Cutlery (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
CUTLERY. For a very long time humans used their fingers to convey food to their mouths, tearing pieces off with their teeth, which had evolved for this purpose. Then they found that, by using small flakes of sharpedged flint as cutting tools, they could skin and cut up the carcass of a heavy animal and remove the small pieces to a safer place to eat. Similarly, natural objects, such as shells, could be used to hold and carry water.
With the discovery and use of copper, humans moved into the age of metal. The early Egyptians, who already had very beautiful and skillfully executed flint knives, made copper knives that were small and leaf-shaped in design and may have been used for domestic or ceremonial purposes. These copper knives did not have as hard and sharp an edge as flint and probably did not replace the flint knives entirely until it was discovered that combining the soft copper with tin produced the much harder alloy of bronze. This extended the use of metal into everyday objects and gave bronze knives a hard and sharp edge; the distinct advantage of these blades was that they could be resharpened.
Further specialization of knives occurred throughout the Middle East and spread among the Celts of central and northern Europe in the Bronze Age. There are some extant small knives with considerable decorative style that were probably personal eating implements, perhaps carried on a type of chatelaine. Additionally, other larger and decorative knives, capable of being used for eating or defense purposes, were possibly carried in a sheath on a belt.
The next important advancement was the slow introduction of the use of iron, which started with meteoric iron in Egypt in the third millennium B.C.E. with very small improvement in the technology and was probably in the beginning not a great improvement on bronze.
During the Roman period, divisions of society appeared with their own rituals for eating and drinking. Some Roman illustrations show diners in a reclining position, which must have made cutting food with a knife quite difficult. Perhaps the food was cut into bite-sized pieces before serving, similar to the custom in most Asian countries today. The reclining style of eating was not for everyday, but for banquets and entertaining. Iron knives, some with decorative bronze handles, were now common, and the Romans had a large range of knives to meet their various requirements, including specialized knives for eating and food preparation.
The Romans also developed folding knives with blades of iron, some with spoons attached, with decorative bronze handles showing hunting scenes of hounds chasing hares; another version of the folding type is a figure of a lion with an iron knife blade, folding spoon and sometimes a "spike," perhaps for eating snails. It is not inconceivable that these utensils were used and lost by legionaries moving around the country; they are among the more common Roman objects excavated in Britain.
There is evidence from Saxon grave sites of women and children having small personal knives of iron interred with them during the early centuries following the withdrawal of the Romans. Some of these knives reflect the style that was developed by Northumbrian monks. The larger knife, called a "scramasax," was a general-purpose iron knife having a very distinct shape and point, with a thick back and a blade that was sometimes inlaid with silver and brass in a wooden "bobbin" handle. Some of the better examples show great skill in the patterned inlay work on the blade. The scramasax became quite famous and popular throughout Europe; a well-recorded knife owned by Charlemagne is an example of its status. Some of the excavated medieval knives from the foreshore of the Thames still show this influence.
Illustrations from medieval manuscripts show rich tables set with ewers and bowls, a knife or two, and occasionally a fork. The number of knives on the table does not match the number of diners present, so, according to the custom of the time, the diner would carry and use his own knife and spoon, or perhaps share a knife provided on the table. The ewers and bowls were for cleansing the fingers before taking food from the communal dishes. A small fork was most likely provided for picking up preserved and sticky food. The fork was shared and, like the spoon, did not become an eating companion with the knife until after the second half of the seventeenth century. Most of these early forks are bronze and silver, with two tines, and have been excavated in Europe, particularly Italy. They did not change very much in style until the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when the number of tines varied from two to four. However, the two-tined fork, also in steel, lasted in common usage in western Europe, including Britain, until the twentieth century.
The personal carrying of knives is well illustrated by Bosch and later by Breughel, both of whom show knives worn in the belt ready for eating or, if need be, self-defense. Spoons were usually tucked into hats and clothing and were perhaps easily lost. This might explain the many spoons that have been excavated at the apparent crossing point of one of London's ditches where we can assume people dropped the spoons when they jumped and then failed to retrieve them.
