A Very Short History Of Cutlery And Table Manners

by The Kitchen Hotline

Manners, the core of civilized society, have been with us and changed somewhat for many millennia.  At the heart of those manners has been, for some considerable time, table manners.  True refinement is generally judged by our ability to work our way around a serious array of silver cutlery without breaking out into a sweat, spilling the claret, and dropping our aitches in confusion.  Silver cutlery and tableware have also long been a simple social marker of breeding (or otherwise) but cutlery has not always been as complicated as it is today.  Here’s a short history.

Could You Pass the Salt?  Or Else.

Originally table manners included simple and practical rules like not sticking your knife into other guests.  Knives were the main cutlery employed at the table for centuries.  In fact, they go back much farther in time, originating before recorded history as simple flint cutting tools.  As far back as five hundred thousand years man (and woman of course) were using flints to cut anything that wouldn’t just fall apart.  The knife in these days was used for cutting skins to create rudimentary early fashion items and then the rest of the animal to eat.  Using tools is one of those things that is supposed to distinguish us from animals and one of the earliest tools we used was the humble knife.  As modern technological fads come and go, it’s comforting to see that some of our innovations have been so good that we’re still using them today.  Historically, a knife was a prized possession which arrived at the table with it’s owner and also left with them.

Italian Innovations

When we mention cutlery we normally talk about the ‘knife and fork’, but forks first came to the table very late in human history.  It was some time during the Renaissance that the ever fashionable Italians began a bit of tableware trend setting by introducing the fork.  It’s believed that the development was a slow process; originally a single pronged item was used for steadying meat while it was carved.  This led to the development of a double pronged item which was better at the job – and remains familiar in every good carving set today.  Subsequently more prongs were introduced to further refine the instrument.  The less civilized British were not so quick to adopt the fork, although it began to appear on some of the nation’s better dinner tables about fifty years after it had become common on the continent.

Awkward Designs

While spoons had been around for a couple of millennia, their shape made it difficult to manufacture them from iron and they remained in their original form for centuries.  Crafted from wood, bone, or horn they did not become common in a silver or metallic form until the Romans attempted to civilize Europe.  It was not, however, until the Victorian heyday of manners, etiquette, and mass-production, that it became common for every household (well, most) to have a full set of exotic cutlery for different courses.

Wedding List Key Features

It was around this time a set of silver cutlery and tableware had become a common wedding gift which could, well cared for, last for a lifetime of use.  Although the tradition of giving ‘plate’ or other silverware was considerably older, it was during the Victorian era that it became one of the staple items on a wedding list for couples setting up their first home.  Today, silver tableware continues to make a much appreciated gift for couples tying the knot, and despite changing manners and morals across the generations, these most essential tools remain true to their original designs.

About our guest blogger:

Nick Thorping is a freelance writer who is fascinated by the history of small things and technologies that don’t need fixing.  He believes that the stylish interpretation of tableware from Amanda Tableware will outlast many a modern gadgetry gift.


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