowl is traditionally served after the main course and before the dessert. The thought is that you may have had a course that involved picking something up with your hands, there maybe grease on your hands. In some way, you want to clean your hands very quickly and get ready for dessert. Its also a ritual if you will its something thats been around for many, many, many generations. So, it may seem that its very archaic, but its part of a traditional dinner service.

What will happen is a waiter will bring you a plate, on top of the plate is a doily. On top of the doily is a small bowl that is maybe half filled with water and inside there maybe a lemon slice or there maybe a flower floating. Those are for decoration, you dont have to remove the lemon, you dont remove the flower, those stay in the water. You dip one hand at a time and we are talking very, very quickly, very unobtrusively you are switching the fingertips of your hand in the water. You are moving your hand down to your lap where your napkin is placed you are drying the tips of your finger. What you cant see below the level of the table is I am drying my fingertips on the napkin thats lying on my lap.

I have done one hand I do the other hand, so its one hand at a time. I am drying my fingertips now, once thats finished. I pick up both the doily and the bowl with the water and I place them to the left and above my plate where my bread plate was before it was cleared away. This then becomes my dessert plate. I need to clear the doily away, so that whatever is coming next for dessert will sit on the plate and not on the doily. At that point, I will notice that I still have silverware here above my place setting its for dessert. My job as the diner is I pick up the spoon and the fork and place them to the left and the right of my plate setting. Just as before, forks on the left, spoons on the right. Those become my utensils for dessert. The doily and the bowl of water remain here, up to the left of your place setting until the waiter comes to take that away. Next, we will be talking about dessert and coffee.

The finger bowl was once used with regularity and, in some cultures, is still popular. It is a bowl of warm water filled half way, used for rinsing your fingers between courses.

Typically served during more formal, multi-course meals, a finger bowl arrives just prior to the dessert course. It is served on a service plate with a paper doily placed between the bowl and the plate. A fresh dinner napkin is placed either on the plate or at the left side of the service.

When served in this manner, the “event” is referred to as a course. For example, if three prior courses of soup, salad, and a main course (lobster, perhaps) are served, it would be referred to as a fourth course, the fifth being dessert.

A Separate Course

How to use a finger bowl

The bowl, on its service plate with napkin included, is placed in front of you after the previous course has been removed.

A flower petal, such as the petal(s) of a rose, a lemon slice, or other decoration is floated in the warm water.

Finger bowls are nice to include as a special touch when the main course consists of food that can’t be eaten entirely with a fork and knife and involves the fingers. Consider the aftermath of lobster, corn on the cob, shrimp cocktail, or any other food where fingers are utilized.

If not familiar with the custom, you might mistake this “course” for another soup course. It has happened at many a dinner table. But remember, a soup course will not be served with its own napkin; a finger bowl is served with its own napkin. As the soup course is typically prior to the cleaning course, you can also double-check that you have no other soup spoon available.

Using Your Finger Bowl

How to use a finger bowl

Place the clean napkin folded in half just as a normal napkin is, underneath the napkin you have been using. The used napkin will be for wiping your fingers.

How to use a finger bowl

With one hand (doesn’t matter which first) placed between the first and second napkins, lift that side of the napkin to the edge of the table, while simultaneously dipping the fingers of the other hand directly into the warm water. (Resist the temptation to swish your fingers around.)

Bring the fingers directly onto the napkin and gently wipe them without lifting the napkin.

Repeat with the other side.

How to use a finger bowl

When finished, take the used dinner napkin, which has just been used as the finger bowl napkin, and fold it loosely. Then place it on the left side of the service plate.

A server will remove the plate and napkin. At this moment, make sure your new napkin is on your lap ready to go, as dessert is on its way.

How to use a finger bowl

Your dessert silverware is ready in the main course area.

The server will bring your dessert soon.

Most restaurants don’t use finger bowls anymore, but when they do, the bowl often comes with a tightly folded hot wash cloth on a service plate. In less expensive restaurants, packaged towelettes do the job.