Medieval travelers were expected to supply their own eating utensils at any lodging house or inn in which they stayed overnight. Most men carried a knife of some sort in their belts as a matter of course, but a rich traveler might have a more elaborate sheath, perhaps containing a large knife and an extra sheath containing a small eating knife and spoon. Later medieval knives were subjected to considerable innovation in both design and construction. The reason for this is not entirely clear, but one suspects that location, novelty, desirability, and profit were factors.
National styles were also appearing, although with so much trade and importation plus the movement of people, it is not always easy to determine where a particular excavated knife was made. The style and cutler's mark or other inscription might help to identify country or origin. Knives from the Thames foreshore would suggest that knives were frequently dropped overboard from visiting foreign ships and that local inhabitants were using the river as a highway and rubbish dump, thus increasing the difficulty of identification many years later.
Eating knives of the seventeenth century became thin and elegant and, toward the end of the century, were more decorative, with carved ivory figures and composite handles of jet, ebony, amber, colored bone, hardstone, agate, cut steel, and precious metal. Such knives were accepted as a decorative part of dress and were suitable as impressive gifts. Very few of the common knives have survived except in an excavated condition, whereas many of the fine-quality knives that were often given as gifts have survived and been handed down through the centuries.
A pair of knives given by the groom to his bride as a wedding gift was an indication of wealth. The bride then wore the knives as a token of her position as mistress of the house. This custom lasted until the early seventeenth century. Many other crafts were involved in the making of these quality knives. Although a cutler was required by his guild to make a complete knife, the handles were made by specialized craftsmen and even imported from abroad. The sheaths were made by experts in the field of leather, wood, fabric, and beadwork.
Parallel with the decorative knives was a type of knife that was very long and elegant; it was made of one piece of iron, and the handle was decorated with balusters and turning. These knives, with handles showing traces of black enamel, may have been given as "memento mori" presents.The first half of the seventeenth century saw a change in the size and style of the knife. It was getting shorter, the point was removed (since it was no longer required as a spike to transfer food to the mouth), the blade was sometimes wider at the tip than at the bolster, and there was a short handle of a round tapering section in ivory, bone, or wood, sometimes decorated with inlaid wire. The result was a strong, very purposeful "prime" knife that matches the basic simple Puritan spoon of this
The early seventeenth century also saw the general introduction of a fork at all social levels, usually as a matching companion to the knife. Forks had been used in Europe from early times, perhaps among the Romansfter all, a trident is only a large-sized forknd large iron forks had been used for many years as cooking implements. This is well illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry, which shows a cook removing a piece of meat from a cauldron with a long wooden-handled "fleshing" fork. Travelers from abroad brought back from Italy the habit of eating with a forkhey were probably impressed with the novelty, not least the hygienend after some resistance, the custom was accepted in England. At first the style, construction, and material of the fork
The evolutionary design of knife blades goes through a line of many peaks and troughs throughout the centuries. The "peaks" throw up a perfect "prime" knife, highly suitable for its purpose; this depends on all the components' being sympathetic to each other whether they were made by one or by many craftsmen.
However, another introduction of the fork emerged at the same time; this was in silver and was hallmarked in London, dated 1632, and engraved with the crest of John Manners of Haddon Hall. This simple one-piece silver fork was in the style that was current in Paris at that time and matched the very plain Puritan spoon used in Paris and London. This set the custom of a spoon and fork matching, with the knife following suit and later in the eighteenth century all three pieces came together in large services of various patterns.
During the latter part of the seventeenth century, traveling sets containing knives, forks, and spoons were still necessary and continued throughout this and the next century. Most of these sets consisted of a knife and fork in a slip case, some with spoons. Others were more elaborate, containing a folding or dismantling knife, fork, and spoons with a beaker, corkscrew, and perhaps other items. The sets were likely to be made to special order, making the container very compact.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the design of knives slowly changed from the rather severe Puritan knife.The blade became longer, very curved, and spatulate at the tip, and the handle had a distinct pistol-shape, By the first quarter of the eighteenth century, it finally evolved into a prime example of a Baroque knife. The popular term for this type of knife is "scimitar," and it can be found in all its stages, from its rudimentary beginnings to another "prime" knife of 1720. The silver-handled scimitar knife is very satisfying and comfortable to use and is a favored antique for the table even today.
