A History of Eating Utensils in the West: A Brief Timeline
Henry Petroski, in The Evolution of Useful Things, makes the argument that it is not so much that necessity is the "mother of invention" as that invention takes place in response to dissatisfaction at the shortcomings of an already existing way of doing things.
The eating utensils we use and the ways we use them are the result of centuries of experimentation. Following are a few milestones from over the years.
- Naturally occurring sharp pieces of stone are observed to be helpful in scraping and cutting foods. When enough sharp flints are not available naturally, people begin to fashion their own cutting edges by chipping stone into the proper shape.
- Coastal peoples have access to an abundance of shells. A stick fastened to the shell allowed for a longer reach, or protection from steam, if a liquid were hot. The hollow horns of sheep and goats also function as a vessels for liquid. Thus began the development of the spoon.
- Saxon England -- 5th cent. C.E. (common era)
- The scramasax, a sharp-pointed knife made of bronze or iron, with a wooden or shell handle, acts as weapon, eating utensil, and all-purpose tool for its owner, who is never without it. Food can be cut with the sharp edge (sometimes using a piece of bread to hold the piece in
place) and conveyed to the mouth on the tip of the knife.
- The word "spoon" comes from the Anglo-Saxon spon, which means a splinter or chip of wood. Indeed, by this time, spoons are carved from wood, as well as many other materials (among them bone, shell, stone).
- Middle Ages
- Most people eat with their hands off of slices of four-day old bread known as "trenchers." Only the wealthy use utensils -- and not so much because they are perceived to be necessary, as because they are impressive. Often these are highly decorative spoons made of rare stones and metals, but the utensil that is most commonly depicted at the dinner table is the knife. Among the nobility, male diners bring their personal knives to eat with and are expected to cut food for the women when necessary. In a practice leading up to the introduction of the fork, two knives are sometimes used, one to cut and the other to hold the meat still.
- 11th century
- The Venetian Doge, Domenico Selvo, marries a Greek princess who brings to his court the practice of eating with forks. This is regarded as a scandalous and heretical affectation, and when she dies shortly thereafter it is perceived as a just divine punishment.
- 1364 to 1380
- The reign of Charles V of France. Forks are listed in his inventory of plate, but it is specified that they are only to be used when eating foods that might otherwise stain the fingers.
- Catherine de Médicis of Italy brings forks when she marries Henry II of France.
- By 1560
- According to a French manners book, different customs have evolved in different European countries. For eating soup, Germans are known for using spoons, Italians are known for using forks (presumably the fork assists in eating solid ingredients and the remaining liquid is drunk out of the bowl as it was in the Middle Ages). The Germans and Italians provide a knife for each diner, while the French provide only two or three communal knives for the whole table.
- Thomas Coryat, an Englishman, observes forks in use in Italy and resolves to use one too. Back in England he is given the nickname "Furcifer," means "fork bearer" but also "gallows bird." He is widely ridiculed and considered effeminate and affected.
- Early 17th century
- As forks become more common implements at the table and are used for holding food steady while cutting and for conveying the food to the mouth, it is less necessary for knives to be made with pointed tips. They begin to be made blunt at the end.
- Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony possesses what is said to be the first and only fork in colonial America. The fad for using a fork has not yet reached the Americas, but Americans continue to import their knives from Europe. The blunted knives imported from Europe are not so easy to eat with as pointed ones were, and many people begin to use a spoon to steady food while cutting it. They then switch the spoon to the right hand to scoop up the bite of food -- the beginnings of what is known today as the zig-zag method.
- King Louis XIV of France bans pointed knives--at the table or as weapons--as a measure to reduce violence, further insuring the predominance of blunted knives at the table.
- Early 18th century
- The four-tined fork has become the rule in Germany. In England, though, forks still have two tines and are not so helpful for scooping up bites of food. Knives there have begun to be fashioned with wide, almost spoon-shaped (though still flat) tips, the better to use them for conveying food to the mouth.
- Mid-18th century
- Throughout Europe, the fork has achieved the form which is now most familiar, four curved tines. The curve assists in scooping up food and allows for a clearer view of the food being cut.
- Early 19th century
- The use of forks has become popular in the United States. They are sometimes called "split spoons."
- The Victorian Years
- Everywhere in the West specialized utensils proliferate, more in response to the Victorian fondness for bric-a-brac than to any real need. Tomato servers, sardine forks, jelly knives, and cheese scoops are among the many elaborations on the theme.
- Stainless steel is invented, providing an inexpensive, easy-to-maintain, and non-reactive metal for making table knife blades. Prior to now, special sterling silver fish and salad knife blades were required to prevent an unpleasant taste that often resulted from using a steel blade on these two items.
- Reading List:
- From Hand to Mouth, Or, How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons and
Chopsticks, and the Manners to Go with Them by James Cross Giblin. New
York: Crowell, 1987.
- The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski. New York:
Vintage Books, 1994.
- The History of Manners by Norbert Elias. New York: Pantheon
- Spoon by Habbakuk O. Westman. London: Wiley & Putnam, 1845.