The History of Cutlery: A Past Shiny and Neat
by Marjorie Dorfman

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early swordThe cutler’s craft had long been marked by a resistance to mass production. Small shops, with from one workman to a half dozen, were characteristic of the period. Certain localities, however, became known for the excellence of their cutlery. In Spain, the Toledo blade was renown as the very best during the era when the sword was an important weapon. Solingen, in Germany, and Sheffield, in England, have been especially well known for their fine cutlery since the Middle Ages.

King Edward III noted pieces of Sheffield cutlery in the inventory of his possessions in the Tower of London in 1340. He left his personal knife to a specific beneficiary in his will, revealing how very precious it had been to him in life. In the 1380s, Chaucer wrote about a Sheffield knife in the Reeves tale, and is depicted wearing such a knife in several portraits that were painted of him. By the 1580s, Sheffield penknives were recommended in The Writing Schoolmaster.

Renaissance Italy bore on its cultured wings table manners as well as the rebirth of fine art, architecture and literature. In this period, complementary place settings with matching forks, knives and spoons for every diner seated at the table became a more common occurrence. This tradition further developed in mid-17th century France where the Huguenot craftsmen of Louis XVI represented the core of European silversmiths. After 1685 and the religious oppression of the Edict of Nantes, most of these craftsmen fled France and settled in London, which soon became the most important silver city outside of France.

At this time in England, there was a shortage of silverware since much of it had been melted down to pay for expenses incurred during the Civil War of the 1640s. The "mistress of the seas" became preoccupied with exploration, foreign trade and the development of the Empire upon which "the sun never sets." The great wealthy class that developed furnished their fine houses with the best of everything that money could buy, and as far as the medium of silver was concerned, this included decorative shells and scrolls inspired from the architectural designs of the day. Silverware from this period is exquisite, and its quality has never been surpassed. Many of these designs have endured and can be found on the finest cutlery patterns available today.

No one can say for sure exactly when people started using cutlery on a daily basis although most historians believe it to be some time around the seventeenth century. At that time, only royalty or those of the very wealthy class could afford to set their tables with cutlery. While many medieval families may have owned a few pieces, they were considered too fancy to be used every day and reserved for special occasions. With the onset of dinner parties by the end of the medieval era, cutlery became more popular among the masses.

chopping knifeAs food and fine dining became a way to socialize rather than just a means of existence, tables, settings, manners, and cutlery all began to transform and intertwine with the new mindset. Silversmiths flourished at this time and very soon tableware was available in all shapes, sizes and patterns. Coordinated table components soon followed suit, such as dishes, bowls and cups.

For more than three hundred years, the main purpose of silver was to serve as currency. Since ancient times silver has been part of the foundation of wealth and power, as noted by a vast deposit of ore discovered near Athens in 500 BC. The Romans got most of their silver from Spain, Europe’s main source of silver until the 8th century and the invasion of the Moors. English 18th century silversmiths found their raw materials in silver lodes discovered in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru and Japan. These artisans brought silver-smithing to its pinnacle, and Queen Anne and Georgian silver are still among the most revered in the world. Both the USA and Australia became major producers of silver in the mid 19th century.

fine silverwareTo this day, better quality silverware is still largely produced by hand in small craft workshops. Some cutlery is entirely hand forged and other pieces that may be produced and stamped in dies are still hand-set and polished individually to meet exceptionally high standards. The best treatment for properly made silver is constant use. This induces a patina to form from the myriad of scratches incurred from all directions.

Take care of your silverware and it will take care of you.

And in homage to fine cutlery everywhere, without further adieu,

Hi, Ho, Silver! AWAY!!!!

Did you know . . .

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Art of Napkin Folding
Here's another delightful little book we found:

The Simple Art of Napkin Folding: 94 Fancy Folds for Every Tabletop Occasion

by Linda Hetzer

Duplicate those beautiful napkin folds you've admired at elegant restaurants and memorable events. It's easy with Linda Hetzer's detailed step-by-step directions and illustrations. Using cloth or paper napkins, create standing triangular-shaped folds (the "Tavern") for dinner parties. A few accordion pleats transforms a piece of cloth into the "Poinsettia." Need festive ideas for a children's birthday party? Make "Sailboats" or "Paper Airplanes." Graduate to more intricate designs that combine napkins with silverware, flowers, and wineglasses.

Don't miss this excellent book:

British Cutlery: An Illustrated History of Design, Evolution and Use

by Peter Brown

British Cutlery

The remarkable collection formed over the last forty-five years by Bill Brown, one that is particularly strong in the early periods not often represented in museum collections. Chapters on the evolution of cutlery design; the development of eating implements across five millennia; advances in design and usage and the influences from Europe. Illustrations of over six hundred pieces, especially photographed for the book.

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