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The Somborne & District Society

Eating, Cutlery and Dining Customs

Eating, cutlery & Dining Customs by  Simon Moore. 28th May 

In the Stone Age primitive man used scrapers and knives but by the Bronze Age these implements had become more sophisticated so that there were various types and they often had triangular blades. By Roman times knives were often decorated often with the images of animals which were to be eaten on the haft of the knife. The Romans also invented folding cutlery usually as folding spoons or as a combination of a knife and spoon.  Later Scandinavian invaders inlaid their blades with bronze or copper alloy with intricate designs; the art of inlaying continued into medieval times. Knives were used for many different purposes so that kitchen knives were more robust being larger, heavier and longer and the role of the carver of the meat was reserved for high ranking officials. Guests took their own eating implements to banquets and their knives were frequently carried on belts in fine decorated sheaths. Quite a few knives have survived from medieval London because if they were lost they were often preserved in London clay.  Hunters carried large knives for killing game using smaller ones for skinning and frequently also carrying sharpening stones. Knives were carried by their owners all the time and clues to how they were carried and used can be discovered by studying paintings such as those by Breughal who painted ordinary people at wedding feasts and carnivals. Table manners were very important and by the late 16th century the cutlery for a meal was frequently supplied by the host. Towards the end of the 17th century forks were introduced into Britain although they had been used since much earlier times on the Continent. The first forks had 3 tines and they were only used for sticky sweetmeats or fruit.

Knives were often made in pairs and by the late 16th century even knives used by commoners knives were much better made and they were often inlaid with gold or silver. Henry V111th introduced the custom of given pairs of knives to a bride as a wedding present. Flemish knives became very popular and knife smiths from Flanders set up businesses in London and produced some very pretty engraved knives with wonderful decorated knife sheaths. The Sheffield Cutlers Company came into existence in the 1400’s but did not introduce its first mark book until 1614. Cutlery has steel in its blades which are much more durable than the silver blades used in flatware. Although for pragmatic reasons cutlery was produced for everyday use (such as the fact that kitchen spoons had hollow handles to protect the user from heat) the use of knives, forks and spoons became part of the ritual of dining and they were subject to the whims of fashion amongst the upper classes. The 1660’s were the golden age for the manufacture of English cutlery and it became possible to follow the fashionable trends by producing different designs. At first the trefid shape for knife handles was popular but this gave way to the dog-nose pattern by 1700 and by 1720 knife handles were down turned at the ends with a hump form. Many different materials were used with elaborate inlays and decoration. Crests and ownership markings were common and journeymen often added their own tiny marks to pieces that they had made. Ceramic handles became popular and famous manufacturers such as Bow, Worcester and Wedgwood produced beautiful examples. Fish knives were not introduced until the 19th century.

Spoons usually followed the French style; they were produced in various sizes and were used for many different purposes so that condiment spoons were introduced in the 18th century which was also the time when tea caddy spoons also became popular when the ritual of taking tea became fashionable. Marrow was often eaten directly from bones and in the17th century special bone marrow spoons were produced. The taking of bone marrow became very fashionable and in the 1830’s the Edinburgh marrow bone club was famous.

 By the 19th century solid silver was very expensive and the introduction of the much cheaper process of silver plating led to the production of dessert sets and huge place settings. Similarly by the early 20th century, expensive ivory handles were often replaced by bone or ivorine (one of early plastics). The Victorians decorated everything including their cutlery and often added decoration to the plain spoons of earlier times which greatly decreases their value in the eyes of the modern collector.

The emergence of the Art nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements produced some lovely enamel work, and the later Art deco style led to a wide range of modernistic designs which still remain very popular. The introduction of stainless steel in the early 20th century produced the basis of much of today’s cutlery with its wide range of designs and styles which continue the tradition that there is more to eating implements than mere practicality.


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