I like using finger bowls if a dinner or lunch is messy even though, as Miss Manners explains of the tradition,Correctly used, the finger bowl is a charming touch of no practical use whatsoever.”

Regardless, little white damask or glass bowls work well. And I like to use a pretty luncheon paper napkin, as diners can leave their dinner napkins on their lap. I explain to my guests, “Here is your finger bowl and a napkin to use just for that purpose.” I’ve now provided the tools and instruction. Most diners will ask how to do it, and I just say, “Dip the fingers of one hand into the bowl, don’t swish or play, and then switch to the other hand.”

Once you’ve experienced this little treat, you’ll understand why it has stood the test of time. And why it is so much more fun than a towelette!

How to use a finger bowl

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.

How to use a finger bowl

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.

How to use a finger bowl

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!


Digital stimulation is a way to empty the reflex bowel after a spinal cord injury. It may also be called a “dil.” It involves moving the finger or dil stick around in a circular motion inside the rectum. By doing this, the the bowel reflex is stimulated and the rectal muscles open and allow the stool to leave the body.

This procedure is best done on people who do not have painful sensation in the rectal area. Pressure may be felt in the rectal area, but it should not be painful. The dil should be done at the same time every day or every other day to stay on a schedule and avoid bowel accidents. The time and how often a dil is done depends on the individual.

How to do a Dil (digital stimulation)

1. Gather supplies

  • Gloves
  • Dil stick (if ordered)
  • Lubricant
  • Soap, water, washcloth
  • Toilet paper, underpads (if done in bed)
  • Plastic bag to throw away waste
  • Raised toilet seat, commode chair or shower chair if done in the bathroom

2. Wash hands

3. Prepare all needed supplies and place on a towel

4. Position yourself

If doing the dil in bed:

If doing the dil in bed, lie on the left side with knees flexed (right leg over left leg) and place disposable pad under the buttocks.

If doing the dil in the bathroom, transfer to appropriate bowel equipment (raised seat, Activeaid).

How to use a finger bowl

Perform the dil

Put gloves on both hands or place place dil stick in the hand.

Lubricate pointing finger or dil stick (whichever will be entering the rectum).

Gently put finger or dil stick into the rectum past the muscle.How to use a finger bowl

Gently move the finger or dil stick around in a circular motion.

When the stool begins to empty from the rectum, move the finger or dil stick to one side or remove so the stool can pass.

Do this for at least 20 minutes if no stool is coming. If stool is produced, do the dil as long as the stool is coming dil and for five additional minutes afterward without getting any more stool.

You may need to gently remove stool from your rectum with your finger if it does not come out on it’s own.

When finished with the dil, wipe rectal area and buttocks with toilet paper; wash with soap and water; dry with a towel

Clean dil stick with soap and water; dry well

Throw out waste and wash hands

The dil may cause dysreflexia in persons with spinal cord injuries at T6 and above. Always observe for symptoms of autonomic dysreflexia:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Blotchy skin
  • Sweating
  • Stuffy nose

If the person experiences autonomic dysreflexia during the dil, then do the following:

  1. Stop the dil
  2. Sit up if not already doing so. Sit up in the bed or in the chair, depending on the location.
  3. Insert a local numbing agent like Nupercainal Ointment into the rectum

If dysreflexia goes away, continue the bowel program as planned. If dysreflexia continues or gets worse then proceed with the treatment plan described in the Autonomic Dysreflexia section.

How to use a finger bowlOnce upon a time finger bowls were routinely presented with the check in expensive restaurants. To the average American, who probably never went to this type of restaurant, they were a great source of humor. Jokes typically involved an unsophisticated restaurant patron drinking water from the bowl or eating the lemon slices floating in it. The funny stories demonstrated the joy Americans take in spearing pretentiousness, a quality which finger bowls epitomized to many.

Like salad forks and menus in French, using finger bowls was an esoteric social custom that was certain to befuddle the average person. How many fingers do you put into the bowl at once? What do you do after you get your fingers wet? Must you use it at all?*

These questions would soon fade from American culture because the finger bowl was about to run afoul of history in the World War I era.

