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flatware table settingThe History of Cutlery: A Past Shiny and Neat
by Marjorie Dorfman

How did people eat before cutlery was invented and how messy was everything? Were napkins available back then or were fingers the way to go? These and other questions will be addressed below, whether you have table manners or no.


Cutlery is a fancy word for silverware or flatware. It refers specifically to the pieces we set on our tables on a daily basis: forks, knives and spoons. (People are never cutlery even if their surname makes it seem like they should be.) The term can be associated with any type of utensil, even though most connect it to knives and other cutting tools. Flatware, usually refers to spoons and forks that are made flat and then beaten or pressed into shape.

antique ironThe history of these items is dynamic and constantly evolving to adjust to the needs of changing eating habits and tastes down through the ages. Although no one can say for sure, it seems likely that cutlery began when man met the shell and the sharp flint, which was used for cutting. The knife was the first piece of metal cutlery to make it upon the culinary scene, its pointed debut occurring as early as 2000 BC.

The world’s first knives were very simple cutting edges. During the Paleolithic period (500,000-10,000 BC) blades were made largely from stone. By Neolithic times, some four to seven thousand years ago (5000-2000 BC), stone blades were polished and fitted with crude handles made of wood or animal hide, which protected the user’s hand. From 3000-700 BC (The Bronze Age), metal knives were made from first copper and then bronze. Many of their features, such as shapes and bolsters and tangs we still retain today. (They permitted the handle to be fitted at the end of the blade.)

carving knivesSpoons came along a bit later, about 5,000 BC, and the earliest ones were made of stone or clay. They were very crude implements and some were the scooped-out end of a bone or an animal's horn. Sometimes, they were constructed of a shell tied onto a stick. These materials remained unchanged even through the Bronze and Iron Ages when knives were being made of metal. Iron was not suitable for bending spoons and very few bronze spoons have ever been unearthed from early cultures.

Forks first appeared about the 9th century and it is likely that they led double lives as spears! It is believed that they were first developed from a small knife that was used to hold a joint of meat steady while it was being carved. It is likely the single point turned into a prong and then a two-pronged fork, much like the modern version. Three and four-pronged versions developed as forks grew smaller and more suited to eating rather than carving. Individual forks used in conjunction with knives became the vogue around the end of the 16th century in England. It was the Italians who first started using forks and it took more than 50 years before the British adopted them.

With the passing of the Bronze Age, came the discovery of the longer lasting and sharper edge of the iron blade. The Romans in particular, some 1000 years before the birth of Christ, made knives more versatile and developed many different types. They were used for many different things including animal sacrifices and cutting hair. (The scissors would not be invented until the 17th century when Leonardo Da Vinci decided he needed an easier way to get a haircut!) Generally speaking, knives were very important and were treasured by their owners. Often, people were buried with their own personal eating utensils. (For that big "take out" in the after life, one can only suppose.)

The Romans were the first to refine spoons (spoonery, if you will). At first, they were simply round bowls attached to a narrow handle but over the course of time different shapes came into vogue, becoming thinner at the handle end and more flared at the front. With the British invasion of The Vikings and Saxons came spoon changes, the bowl now a bit leaf-shaped with decorative carved ends. As they did with their knives, people carried their spoons wherever they went, as cutlery was never provided at a table. (How people were expected to eat soup without spoons, for example, remains one of history’s hottest mysteries.)

spoonSpoons were often considered the perfect christening gifts and it wasn’t until Cromwell and the Puritans came to power that the bowl of the spoon became oval-shaped as it is known today. The decorative ends were removed and the spoon end was flattened.

People living in the Middle Ages would probably have made the modern world faint. They barely bathed and a meal was a culinary excursion experienced with fingers and no napkins. If knives were used, they were usually shared with the entire family, stretching that old axiom about the family that cuts their meat together, stays together. Even if there were knives at a medieval table, they were usually pocket-knives with the blade folding into the handle (invented 1600) or daggers. The pen-knife was originally an implement used for pointing quill pens and the "table knife" that we know today didn’t come into existence until 1600.




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A wonderful book about dining

The Art of the Table: A Complete Guide to Table Setting, Table Manners, and Tableware

by Suzanne Von Drachenfels

Art of the Table

Correct use of tableware and confidence-building information about proper dining etiquette. Defines the vocabulary of tableware and explains the selection, use, and care of dinnerware, flatware, stemware, and table linens. Expertly details the basic service techniques for all types of entertainment, and even includes advice on menu planning. Learn how to read the labels of wine bottles or how to filet a fish at the table; learn where and when to sit down and the proper way to eat finger foods. Fascinating tidbits of social and culinary history.


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