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).

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!

Published: 06-16-2009
Views: 86,514
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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.

How to use a finger bowl

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The beauty of the fingertip bowling ball is the hook that you can create with it. Highly favored by advanced bowlers, this amazing shot rockets the ball into the pins at an angle with higher levels of control and velocity than a conventional ball can muster. PBA’s Pete Weber’s childhood bowling idol, power bowler Mark Roth, inspired the youngster to develop what became a lethal curving hook shot that propelled him into the men’s leagues at age 15. “I knew what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “I loved the sport. I loved winning, and I thought I could be the best at my game.” Weber hooked his way to a phenomenal 300 in his first men’s game.

Step 1

Grasp your fingertip bowling ball with your fingertips. Slide your thumb all the way into the thumb hole. Slip the your middle and ring fingers into the finger holes so that the first knuckles are barely covered by the ball.

Step 2

Hold the weight of the ball in the palm of your other hand. Scoot your palm slightly behind the ball.

Step 3

Swing the ball backward and downward into the backswing. Keep a firm grip with your thumb to control and support the ball. Flex your wrist slightly with the motion of the ball.

Step 4

Thrust the ball into the forward swing. Rotate it quickly by about a quarter turn with your palm immediately before releasing it. Turn it clockwise if you’re throwing left handed, and counterclockwise if you’re right handed. Your thumb should be positioned at the side of the ball just prior to the delivery.

Step 5

Release the ball from your thumb first, then from your fingers while your hand is still at the side of the ball in a handshake position. This is the motion that will cause the ball to spin and hook. If your thumb is at the top of the ball when you deliver it, you’ve waited to long. The ball will cut too sharply across the lane and ruin your hook shot if you wait until your thumb is positioned atop the ball.

Step 6

Increase the motion of your swing as you release the ball and follow through.

Step 7

Observe your ball’s track as it travels down the lane. If you haven’t rotated the ball enough, it probably won’t hook noticeably. If you’ve spun it too far, it will cut across into the gutter quickly without ever reaching the pins.

Step 8

Practice adjusting the amount of rotation you put on the fingertip ball until you’re consistently hooking the ball and achieving the desired results.

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.

A program of bowel retraining, Kegel exercises, or biofeedback therapy may be used by people to help improve their bowel movements.


Problems that may benefit from bowel retraining include:

  • Fecal incontinence, which is the loss of bowel control, causing you to pass stool unexpectedly. This can range from sometimes leaking a small amount of stool and passing gas, to not being able to control bowel movements.
  • Severe constipation.

These problems may be caused by:

  • Brain and nerve problems (such as from multiple sclerosis)
  • Emotional problems
  • Spinal cord damage
  • Previous surgery
  • Childbirth
  • Overuse of laxatives

The bowel program includes several steps to help you have regular bowel movements. Most people are able to have regular bowel movements within a few weeks. Some people will need to use laxatives along with bowel retraining. Your health care provider can tell you if you need to take these medicines and which ones are safe for you.

You will need a physical exam before you start a bowel training program. This will allow your provider to find the cause of the fecal incontinence. Disorders that can be corrected such as fecal impaction or infectious diarrhea can be treated at that time. The provider will use your history of bowel habits and lifestyle as a guide for setting new bowel movement patterns.

Making the following changes to your diet will help you have regular, soft, bulky stools:

  • Eat high-fiber foods such as whole-wheat grains, fresh vegetables, and beans.
  • Use products containing psyllium, such as Metamucil, to add bulk to the stools.
  • Try to drink 2 to 3 liters of fluid a day (unless you have a medical condition that requires you to restrict your fluid intake).

You can use digital stimulation to trigger a bowel movement:

  • Insert a lubricated finger into the anus. Move it in a circle until the sphincter muscle relaxes. This may take a few minutes.
  • After you have done the stimulation, sit in a normal position for a bowel movement. If you are able to walk, sit on the toilet or bedside commode. If you are confined to the bed, use a bedpan. Get into as close to a sitting position as possible. If you are unable to sit, lie on your left side.
  • Try to get as much privacy as you can. Some people find that reading while sitting on the toilet helps them relax.
  • If you do not have a bowel movement within 20 minutes, repeat the process.
  • Try to contract the muscles of the abdomen and bear down while releasing the stool. You may find it helpful to bend forward while bearing down. This increases the pressure within the abdomen and helps empty the bowel.
  • Perform stimulation with your finger every day until you start to have a regular pattern of bowel movements.
  • You can also stimulate bowel movements by using a suppository (glycerin or bisacodyl) or a small enema. Some people find it helpful to drink warm prune juice or fruit nectar.

