The history of the fork starts as with most inventions, there was a dissatisfaction with the way things worked so a creative thinker decided to change it. In the Middle Ages, eating utensils consisted of two knives, one duller and with a muted point to stab and hold the food and the second to cut the food to be consumed. It became convenient to use the knife holding the food to then convey the food to the mouth. The problem then became that the food would fall off the point, spin around the knife or it would be dangerous to eat off the blade.
Around the 14th Century a solution to these problems was created. The dull knife was notched in the tip creating two prongs. This held the food better and prevented spinning but still was not a good method of bringing the food to the mouth, thus the three prong forks were invented.
Although parts of Europe were using forks at every meal, the Italians were uncertain of their functionality, preferring to stay with their two knife methods until the 16th Century. At that point, forks became common in upper class estates where they were considered elite and refined thus furthering the separation from commoners.
In 1533 Catherine de Medici married future King Henry II and brought the elitist cutlery to France and eventually spreading the tools to England. The English were hesitant to use forks because they were much too effeminate and unnecessary when hands were perfectly acceptable. Again, however, the wealthy saw them as potential status symbols and began modifying forks into grand works of art making them out of expensive materials such as silver, gold and ivory and carving intricate designs into the handles with embedded jewels. The owner of these elaborate sets of forks and, of course, their matching knives would have their family crest stamped onto the back side of each utensil and often carry them in equally elaborate cases.
The etiquette practice of laying ones fork with the tines down across the plate to signal that you are done eating evolved during this time. The wealthy would each carry their individual cutlery sets when invited to dinner. The more elaborate and decorative the sets would become a symbol of their wealth and status in the community. By turning their forks upside down on the plate, the displayed family crest would prove the owners social status.
Over time cutlery came into wider usage. By the early 19th Century, the four-tined fork was developed in Germany and England and slowly began to be used in America. Eventually forks became common usage for all diners. The Victorians took forks to the extreme by requiring a different size, style and type of implement for almost every dish served.
Today the shape and functionality of the fork depend on need. A modern set of flatware may contain the five most common forks: dinner fork, fish fork, luncheon fork, salad or dessert fork and seafood fork. Although other forks are still in existence, today’s table setting is for the ease of consuming each course served. Forks with long tapered tines (dinner forks) are used for spearing thick morsel of food, such as proteins. Forks with a wider left time and an optional notch (salad fork, fish fork, dessert fork and pastry fork), provide extra leverage when cutting foods that do not require a knife. Forks with curved tines (oyster fork) are made to follow the shape of the shell.
When sitting down to a formal dinner, set with multiple pieces of cutlery, remember forks are used in order from the outside to the inside. The exception to this rule is the oyster fork which will be placed on the right hand side of the bowl in a spoon. However, to avoid confusion or embarrassment to your guests, etiquette authorities prefer that the appropriate cutlery be brought in with each course.