It all started at the age of five years old. As a little girl, Cathy Campbell recalls coming home from a birthday party with an unused napkin. “My mother asked me why I didn’t use it, and I told her it was too pretty to use,” Cathy shares. So her mother placed the napkin in a shoebox under her bed. The shoebox filled up and turned into a blanket box. This collection grew, and today Cathy is a proud collector of over 40,000 napkins.
Paper napkins first started to appear in the United States in the early 1920s, and they were made from a very course paper. At the time, if you unfolded a napkin, you would find that the design was only printed on one of the squares. Today, the design is printed over the entire napkin, and among the most popular designs are birthday, holiday, and graduation napkins. Types of napkins include dinner napkins, luncheon napkins, cocktail napkins, and guest towel napkins that people use to wipe their hands. Cathy notes that the Japanese make beautiful napkins that are of a very thin rice paper. They were the first paper napkins known.
Cathy’s napkins are stored in computer boxes and organized by category. One big category is “holidays,” which includes Christmas, Hanukah, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, 4th of July, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and even napkins from Groundhog Day! There are plenty of Halloween and Thanksgiving napkins. Another category is “transportation,” which includes napkins from airlines all over the world, railroads, buses, cruise lines, and more. Her “sports” category includes napkins from racing, golfing, country clubs, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and the Indianapolis 500. She has boxes of napkins from different countries, including Spain, Portugal, England, and France. “You name it, I think I can find a napkin from it,” she declares.
One big category – which is stored separately in clear plastic sleeves – is her collection of autographed napkins, which are autographed by some incredibly high-profile individuals. Along with the autographed napkin is usually a story about the individual that Cathy has cut from a newspaper or magazine. This vast collection of autographs includes Taylor Swift (who Cathy and her husband met on Good Morning America), the members of Rascal Flatts, Wolfgang Puck, Mohammed Ali, Henry Winkler, Oprah, John Travolta, Gloria Steinem, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Barbara Bush, and the last seven governors of Michigan (including the present governor). “I’m so tickled to have them!” Cathy shares.
Each autograph typically has a story behind it, and one story that Cathy shares is of how she obtained a napkin autographed by Mickey Mantle. She and her husband were in New York eating at Mickey’s restaurant. While walking through the restaurant, none other than Mickey himself was sitting in a booth and asked Cathy, “Would you like to join me?” Of course, Cathy ended up asking for a napkin to be autographed. “Don’t you want me to sign a baseball card?” Mickey asked. Cathy explained her collection and the napkin was autographed. “He was very kind!” she recalls.
Another notable napkin is from the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana. Cathy’s mother and aunt were part of the large crowd that gathered for the wedding. “There were people cheering them on and congratulating them,” Cathy says. “My mother mentioned to some people around her that her daughter would like a napkin, [and someone actually gave her one].” It has the royal flag and the date printed on it.
Cathy’s favorite napkin is a Mickey Mouse napkin from 1928, which is when Mickey was first created. She has a large collection of Mickey Mouse, as these napkins are still very popular today. Another popular and timeless theme for napkins is Snoopy and the Peanuts characters, created by Charles Schultz. Cathy also has the original Barbie doll napkin from 1959, the year she was created by Mattel.
Cathy has given over 100 presentations to different groups about her collection, including rotary clubs, Lions Clubs, senior centers, classrooms, and assisted living. “I did one for Albion College in Albion, Michigan. They have a series of programs called, ‘Odd Topics’. They asked me to [speak about] my napkin collection.” Her collection has also been put on display. A portion of her collection is dedicated specifically to Kellogg’s napkins, which were displayed in the cereal museum, Kellogg’s Cereal City in Battle Creek, Michigan!
Cathy is so known for her collection that she receives napkins from people all over! This includes friends from church, the rotary club, and her own children. A portion of her collection actually came straight from Hallmark. They had a few stores in Michigan that carried a wide variety of napkins. When the store learned about her collection, they gave her one of every napkin that they had in stock!
“When people give them to me, they generally will give me two – one to file away and one to use for when I travel and show the collection.” People send napkins from their weddings and important moments of their lives, and it gives Cathy a lot of joy to preserve those memories. Even during COVID-19, she continues to receive napkins in the mail addressed simply to, “Napkin Lady, Marshall, MI.”