The History of Cutlery

Cutlery may seem like the most basic of epicurean utensils, however their current design is relatively new to society and the way we consume food.

Spoons were the first invention, leading the way to civilized dining. Dated to as early as 1000 BC in Egypt, spoons were adapted from a variety of scoop-like objects over history from seashells to chips of wood- in fact, the name itself originates from the Anglo- Saxon word spon meaning a chip of wood. Fashioned handles were added to these found objects later on and thus, the spoon was born!

Once the popularisation of spoons spread, there was a demand for the objects to be fashioned and not found, so we see early examples crafted from wood, bronze and silver, from early civilization to the middle ages.

The purpose of the spoon was not merely for eating, its importance in society had expanded and spoons were commonly used in ceremonies and as a symbol of status, hence we see anointing spoons in Britain to welcome new monarchs.

The fork is a relative newcomer to the table and unlike the spoon it has a more interesting history.

Although it can be dated to Ancient Egypt, it was elongated in form and only comprised of two sharp prongs, being used primarily for cooking or serving food. One of the earliest records of the fork is from a story of the wedding of a Byzantine princess, Theodora Anna Doukaina and Venetian Domenico Selvo in the 11th century. She arrived with her dowry which supposedly consisted of a case of golden forks and then proceeded to use them at the wedding feast. Her decadence was condemned by the local clergy, and one member announced “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore, it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.” Two years later when Theodora died of an unknown disease, it was considered by some to be punishment for her pride and life of excess.

And so, fingers and spoons remained the preferred method to eat food.  It was not until the Renaissance, during another noble marriage, where the fork’s popularity grew. When Catherine De Medici arrived in France to marry Henry II, she brought a collection of silver forks with her to be used during the nuptial feast. Although Henry’s courtiers struggled to use the foreign utensils, leading to spilled food and much laughter, however despite the ridicule, this popularized the use of forks to all French upper class society, who by the 18th century began sporting personal cutlery sets as a symbol of wealth and status (see illustrated example lot 115). It was not until the late 18th century with the introduction of affordable pewter that all levels of society began using forks.

The knife, although one of the oldest members of the cutlery family, was used mainly for hunting, and often deterred from being used at the dining table on account of their very sharp edges. In fact, in 1669, Louis XIV decreed that overly sharp knifes were illegal at the table and were instead replaced by a wider blunt knife which we know as our knife today.

Next time you sit down for a meal, pause to reflect on the fact that we now use safe blunt knives and have roundly accepted the common use of forks and not our fingers.

Head of Decorative Arts