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As he wrote in The Evoluton of Useful Things, Henry Petroski argues that it is the dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of a way of doing things that creates invention rather than the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention”.
Hundreds of years of experimentation have resulted in contemporary eating utensils and the particular ways that we use them. Here are some selected eating utensil milestones, starting with pre-history and ending up in the 1920’s.
Sharp fragments of stone were found to be useful in cutting and scraping food from bones, fruit and vegetables. People began to sharpen their own flint fragments by chipping them into a sharp cutting edge. Along the coast, people had access to shells from seafood which could also be used to scoop up food. Sticks attached to the shell gave a longer reach into the cooking pot and was a practical adaptation. Liquid was found to be transported more easily with a hollow animal horn that could also be used as a drinking vessel. Here are the beginnings of the spoon.
5th Century England (The Saxon Era)
Saxons were very fond of a singular tool called a Scramasax or Seax. It was a sharp and pointed utensil fashioned from iron or bronze with sharp edges like a knife and usually a shell or wooden handle. The Scramasax was an all-purpose eating utentil, tool and weapon and a good Saxon always had one by his side. Food could be sliced with the sharp edge and brought to the mouth using the sharp tip. Often bread was used to keep food in place while cutting, to avoid touching it with the hands. The english word Spoon derives from the Anglo-Saxon “Spon“, meaning a chip or splinter of wood. Many carved wooden spoons have been found from this time, as well as others made from shells, stone and bone.
The Middle Ages
By this time, people tend to eat their food off of a plate made from old, stale bread called a Trencher. Eating utensils are still, of course the reserve of the wealthy. Highly decorated utensils made with metal and precious stones were used to impress dinner guests rather than regarded as essential eating tools. In art, it is still the knife that is most commonly depicted as the de-facto eating utensil for this era. The male nobles would be expected to bring their own knives to the dinner table and even use them to cut food for their female guests. This began the practise of using two knives, one to hold the food still and the other to cut which naturally leads to the introduction of the fork.
The 11th Century
Domenico Selvo, the Venetian Doge married Theodora Doukaina, a Princess from Greece who brought with her the practice of using forks to the Venetian Court. The fork was regarded as a scandal and the Princess was branded a heretic. When she died, the Venetians considered her use of the fork to be a justly Divine punishment.
The 14th Century
During the reign of Charles V of France, from 1364 to 1380, his dining inventory listed forks but they were specified for use only when eating food which might stain his fingers.
The 16th Century
Henry II of France married Catherine de Médici of Italy in 1533 and she is documented as bringing a fork with her when she arrived in France
A Venetian etiquette book, Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behavior, published in 1558 explains that eating customs have evolved differently in each European country. Germans, for example were known for using spoons to eat soup. Italians are famous for their forks while soupo was still drunk from a bowl as in the Middle Ages. Both the Italians and Germans have a kife provided for each person at the dining table whereas the French are more accustomed to providing two or three knives for the entire table that everyone would share.
The 17th Century
In 1611 an Englishman traveler called Thomas Coryat observed that the Italians used forks. As he considered the practice highly civilised, he resolved to use one to eat during all meals. He is awarded the nickname Furcifer which means “fork bearer” by his fellow countryman but also “gallows bird.” Thomas is widely ridiculed by the English who consider him mentally affected and effeminate.
Forks start to become more commonplace as eating utentils and so the knife became less important for holding food still while cutting or bringing food to the mouth. This was the first time that table knives began to be made with a blunt shape at the end.
In 1630, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop is known to have possessed the first and only fork in America. The fashion for using forks has not yet reached the New World but Americans do continue to import table knives from their European home countries. As the new blunted table knives were not so easy to eat with as their pointed ancestors, many people use spoons to hold their food still while cutting. They then change the spoon over to their right hand to convey it to the mouth which is the beginning of what we know today as the zig-zag method.
Louis XIV, King of France banned pointed knives in 1669. They were not to be used either at the table or as weapons. This ban ensured that the blunt knife was forwever with us at the dinner table.
The 18th Century
In Germany, the four-tined (or pronged) fork had become standardized, although the double-tined fork was still the norm in England even though it was not so helful for scooping food. English knives had therefore begun to be made with very wide tips, almost like a spoon except flat, which made them more practical for scooping food up to the mouth.
By the mid 18th Century, throughout Europe the fork had evolved into the familiar form we know today with four curved prongs, or tines. The curve was much more useful to scoop up food and allowed a clearer view of the piece food while cutting.
The 19th Century
Finally, the fork enjoyed popularity in the United States and it is often called a “split-spoon”
The Victorian Era
Throughout the West there is a proliferation of specialist eating utensils which served the Victorian need for superflous fancy and novelty rather than actual practical use. However, cheese knoves, jelly knives, tomato spoons, fish knives and a host of other specialized cutlery came onto the dining scene.
The 20th Century
Stainless steel was invented in the 1920’s, revolutionising the manufacture of all sorts of tools, including table cutlery and flatware. Now utensils could be made from an easy-to-maintain and non reactive metal that did not need regular ploishing like silver and would not tarnish like steel. Knife and fork blades could be more easily manufactured by mounting into a separate handle material like bone, ivory or wood. Often steel blades soiled the taste of fish or fruit so silver ad to be used instead. Stainless seel solved this problem and made cutlery affordable for all.
Buy these books directly from Amazon by clicking the links!
- 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 Books, 1978.
- The Spoon by Habbakuk O. Westman. London: Wiley & Putnam, 1845.
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