By Alma Joyce Hahn
It is funny how simple things we take for granted can have a rather interesting history if we just knew it. For example, the other day I was thinking of all the tasks our family used to do in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner. My job was usually to polish the silver. To relieve the drudgery, I used to wonder about who thought up the designs for the pieces of tableware. Not long ago I finally got around to looking it up. It is kind of interesting.
For example, which do you was created first, the knife, the fork or the spoon? If you guessed the knife as I did, you were wrong. The spoon was probably the first eating utensil, though the knife was a close second.
Spoons were used for eating since Paleolithic times when people discovered sea shells and chips of wood helped them scoop up liquid and soft foods for eating. The Anglo Saxons even had a word for them. They were called spons. Later when they learned to use metal, they were made of gold and silver as well. Other products sometimes used for spoons were ivory, bones, pottery and even, in later times, crystal.
By the end of the 1st century, civilization had progressed to the point that most hosts at meals were expected to provide their guests at meals with spoons. The Romans had two kinds of designs. One was called a ligula. They were used for soups and other soft foods. The ligula had a pointed bowl and a handle that had a decorative design on it.
The other type was called cochleare. (Notice the similarity to the word cochlea, which is a kind of sea shell.) These spoons had a rounded bowl and a pointed handle. These utensils were used for eating shellfish and perhaps eggs.
By the time the Middle Ages ended, spoons that dinner hosts gave their guests to use were mostly made of wood. Royalty and the rich landowners, of course used silver and gold spoons, (some were even made of rock crystal) but less affluent used less valuable metals like pewter, iron, brass and such.
Forks were invented next. The Greeks get credit for their origination. At first they only had two tines, sort of like an olive fork. Originally they were large and used to hold down large chunks of meat for cutting.
Forks appeared in the Middle Eastern culture around the 7th Century and quickly spread to neighboring kingdoms. It was not until the eleventh century that they began to be used by Europeans. In 1533 they were introduced for the wedding of Catherine de Medici to Henry II. An Englishman named Thomas Coryate saw forks used in Italy and introduced them back home in England.
The British were unimpressed. “Why should a person need a fork when God gave him hands?” one author that I checked said, but the wealthy liked them because they could eat messy foods with them. By the mid-1600’s, forks were very popular with well-to-do Britishers.
Most forks had two tines, but food often slipped off the utensil. The French apparently solved that problem first because by late in the 17th century, they were using larger forks with curved tines to keep from dropping the meat.. Four tined forks appeared rather recently. They didn’t show up, according to my source, until the 19th century.
Knives as tableware, not weapons, are relatively modern. For centuries guests had carried knives as weapons and were often pulled out and used for cutting and spearing food. Sometimes tempers would rise and they became weapons, but in 1669 Louis XIV outlawed using pointed knives at table. He even ordered that pointed knives be ground down when used during meals.
Until the 1700’s Americans had few forks imported into the colonies so they used knives, which were now rounder and blunter, to scoop food into their mouths. This distinctly American style of eating continued into the late 20th century. I remember seeing my grandparents eat this way.