They were quite common into the first part of the Twentieth Century but seem to have fallen out of use during World War I when citizens were encouraged to be conservative in all things.
Finger bowls came out of a Russian tradition of dining, where meals were served one course at a time. Finger bowls often arrived before desert, perhaps on a small plate with a doily beneath the bowl. Diners gave their fingers a little rinse, drying them on a napkin.
Since I rarely give lessons in etiquette, one might wonder why I bring this up at all. Does one wonder? Well, it is because I came across multiple references to J.K. White during research on the Ada County Poor Farm. White was the chief health inspector for the state of Idaho. He was instrumental in shutting the place down because of deplorable conditions. One of those references was an article all about finger bowls, so here we are.
White, during the regular course of his duties inspecting restaurants, discovered a common practice that gave him the willies. That’s a technical term in the inspection business. As White explained in the December 7, 1913 edition of the Idaho Statesman, “As it is now, the bowls are used and then emptied and placed on the sideboard or shelf to be used again.”
Clever readers will have noticed that there was a missing step between a finger bowl’s use and its reuse. Washing.
White put it quite forcefully: “We insist that this is wrong, subjecting the users of these bowls to the danger of contracting contagious diseases. If the bowls were thoroughly cleaned after each using, as the dishes are, no complaint could be made.”
Restaurants and, notably railroad dining cars, took the news in stride and agreed to henceforth give the bowls a thorough cleaning. So, rest assured, the next time you twiddle your fingers in such a bowl it has almost certainly been cleaned since the last finger twiddler used it.