When considering the grand flatware services of the 19th and early 20th century, created by makers such as Tiffany & Co. and Gorham, it is often incredible to think that such magnificent utensils had such humble origins. The spoon, knife and fork came into the world at different periods of human history and in very different ways, but in their own way, they played a large part in advancing civilization, and often made an important statement about personal wealth and status.
Whether commonly used or the subjects of the strictest etiquette, it is difficult to imagine life without these simple tools. Once sacrilegious and controversial, the knife, fork and spoon are among the most important inventions in the history of Western culture.
The oldest eating utensil, after our fingers, is the modest spoon, but there is nothing modest about its role in human development. First formed of shells, which were later attached to sticks, the first spoons were used by our earliest ancestors.
As human beings learned to work with different materials, they fashioned the spoon accordingly, carving them from wood and horn, and eventually working metals like silver and iron into spoon-shaped utensils from the earliest days of metalcraft. These first metal implements often wore out very quickly, however, and only gained resilience with the development of copper alloys.
The shape of the spoon remained relatively unchanged until the introduction of the fork. In fact, Etruscan spoons, dating from 700 B.C., are quite similar to those found today. But it is believed that with the introduction of the fork, implements designed to use with particular types of food began to appear, and the simple spoon became tablespoons, teaspoons, ladles and soup spoons, to name a few.
The knife, like the spoon, was one of the first tools in the hands of modern humans. In the beginning, they were nothing more than pieces of chipped obsidian or flint, but they gradually evolved into handled blades. Warfare was one of the more obvious uses for these new tools, but knives for eating were being made as early as 1200 in Sheffield, England. The more prosperous members of society used knives crafted of silver or gold, sometimes with gem-encrusted handles.
Blade instruments were also subject to some of the strictest rules of the table. Ever cognizant of the blades’ more lethal use, King Louis XIV of France declared the carrying of pointed knives illegal in 1669. This law was preceded by Cardinal Richelieu, however, who in 1637, his sensibilities wounded more than anything else, made a rule that guests should not pick their teeth with their hunting knives at the dinner table, and that all knives used at table should be blunted. Thus, the dinner knife was born.
Forks were the last of the flatware tools to be added to this gastronomic arsenal. The early Greeks were known to use forks, and one was carried to Italy by a Greek princess in 1071. There is some disagreement about when tined instruments first appeared in inventories on the continent. Many credit Catherine de Medici with bringing them from Italy to France in 1553 upon her marriage to the future King Henry II, but gold and silver forks, used only for eating mulberries and other foods that stain the fingers, are listed in the inventory of Charles V of France (1338-1380).
Nevertheless, by the 1600s, fork usage had spread all the way to England, where a gentleman traveler by the name of George Coryat credits himself with the momentous introduction. This may have been a bit of a boast, as Queen Elizabeth I counted them in her inventory. Even so, forks were not readily adopted in England. The Church had frowned on them, ruling that they took glory from God who gave us fingers to eat with, and were seen as effeminate in many corners. However, King Charles I of England declared them “decent to use” in 1633, and the fork slowly but surely gained acceptance at the table.
It was another century before the large flatware services we know today began to appear on sophisticated tables. In fact, the first flatware sets were personal items, owned and carried by their owners when dining out. The earliest sets date to the 14th century and were comprised of a fork, used for serving, with a matched set of knives for eating with the fingers. By the 17th century, these sets were very popular and consisted of a fork, knife and spoon, and soon they were made to be folded to protect the blade and tines when traveling. These sets were termed cutlery sets, from the Old French word “coutel,” meaning “knife.”
It was during the beginning years of the Industrial Revolution that houses began to keep great sets of flatware on hand. This was the Georgian period in England and dining reached theatrical levels. Courses were staged like acts in a play and utensils were created for specific types of food.
The style of these pieces began to change, as well, becoming more ornate, with decorations such as leaves and scrollwork. Flatware patterns emerged, such as the Old English pattern of the late 18th century, and inspiration was taken from interior design and architecture. Knives, most of which had a pistol-grip handle since the 17th century, soon acquired a straight handle, and were decorated to match the forks and spoons.
It is interesting to note that forks and spoons were made by silversmiths, while knives were made by cutlers. This is because the blade and handle were usually not made of the same material. Again, a non-alloyed metal like silver or gold was much too soft to use as a blade, and often wore down.
To make knives that lasted, steel sandwiched between sheets of less expensive iron, and later stainless steel, were used for the blade. Sometimes silver-plated steel was used for the blades, but the silver reacted with salt and many types of food, causing the blade to become damaged, or simply worn out from cleaning. More modest homes made do with less expensive materials, of course, such as pewter for forks and spoons, and knife handles of wood or bone.