Contemporary with this change of style and the practice of laying the table with matching knife, fork, and spoon was the introduction of the separate dining room with dining table and chairs and other furniture. Some of the wealthier middle-class merchants began to supply their guests at the table with cutlery from fishskincovered boxes on the dining room sideboard that contained knives, forks, and spoons in quantity, thus making the carrying of cutlery by guests unnecessary.
One of the most prolific suppliers of this style of cutlery, and probably an early entrepreneur of the factory system using local labor, was the Master Cutler Ephraim How. He and his son John made cutlery first at Ching-ford, then at the Southend Mill, Lewisham, and sold it from their shop at Saffron Hill, London.
From 1720 the scimitar became debased with the straightening of the blade and a hump on the back, but it still retained the round spatulated end; the handle lost its pistol shape. All of this disappeared after the middle of the century when a change occurred in the evolutionary chain of the eighteenth-century knife with the introduction of the "French" style. This was consistent with all the other similar fashions in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Knife blades became long and spear-shaped with the point on the central axis and the widest section halfway along the length of the blade. Handles were tapered with a round to oval section and sometimes capped with silver. Others were made of stamped silver with a raised foliate design, soldered together and filled with resin; they later became straight-sided and square using green-stained ivory, bone, or ebony.
Knife boxes continued to be used as pieces of quality furniture, holding a dozen or more knives and forks and sometimes silver spoons. Spoons in a larger variety of sizes, including servers, could be found in a separate box, that is, the middle box of a set of three. Most earlyand late-eighteenth-century boxes had locks with keys and were kept in the dining room; the contents were washed in situ after each meal by the servants and locked away until required again.
It is about this time800hat dessert sets appeared; they were popular as gifts right through the nineteenth century. This was exploited by the cutlery trade, as knives have always been acceptable gifts.
There was no return to the evolutionary course of the design of the knife until 1820, when British style, after making weak attempts at bringing back the scimitar blade, settled for a large, parallel-sided blade with a rounded tip and a straight, simple handle made of ivory, stained green or plain, or of figured silver in many styles. This continued to the end of the nineteenth century with only small interruptions from the influence of various art movements and fashions that affected the decoration rather than the construction or size. Examples would be the influence of art nouveau and of gardening implements, such as serving utensils shaped like spades; the term "butter spade" is still in use.
Industrial exhibitions in this period were popular and fashionable and would have provided ample scope for displaying high-quality skills and innovations. During the early part of the twentieth century came a slow reduction in the size of the knife, along with corresponding changes in other pieces of tableware. The days of having to carry personal eating equipment were long gone, but with modern traveling by train and motor car, small folding fruit knives, cutlery for picnic hampers, and military and camping canteens were developed.
In 1914 there was an important change in the construction of the knife: stainless steel was commercially produced. Its application to knife blades was enormous. It meant that blades would no longer rust readily and would resist staining from acids and foods, both being the bane of most carbon steel blades.
There was one style of knife that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century and evolved slowly, both in England and in Germany. This was the all-metal one-piece knife in both iron and steel that had appeared at various times in the past and reappeared with the introduction of stainless steel. This knife is an obvious candidate for a "prime" knife of the first half of the twentieth century and, with the partnership of stainless steel spoons and forks, must have seemed the ultimate in cutlery. Such knives were produced in large quantities.
However, in recent times, industrial and silversmith designers have been involved in producing a proliferation of styles and novelties, perhaps to cause comment as well as to eat with.
See also Etiquette and Eating Habits; Kitchen Gadgets; Utensils, Cooking.
Bailey, Major C. T. P. Knives and Forks. London: Medici Society, 1927.
Beard, C. R. "Wedding Knives." The Connoisseur 85 (1930): 917.
Brown, Bill. "Eating Implements." Antique Collecting 29, 9 (1995): pp. 213.
Brown, Peter, ed. British Cutlery: An Illustrated History of Design, Evolution, and Use. London: Philip Wilson, 2001.
Hayward, J. F. English Cutlery: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1957.
Himsworth, Joseph Beeston. The Story of Cutlery: From Flint to Stainless Steel. London: Ernest Benn, 1953.
