The history of cutlery with Arthur Price

Where it began

We know from paintings and relics of the period that it was only in 16th century Europe after the Middle Ages had ended that people began to eat in a more ‘civilised’ way – they drank from individual glasses, sat in high-backed chairs and used utensils to eat. Before this, the height of dining sophistication was extending the little finger whilst eating to dip into expensive spices.

Using cutlery became increasingly fashionable at sophisticated parties and high-society events from the early 16th century, however, it was not the job of the host to supply them; it was customary for guests to bring their own fork and spoon to social gatherings, much like bringing a bottle of wine to a party now, perhaps.

It may surprise you to learn that the fork was not readily accepted by those in authority, with some Europeans deeming it a feminine affectation, an unneeded fastidiousness and even ungodly – it came up against opposition from members of the Church who labelled it disrespectful and ‘against God’, who had already provided us with our own forks – our fingers!

17th century changes

The introduction of the fork to England in the early 17th century dining table by the 18th century was the start of ‘table settings’ as we know them. It encouraged the arrangement of meals on a table around the cutlery, rather than just setting food down anywhere. With a growing number of blacksmiths and silversmiths honing their craft, plates, platters and other silverware in turn joined cutlery at the table.

The height of polite society

By the mid-19th century, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, cutlery and dinnerware had become more than just something for the upper classes.

Our friend the fork was a world away from its God-fearing ancestry and the Victorians had adapted it to cater for every weird and wonderful food it was possible to pick up and eat. Thinking of sampling a mango? Use your mango fork. Fancy an olive? Use your olive fork. Pondering on having peas? You’ll need a tiny pea fork. Or how about some herring? Yes, you’ve guessed it – a herring fork.

By the time the 20th century had rolled around, society had begun to embrace a slightly less rigid and ostentatious attitude, generally using the place settings we still class as traditional, formal and ‘well-mannered’ today.

Ringing in the new age

In the 21st century, our cutlery use still centres on the three key items of knife, fork and spoon – but do our habits vary from times gone by? We still stick with many Victorian-inspired manners and civil society’s expectations. On the other hand, with our fast-paced lives, we tend to eat on the go a lot of the time, saving dining for evenings when we have more time or on social occasions. As we eat around the table less and less at home, in a time of TV dinners, takeaways and microwave meals, it could be argued that we’ve strayed from traditional table manners of times gone by in our homes.