With the Industrial Revolution came the ability to make many pieces of silverware, quickly and uniformly. Add to this the discovery of vast amounts of silver from the Comstock Silver Mine beginning in 1859, which made silver much more affordable and available, and the great silver services of the Victorian era and Gilded Age were an inevitable outcome. During this illustrious period, just as a century earlier, dining and entertaining became an art, and all of the accoutrements had to create a picture of luxury.
Lavish dinner parties were de rigueur, and hostesses did their best to impress with both the size and the quality of their flatware services. In fact, during the 18th and 19th centuries, owning the most up-to-date flatware pattern was of the utmost importance, and having sets remodeled was not uncommon.
Tiffany was the most sought-after flatware maker in terms of exclusivity, and its designers created both patterns, such as the widely coveted Chrysanthemum, and new types of utensils.
The humble spoon gave way to dessert spoons, place spoons, soup spoons, both clear and cream, spoons for ice cream, sorbet and parfait, plus bouillon, citrus, egg, confection, claret and demitasse spoons. Knives evolved into luncheon knives, steak knives, fish knives, butter spreaders, knives for fruit, and more specifically, for oranges. And forks were created, large and small, for salads, fish, pastry, pie, pickles, oysters, bird, lettuce, shrimp cocktail, terrapin, ramekin puddings, strawberries and shellfish, to name but a few.
In these grand flatware services, the place pieces, or utensils placed at each setting, were not limited to the various types of knives, forks and spoons. A wide range of specialized pieces, such as asparagus tongs, sardine forks, jelly knives and potato chip servers, came into being during this time. One could also count escargot tongs, corn holders, scrapers and butterers, paté spreaders, squab holders, lobster crackers and nut picks to an almost interminable list of new tools. And if one was to be worth one’s salt spoon, one had better know how to use all of them.
Dining etiquette has been around since the time of the Egyptians, when the first written code of etiquette was introduced in The Instruction of Ptahhotep which was written during the reign of Pharaoh DjedkareIsesi in 2414-2375 BC. Romans followed suit, with rules about seating and beverage placement.
As centuries passed, new rules were adopted with the introduction of new foods, new flatware utensils and the emergence of the middle or merchant class. This new social stratus impelled the nobility to create strictures on middle class banquets, just as sumptuary laws governed who could wear what clothing.
Books of etiquette began to appear as early as 1520, and the rules contained in many notable tomes such as The Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione, Isabella Beeton’s household guides and Mrs. Seely’s Cook-Book (with Chapters on Domestic Servants, their Rights and Duties) provided pages of sound advice that still resonate today. Everything from where to place one’s napkin to how to hold one’s utensils was proscribed and society held fast to these elaborate rules.
The renowned Mrs. Beeton said “Animals eat; only man dines.” The evolution of flatware, from pre-historic times to modern developments, is the embodiment of this philosophy. As man developed, so did our tools, and the many forms of knives and forks, spoons and servers give testament to the sublime elegance which we applied to all of our pleasurable pursuits.
For collectors of English sterling, including flatware, knowledge of the different types of British hallmarks is essential. There are five types of marks found on English sterling silver items: the maker’s mark, assay office/town mark, date mark, assay or sterling mark and the duty mark (used on works from 1784-1890).
• Typically, the maker’s mark bears the initials of the silversmith or silver manufacturing company.
• The assay office or town mark indicates where the silver was tested for compliance with the stringent British silver standards. During the 14th century, there was only one assay office located in London, denoted by a lion’s head, sometimes with a crown. It wasn’t until 1363 when representatives, or assay masters, were elected throughout Great Britain to carry out the work of the London assay office.
• In 1478, the date mark was introduced to signify the year the piece was assayed as sterling. A letter of the alphabet was assigned to each year, predominantly in alphabetical order.
(The addition of the date mark and the town mark was significant. These stamps meant that particular individuals would now be held responsible, should their testing prove to be inaccurate. Prior to this, officials had no way of determining when or where a piece of sterling was actually tested. These two marks added a new level of accountability.)
• The assay or sterling mark denotes the piece is sterling, or 92.5% pure silver. Prior to 1544, the assay mark was a leopard’s head. After 1544, the emblem changed to a lion and became known as the Lion Passant. It is the full body of a lion (depending on the date letter series or assay office, the head faces straight on or to the left.
• The duty mark is a stamp of the reigning sovereign’s head. It first appeared in December 1784 when King George III imposed a special duty on all silver to help pay for the American War of Independence. This stamp indicated that taxes had been paid on the piece. The duty on silver was lifted in 1890 and the stamp was no longer required.