Hughes, G. B. "Old English Wedding Knives." Country Life 105 (1949): 66667.
London South Kensington Museum. Masterpieces of Cutlery and the Art of Eating. Exhibition catalogue. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1979.
Moore, Simon J. Cutlery for the Table: A History of British Table and Pocket Cutlery. Sheffield: Hallamshire Press, 1999.
Pickford, Ian. Silver Flatware: English, Irish, and Scottish, 1660980. Woodbridge, England: Antique Collectors' Club, 1983.
Singleton, Howard Raymond. A Chronology of Cutlery. Sheffield: Sheffield City Museum, 1973.
Cutlery (How Products are Made)
Eating or serving with utensils made of silver, silver-plated metals or stainless steel is relatively recent. Silver needed to be discovered in sufficient quantities, the smelting processes necessary to hand-craft silver needed to be refined, and in Northern Europe it took several centuries before the more civilized Latin table manners replaced the cruder Anglo-Saxon ones.
Henry VIII, the most famous of England's Tudors, used his hands to tear off large pieces of beef from an entire roast set before him, throw the meat on his trencher board, chop off smaller pieces and shovel them in his mouth. Such table manners were acceptable until the publication of books on manners by Castiglione (1478-1529) and Peacham (1576-1643). Around that time, fine silver table services and eating implements were introduced into English court life. Banquet halls started to use solid silver platters and plates, silver-mounted drinking vessels, silver-handled knives and a variety of spoons. Unassisted bare hands, however, remained the norm for the "lower orders" in England for another century or so.
The spoon was one of man's earliest inventions, possibly as old as the custom of drinking hot liquids. In Northern Europe, the first spoons were carved from wood. Later specimens were fashioned out of horns of cattle, ivory tusks, bronze, and eventually silver and gold.
The earliest mention of spoons made from precious metals is found in the Book of Exodus, when Moses is commanded to make dishes and spoons of pure gold for the Tabernacle. Moses asked Bezalel (the first spoon-maker known to us by name in history) to work in gold, silver and brass. Since Bezalel had come with Moses out of Egypt, he must have learned his trade there.
Many Egyptian spoons were cast in the form of handled dishes with a cover and a spout, an elaborate but not very practical design. Greek and Roman spoons, on the other hand, looked much more like the spoons we are used to seeing in modern times. Pan, the patron of shepherds and huntsmen, was honored with spoons in the shape of a goat's foot. The Roman fiddle-patterned spoon, originating in the first or second century A.D., resembles the modern type we know today, except for its squared off stem-head, rather than the arched appearance with which we are familiar.
The first English spoons, made of horn or wood, were probably imitations of those brought in by Roman troops in Britain. The Angles and Saxons introduced a spoon with small, pear-shaped bowl. By the fourteenth century, castings of bronze, brass, pewter and sheet tin were fairly common.
The knife, used by hunters and soldiers for cutting and spearing the meat, was first made of flint, then of metal. Its main characteristic was a sharp edge. Traces of the primitive knife, such as the incurved shape at the top, or the beveling of the metal to achieve an edge, are still present in some of our styles today. Handles at first were only long enough to allow a firm grip for carving.
In the 1630s, the Duke de Richelieu, chief minister to France's Louis XIII, ordered the kitchen staff to file off the sharp points of all house knives and bring them to the royal table, thereby introducing the knife as an every-day eating utensil for the aristocracy.
Forks were introduced at the table around the time of the Crusades, at the beginning of the twelfth century, when Venice's Doge Domenice Silvie and his Dogess placed a fork beside each plate at one of their banquets. The forks took about three centuries to gain acceptance, probably because the custom of placing food in one's mouths with both hands, five fingers, oror the refined fewhree fingers, was more expedient than using a new gadget.
Most dinner guests first carried their own knives. After the introduction of forks, the custom of guests providing their own eating utensils continued, and attention was given to minimize the space occupied by the knife and fork when not in use, with the fork sometimes serving as a handle for the spoon.
