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

How did people eat before cutlery was invented and how messy was everything? Were napkins available back then or were fingers the way to go? These and other questions will be addressed below, whether you have table manners or no.

Cutlery is a fancy word for silverware or flatware. It refers specifically to the pieces we set on our tables on a daily basis: forks, knives and spoons. (People are never cutlery even if their surname makes it seem like they should be.) The term can be associated with any type of utensil, even though most connect it to knives and other cutting tools. Flatware, usually refers to spoons and forks that are made flat and then beaten or pressed into shape.

The history of these items is dynamic and constantly evolving to adjust to the needs of changing eating habits and tastes down through the ages. Although no one can say for sure, it seems likely that cutlery began when man met the shell and the sharp flint, which was used for cutting. The knife was the first piece of metal cutlery to make it upon the culinary scene, its pointed debut occurring as early as 2000 BC.

The world’s first knives were very simple cutting edges. During the Paleolithic period (500,000-10,000 BC) blades were made largely from stone. By Neolithic times, some four to seven thousand years ago (5000-2000 BC), stone blades were polished and fitted with crude handles made of wood or animal hide, which protected the user’s hand. From 3000-700 BC (The Bronze Age), metal knives were made from first copper and then bronze. Many of their features, such as shapes and bolsters and tangs we still retain today. (They permitted the handle to be fitted at the end of the blade.)

Spoons came along a bit later, about 5,000 BC, and the earliest ones were made of stone or clay. They were very crude implements and some were the scooped-out end of a bone or an animal's horn. Sometimes, they were constructed of a shell tied onto a stick. These materials remained unchanged even through the Bronze and Iron Ages when knives were being made of metal. Iron was not suitable for bending spoons and very few bronze spoons have ever been unearthed from early cultures.

Forks first appeared about the 9th century and it is likely that they led double lives as spears! It is believed that they were first developed from a small knife that was used to hold a joint of meat steady while it was being carved. It is likely the single point turned into a prong and then a two-pronged fork, much like the modern version. Three and four-pronged versions developed as forks grew smaller and more suited to eating rather than carving. Individual forks used in conjunction with knives became the vogue around the end of the 16th century in England. It was the Italians who first started using forks and it took more than 50 years before the British adopted them.

With the passing of the Bronze Age, came the discovery of the longer lasting and sharper edge of the iron blade. The Romans in particular, some 1000 years before the birth of Christ, made knives more versatile and developed many different types. They were used for many different things including animal sacrifices and cutting hair. (The scissors would not be invented until the 17th century when Leonardo Da Vinci decided he needed an easier way to get a haircut!) Generally speaking, knives were very important and were treasured by their owners. Often, people were buried with their own personal eating utensils. (For that big "take out" in the after life, one can only suppose.)

The Romans were the first to refine spoons (spoonery, if you will). At first, they were simply round bowls attached to a narrow handle but over the course of time different shapes came into vogue, becoming thinner at the handle end and more flared at the front. With the British invasion of The Vikings and Saxons came spoon changes, the bowl now a bit leaf-shaped with decorative carved ends. As they did with their knives, people carried their spoons wherever they went, as cutlery was never provided at a table. (How people were expected to eat soup without spoons, for example, remains one of history’s hottest mysteries.)

Spoons were often considered the perfect christening gifts and it wasn’t until Cromwell and the Puritans came to power that the bowl of the spoon became oval-shaped as it is known today. The decorative ends were removed and the spoon end was flattened.

People living in the Middle Ages would probably have made the modern world faint. They barely bathed and a meal was a culinary excursion experienced with fingers and no napkins. If knives were used, they were usually shared with the entire family, stretching that old axiom about the family that cuts their meat together, stays together. Even if there were knives at a medieval table, they were usually pocket-knives with the blade folding into the handle (invented 1600) or daggers. The pen-knife was originally an implement used for pointing quill pens and the "table knife" that we know today didn’t come into existence until 1600.

The 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.

As 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.

To 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 . . .

Copyright 2007