Keeping to a regular pattern is very important for a bowel retraining program to succeed. Set a regular time for daily bowel movements. Choose a time that is convenient for you. Keep in mind your daily schedule. The best time for a bowel movement is 20 to 40 minutes after a meal, because eating stimulates bowel activity.

Most people are able to establish a regular routine of bowel movements within a few weeks.

Exercises to strengthen the rectal muscles may help with bowel control in people who have an incompetent rectal sphincter. Kegel exercises that strengthen pelvic and rectal muscle tone can be used for this. These exercises were first developed to control incontinence in women after childbirth.

To be successful with Kegel exercises, use the proper technique and stick to a regular exercise program. Talk with your provider for instructions about how to do these exercises.

Biofeedback gives you sound or visual feedback about a bodily function. In people with fecal incontinence, biofeedback is used to strengthen the rectal sphincter.

A rectal plug is used to detect the strength of the rectal muscles. A monitoring electrode is placed on the abdomen. The rectal plug is then attached to a computer monitor. A graph displaying rectal muscle contractions and abdominal contractions will show up on the screen.

To use this method, you will be taught how to squeeze the rectal muscle around the rectal plug. The computer display guides you to make sure you are doing it correctly. Your symptoms should begin to improve after 3 sessions.

Relief for Constipation

Robert Burakoff, MD, MPH, is board-certified in gastroentrology. He is the vice chair for ambulatory services for the department of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, where he is also a professor. He was the founding editor and co-editor in chief of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases.

Digital disimpaction is the use of fingers to aid in the removal of stool from the rectum. This may be done by a person who is experiencing constipation or by a medical professional who is assisting a person with a spinal cord injury or another health problem that results in a problem with defecation.

A particular form of digital evacuation in women is called vaginal splinting. This is when a woman massages the inside of her vagina in order to encourage the passage of stool from her rectum.  

Related behaviors to digital evacuation include massaging the inside of the rectum, or for women, the perineum, in order to stimulate a bowel movement. Disimpaction is a treatment for fecal impaction, which can occur with some frequency in people who are pregnant, ill, or in a nursing home.

Also Known As

Digital disimpaction may also be called:

  • Digital removal of feces (DRF)
  • Disimpacting stool with digital maneuvers
  • Digital evacuation
  • Manual disimpaction
  • Manual elimination

Dyssynergic Defecation

People who experience chronic constipation due to a condition known as dyssynergic defecation appear to be most likely to engage in digital evacuation.   In this condition, the nerves and muscles of the pelvic floor do not work together smoothly so as to produce a comfortable, normal bowel movement.

How to use a finger bowl

Dyssynergic defecation is considered to be a type of pelvic floor dysfunction. Biofeedback or physical therapy may be recommended as a way to address the symptoms of dyssynergic defecation.  

When to Talk to Your Doctor

It is not recommended that you use digital evacuation on a regular basis for evacuating stool. You run the risk of injury or of further contributing to any existing defecation dysfunction.

You should tell your doctor about your need to use digital evacuation in order to eliminate stool.

Your doctor can do an assessment to figure out why your bowel movements are not occurring as they should. Your doctor will want to make sure that there is no disease process, structural defect, or obstruction causing the problem.  

If your doctor diagnoses you with dyssynergic defecation, they will work with you to help you to develop a proper treatment plan.

Spinal Cord Injuries

People who have spinal cord injuries may need manual disimpaction as part of their bowel management. Manual disimpaction is considered to be a widely used procedure as part of the care of people who have spinal cord injuries. In these cases, manual disimpaction appears to reduce the possibility of fecal soiling.

In this procedure, a single finger of a gloved hand is lubricated and inserted into the rectum of the patient. The stool is gently broken up and pieces are removed until the rectum is empty. This procedure is considered safe when conducted by a trained health professional.