Yet in the decade before finger bowls met their downfall, the number of restaurants providing them actually increased. Live music and finger bowls were two amenities put forward as competitive attractions over places that didn’t have them. Some observers believed that because so many restaurants adopted finger bowls, it deprived them of the eliteness they once enjoyed and that this was a factor in their downfall.

Further warning signs of the finger bowl’s decline in status surfaced as early as 1908 when a veteran waiter confessed to a reporter that wise patrons should demand to witness their waiter filling the bowl. Otherwise, he warned, it was likely they’d get one with wastewater from a previous user fermenting in it.

For reasons that are still mysterious to me, 1913 was a turning point in the fortunes of the finger bowl. The Buffalo NY health department launched an attack on brass bowls, which they claimed were in use in over half of the city’s restaurants. Glass bowls could be sanitized with boiling water but brass, said the health commissioner, could not. Omaha hotelier Rome Miller declared that modern guests were more germ conscious than ever before and wanted everything – tea, coffee cream, breakfast cereal – individually packaged. For guests desiring to wash their fingertips after dining, he recommended silver holders with disposable paper inserts.

How to use a finger bowlWhether due to the influence of Rome Miller or not, the city of Omaha totally outlawed reusable 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 crusading Mr. Miller was further vindicated a couple of years later when he learned that a New Jersey paper company was supplying 263 leading hotels with sanitary paper finger bowls. “And so the finger bowl marches on,” he wrote, revealing a surprising dedication to its future.

But, for the most part, it was not to be. Glass, brass, or paper, all would be swept aside. World War I delivered the coup de grace when the Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware, whether service plates, side dishes, salad forks, or finger bowls. The few straggler bowls that survived that era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. Since then, high-end restaurants that serve food requiring a clean-up afterwards provide scented towels while lower-price establishments go with packaged towelettes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

*Dip one hand at a time and then dry your fingers on the napkin in your lap. Ignoring a finger bowl is a safe course.

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How to use a finger bowl

A fingertip towel is a small towel which is typically designed to be primarily ornamental, rather than specifically functional. However, such towels can technically be used to dry the hands after washing, and they are sometimes displayed in small bathrooms where hand towels would be too bulky, but a host still wants people to be able to dry their hands after washing. Many home supply stores carry fingertip towels, and they can also be ordered through companies which specialize in bathroom supplies.

As you might imagine, a fingertip towel is smaller than a hand towel, but larger than a washcloth, and these towels are typically rectangular. The fingertip towel is small enough to be draped over full towels and hand towels when it is are displayed on a rack, and they may also be hung separately on small towel racks. Especially in a one bathroom home where the host does not want guests using shower towels to dry their hands, fingertip towels may be displayed prominently.

In addition to being used in the bathroom, fingertip towels can also be paired with finger bowls at a formal dinner party. While the use of finger bowls is dying out in many communities, they do appear now and again, and fingertip towels are ideally suited to drying one’s fingers after a dip in a finger bowl. Often, the towels may be warmed when presented with finger bowls, for a note of extra comfort.

Some people also use fingertip towels in the kitchen, as general utility towels. Some fingertip towels are specifically designed for the kitchen, with loops which can be wrapped around the door of a fridge or a kitchen towel rack to secure them. Typically the material used to make fingertip towels for kitchen use is thinner than that of towels for bathroom use, and the towels may be decorated or embroidered to make them aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.

In some homes, fingertip towels are primarily ornamental, and they may be artfully placed in the bathroom during various seasonal holidays. This can sometimes be confusing for guests, who may assume that towels placed in the bathroom are meant to be used; if a fingertip towel is especially small or folded over a hand towel, it is a strong sign that the fingertip towel is meant to be ornamental, rather than functional. Some decorative fingertip towels are even sewn together or trimmed to unusually small size, another tip-off that they are not meant to be used.

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

How to use a finger bowlMary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.