The production of tableware on a wide scale in England after 1650 played a large role in improving the dinner-table etiquette. In time, strict laws demanding high standards greatly enhanced the quality of silverware. Silversmiths were required to stamp their name, the place, and the date of their manufactured goods on their pieces. The word "sterling" came to mean "of unexcelled quality." From 1670, English homes of the upper classes had silver spoons as a matter of course, and had already started the custom of passing them on to their heirs. American silversmiths widely copied these spoons. In fact, the colonial craftsmen's first silver goods were spoons. Table knives with steel blades started to appear around this time as well. However, silver forks and sophisticated serving vessels were rare until the late eighteenth century.
Before the seventeenth century, silver could be melted and poured into shaped molds to be cast into a variety of objects, but more often it was hand beaten with sledge hammers on an anvil, or coerced into flatsheets of the required thickness by a version of the old-fashioned laundry mangle with iron instead of wooden rollers. The hammering of the sheet caused it to become brittle after a certain amount of time, and therefore unfit for further working. At that point, it was annealed, or placed under heat of about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (540 degrees Celsius), then plunged into cold water, after which the hammering could be resumed.
Later, the silversmiths (or "flatters") used more sophisticated techniques, such as waterwheels or horse-driven wheels, to pass the metal through the rollers many times until the desired thickness was attained. These techniques were replaced by the steam engine in the eighteenth century.
Special hammersithout small faces and sharp corners that might cut the metalere used to raise the flat sheets of metal into hollow forms, such as pots or the bowls of spoons. Handles for spoons, forks, or knives were shaped by casting. The most common method was to embed a pattern (of gunmetal, wood or plaster) in a two-part frame filled with an adhesive loam mixture, bake it hard, open the frame and remove the pattern, then fill the cavity with molten silver, finally breaking the mold to remove the casting. Pieces fashioned this way showed gritty surfaces that required smoothing with file and pumice.
Sheffield plating was the first silverplating technique used. It consisted of attaching a thin skin of sterling to one or both sides of a copper brick, rolling it into flatsheets, and then working it in a similar manner as silver. This technique was replaced in 1842, when electroplating (or sterling silver deposited by electrolysis on a base metal) was introduced.
The raw material of silverware is stainless steel, sterling silver, or, in the case of silver-plate, a base metal (such as a high-quality copper alloy) over which a layer of silver is electrically deposited.
Stainless steel is a combination of steel, chrome and nickel. The finest grade of metal used in producing quality lines is 18/8 stainless steel. This means that it contains 18 percent chrome, 8 percent nickel. Stainless steel is very popular because of its easy care, durability, and low price.
The majority of silver is obtained as a byproduct of the extraction of lead, copper and zinc. Silver is separated from smelted lead bullion by the Parkes process, in which zinc is added to the molten bullion that has been heated to above the melting point of zinc. When the zinc has dissolved, the mixture is cooled and a crust of zinc-silver alloy forms on the surface, because the silver combines more readily with zinc than with lead. The crust is removed, pressed to remove excess lead and then processed in a retort to recover the zinc for reuse, leaving a silver-lead bullion with a high silver content. Further refining of the bullion is carried out in a cupellation furnace, where air is blown across the surface of the molten metal to oxidize the lead and other impurities to a slag, leaving the silver, which is cast into anode blocks. Final purification of the silver is made by an electrolytic process. Sterling silver consists of 925 pure silver and 75 parts of an alloy (usually copper). This proportion is fixed by law and therefore never varies. The copper alloy adds durability without sacrificing the natural beauty and workability of silver.
Silverplate is the result of a process that bonds pure silver (silver more pure than sterling) to a strong base metal. The resulting tableware is durable, has the look and feel of silver, but is much less expensive than sterling.
The Manufacturing Process
- 1 Production begins with rectangular, flat blanks of stainless steel, sterling silver, or in the case of plated flatware, an alloy. Large rolls are stamped in individual blanks, which are flat pieces roughly the same shape as the piece to be produced.
- 2 Through a series of rolling operations, these blanks are graded or rolled to the correct thickness and shapes required by the manufacturer's flatware patterns. First the blanks are rolled crosswise from left to right, right to left, and lengthwise, then trimmed to outline. Each spoon, for instance, must be thick at the base of the handle to resist bending. This gives graded pieces the right balance and a good feel in the hand. Each piece is now in the form of a cleanly finished shape in the rough dimension of the utensil.
