The Proper Way to Use a Finger Bowl

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

Blue Glass Finger Bowls
Photo: Courtesy of

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.

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