Cinderella and her three sisters helped to sell mayonnaise; Puss in Boots sold chocolate spread; and Red Riding Hood carried Halvina – margarine with added milk – in her basket. Among the most charming items assembled by graphic artist Tamar Moshkovitz, a collector of vintage napkins, is the Mata food company’s series of ads based on fairy tales and printed on napkins in the 1960s.
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“They’re relatively well-made compared to other Israeli napkins of the time,” says the cheerful Moshkovitz. (She also has several other unusual collections related to food and design, as well as a collection of the old journal Monitin.) “They were printed in three colors. At the time, most napkins were printed in just one or two colors, and the lovely illustrations were supposed to somehow convey the label’s values to young children. God knows what values this odd product of solidified vegetable fat combined with milk was supposed to embody,” she says. “Another Mata napkin depicts different fairy tales about ducks, and one of the ducks – in the finest Israeli militaristic tradition – is wearing an IDF beret.”
Moshkovitz, 37, grew up in Haifa and has lived in Berlin for the past three years. In 2010, she spent a year in Tokyo. “In Japanese culture, there is great respect for paper items, and for delicate, minimalistic things in general.” Her napkin collection belonged to her mother, a piano teacher, she explains. “The great bulk of it was kept at my grandparents’ house in a box from a fondue set that’s still in their kitchen. From the time I was a kid I knew it was there, but I never showed too much interest in it.
“The year I lived in Japan, everything came together – the obsession with food and with the aesthetics of bygone days. I suddenly realized that I had a real treasure in hand. A mini-archive of food and design in the history of Israeli culture.”
When she returned to Israel, Moshkovitz began searching flea markets and antiques shops for more napkins. “I bought boxes crammed with napkins no one wanted. One collection was devoted entirely to napkins from banquet halls, and another to napkins from the 1990s. Who would have believed that those years – a time of ugliness and total loss of aesthetic values – would one day become vintage? Napkins are a perishable medium. It’s something seemingly without importance that you use to wipe your hands and mouth. But the fact that someone bothered to keep and preserve these things strikes me as very human and poignant.”
She gradually began electronically scanning the napkins and placing them online. “I thought I was the only person who would care about this esoteric thing. I mostly did it to create some order in the collection and in my mind, but I found out that other people were interested too.”
Many of the napkins in the collection commemorate Israeli restaurants, mostly in Tel Aviv and Haifa, that have since gone the way of all flesh. “Someone who’s addicted to reading old newspapers gets a thrill out of holding the same kind of napkin that ‘Chich’ [former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat] apparently used to wipe his mouth when gossip columnists spotted him eating at Shipudei Yehezkel. A napkin from the Wimpy’s hamburger chain, from the early 1970s, alongside one from McDavid, from the 1980s, shows how American consumer culture spread in post-Six-Day War Israel.”
The McDavid logo (the first branch opened in 1978) was designed by puppeteer, scenic designer and graphic artist Arik Smith , best known for the puppets he created for the beloved children’s TV show “Hatzrif shel Tamari.” The collection, which contains hundreds of items, also includes dozens of napkins that illustrate the development of Hebrew logos. Many of these immortalize small companies later swallowed up by bigger ones, which were then sold to giant corporations. No one remembers the names of the original small family businesses anymore, says Moshkovitz.
Illustrated napkins from Carmel Mizrahi (Carmel Wineries) and the Zim shipping company were aimed largely at tourists. “They contain important words for every tourist – like sun, sea and Brandy 777,” laughs Moshkovitz. “Today, you barely see even the word ‘Bete’avon’ (bon appétit) printed on a napkin. But in the past they would print whole little conversations and all kinds of sayings about how to speak and how to act.
When you look at labeling and marketing trends, especially on the old napkins from the 1960s, the approach seems sweet and nave.
“There weren’t so many options for advertising at the time. Advertisers knew the napkins were being kept as collectors’ items, mainly by girls, and so they thought of them as a way to try to tempt consumers. If you bought a certain number of packages of a certain product, you got napkins as a bonus gift. Some of the napkins printed after 1967 depict the changing atmosphere in Israeli society. You find maps of Greater Israel, and on the menus for snack bars, which were also printed on napkins, you find items named for the Mirage and Phantom fighter planes and other military vehicles.”
Moshkovitz still collects napkins, and has opened an Instagram account where her collection is displayed. And she has turned her attention to other subjects, like collecting old cookbooks. “You can find lots of great stuff out on the street, and in Berlin it’s really amazing. I have a fetish for the kitschy Jello creations and other ugly food from the 1970s. I find a lot of humor in over-the-top texts, such as ‘How to kill a carp mercifully,’ and sometimes I find real treasures, like cookbooks from the early 20th century, whose owners filled the pages with personal comments.”