- 3 Between operations, the blanks must pass through annealing ovens to soften the metal for further machine operations. The annealing, done under great heat, must be very accurately controlled so the final piece will be resistant to bending and to nicks and dents when in use. The last annealing is the most
Cutting to outline
- 4 The rolled blanks are placed in the cutout press by an operator, to remove the excess metal and to fashion the shape of the piece. This process is similar to cutting shapes from rolled dough. The shape of the piece is cut out of the metal and the excess metal is remelted and transformed back into sheets of metal to be used again. This trimming must ensure an accurate fit of the pieces into the dies when the design is applied.
Forming the pattern
- 5 The next step is the forming of the pattern. Each pattern has its own hardened steel dieswo dies for each piece, one with the pattern for the front of the piece, and the other with the pattern for the back of the piece. These are carefully set in the hammers by die setters. The operator quickly places a piece in place under the drop hammer, which descends with a hydraulic pressure of 200 tons. (The bases of the drop hammers are bedded in 160 cubic yards of cement.) The metal is squeezed into every tiny detail of the ornamentation in the die, embossing the pattern on the piece. The blow of the hammer hardens the piece for use in the home. Surplus metal around the outline of the piece is then removed by clipping presses.
Special stepsi>knife, spoon, and fork
- 6 Special steps are necessary for the creation of knives, spoons, forks, and holloware pieces. To make the hollow handle for the knife, after two strips of metal are formed to shape, they are then soldered together, buffed and polished until the seam is no longer visible. The blade and handle are
- 7 With the spoon, after the pattern has been embossed upon the front and back of the handle, the next step is the forming of the bowl. The forming is done again under the same powerful drop hammers from accurate steel dies. Each bowl requires two hammer blows. Surplus metal around the outline of the spoon is removed by clipping presses. A small burr still remains to be removed at a later operation.
- 8 The forming of fork tines is a similar process to that of the forming of the spoon's bowl, but the operation takes place before the pattern is applied to the handle. After a fork is cut to outline, it is pierced and tined: the tines are pieced out, and the small piece of metal that holds the tip of the tines together is removed in another operation after the pattern has been applied.
- 9 For the silver-plated pieces, the electroplating process is an additional step. The pieces are first prepared by being buffed so that the edges are smooth and the surfaces are free from small holes. When the buffing is completed, the pieces are given a thorough cleaning with as many as 12 different chemical solutions. Finally, they undergo electrolysis, in which a layer of silver is electrically deposited over the base metal.
Buffing and sand polishing
- 10 The knives, forks and spoons are now 10J buffed, then polished. Depending on the pattern, special finishing processes can give silver-plated and sterling silver pieces a bright, mirror-like finish, a soft, satiny glow, or a brushed or florentine finish.
Final inspection checks the pieces for chafes, scratches, rough spots between a fork's tines, discoloration, or any other flaws that might have occurred when the pieces were stamped, shaped and polished.
Stainless steel is the preferred tableware for today's customers, and represents the future for flatware manufacturers. According to a senior executive at Oneida, the last major domestic manufacturer of silverware and plated ware in the United States, purchase of sterling and silverplated ware has been declining for the past twenty years, while demand for stainless steel continues to grow.
Where To Learn More
Clayton, Michael. Christie's Pictorial History of English and American Silver. Phaidon, 1985.
Ettlinger, Steve. The Kitchenware Book. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1992.
Fennimore, Donald L. Silver and Pewter. Knopf, 1984.
Freeman, Dr. Larry. Victorian Silver: Plated and Sterling Holloware and Flatware. Century House, 1967.
Giblin, James C. From Hand to Mouth: Or, How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons & Chopsticks & the Table Manners to go with Them. HarperCollins Children's Books, 1987.
Hamlyn, Paul. English Silver. Hamlyn Publishers, 1969.
Hood, Graham. American Silver: A History of Style, 1650-1900. Praeger Publishers, 1971.
"Sheet Metal," How It Works, Vol. 18. H.S. Stuttman Inc., 1987.
Schwartz, Marvin D. Collector's Guide to Antique American Silver. Doubleday, 1975.
Science and Technology Illustrated. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1984.
Watson, Jim. Sharpening and Knife Making. Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1987.