illustration of various forks types by
For my second, past and present column, I thought we would take a look at the fork. I’ve included a few tips on simple collecting and care of silver as well as a little “fork etiquette section” (and there’s even a little bonus section at the very bottom!) In addition, I’ve pulled out a few “facts to know” that will give you something to talk about the next time you’re stuck for conversation at a dinner party!
It might surprise you to know that the tool you use to eat with every day was once considered immoral, unhygienic and reminiscent of the devil! Before the introduction of the fork, most people preferred to eat with their hands. There would be a ewer and basin at the table for cleaning hands, and the table napkins and tablecloths were frequently changed during the course of the meal. If an utensil was necessary, a spoon was used and the nobility might eat their meal using two knives, one in each hand.
from the. from top: ivory handle with silver piqué work and red and green painted enamel, 1698; handle of horn and mother-of-pearl with engraved brass, 1600-1700; handle of ivory and piqué work, 1682.
CLICK HERE for the rest of Amy’s post after the jump!
The word fork is derived from the Latin furca, meaning “pitchfork.” The first dining forks were used by the nobility in the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire. When in 1004 Maria Argyropoulina, niece of the Byzantine Emperor was married in Venice to Giovanni, son of the Doge of Venice, she brought with her a little case of golden forks, which she used at her wedding feast. The Venetians were shocked at this strange utensil and when Maria died two years later of the plague, Saint Peter Damian proclaimed that this was God’s punishment for use immoral use of the fork: “Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge.”
Marriage at Cana. Paolo (Caliari) Veronese. Venice, Italy, 1562-63. detail. (Painting at the Louvre)
With such an ominous beginning, it’s no wonder that it took centuries for the fork to work it’s way into Italian culture. It wasn’t until the late 15th century many of the Italian nobility and merchant class used a dining fork. That early fork was two-pronged and was used to eat candied fruits or other foods that might stain one’s hand. These forks might be used by shared by several diners, which gave the utensil the reputation of being unhygienic (although, custom dictated that you wipe the fork off before passing it to the next person!) There was still an air of immorality about the fork. In the painting Marriage at Cana (detail above), the courtesan in the top right corner, has a slight seductive smile as she holds her fork in her mouth.
from the Cooper-Hewitt. from top: sucket fork, 1840-45; steel and gilt bronze fork, ca. 1550.
Once again, it was another marriage that brought the fork to a different park of Europe. Forks did not become common in the rest of Europe until the marriage of Catherine de Medici (1519–1589) and the future Henry II (1519 – 1559). At that time the culture, food and fashion of Italy was legions ahead of the France. When Catherine arrived in France, not only did she bring Florentian cooks, fashionable attire, and the idea of a theatrical dinner but she also brought the Italian banking system, ballet, and the fork. (This is the same Catherine who owned a rock crystal chandelier! She was one trend-setting lady!)
from the . Fork and leather case. Southern Germany or Austria, mid-18th century.
By the 17th century, people would carry their own knives and forks with them. Because one would carry their single set of utensils at all times, cultery became a status symbol. As the fork began to increase in popularity, the design changed. The two-pronged fork was perfectly adequate for stabbing food, but not well-suited to scooping. The straight, two-pronged fork was fine for spearing foods but not well adapted to scooping. The addition of a third or fourth tine, made made food less likely to slip through, and addition of a slight curve to the tines made it a better tool for scooping.
As the style of the fork changed, so did its usage. After a bite was cut, the knife would be placed on the edge of plate, and the fork was transferred to the right hand to take the bite into the mouth. This style of eating was called transfer style and was popular in France until well into the 19th century. The English chose to use the knife as little as possible and the majority of the meal was eaten with the fork held in the left hand. The transfer method was adopted by 19th century Americans and is now sometimes called “American” method.
I found these 19th century sterling silver dessert serving forks on last night. (They sold for $119 for the pair!) You can tell they are French because the monogram is on the underside of the fork. The French set their table with the down tines vs. the American way of setting the table with the tines up!
It was in the 19th century that the variety of specialized utensils for dining exploded and as you can see from ‘s illustration, there is almost a fork for every type of food! My favorite are the speciality forks. I love the strawberry forks! In the late 19th century people began to cultivate strawberries (which were only previously found wild). The strawberry fork would be used to pierce the strawberry and dip them into to different condiments — powdered sugar, brown sugar, or whipped cream! (Doesn’t that sound delicious!) If you’d like to hunt for your own silver fork, I’ve got some tips below!
Facts to Know
- The word fork is derived from the Latin furca, meaning “pitchfork.” And the early two-pronged fork certainly evoked the devil in many people’s minds!
- The fork was first adopted in Italy and Catherine de Medici brought it to France, in the 16th century, when she married Henry II.
- As late as the 17th century, people would carry their own utensils with them.
If you love learning about implements of the table, as much as I do, there are three books that I’d recommend. There were all helpful in constructing this post: , , and (which was based on at ).
Silver Collecting & Care Tips!
Collecting silver can be intimidating. There are all those maker’s marks and various types of silver – coin silver, Mexican silver, sterling silver. So you tell yourself that you’ll wait to buy anything until you learn more about it. But I’m going to suggest that you throw caution to the wind and just jump in. Go to your nearest flea market or thrift store and look for the junkiest, dirtiest box of silverware that you can find and get ready to dig! You’re looking for silver that is tarnished, but doesn’t have any deep dings and feels heavy.
Rather than try to gather matching sets, I look for pieces with similar patterns – all florals or geometric shapes. My favorite thing to find is monogram silver. I always keep an eye out for anything with a monogram for myself or for friends (for Christmas last year, I gave my sister a little bundle of teaspoons with her monogram).
You can also be on the look-out for some of those speciality forks. Can you guess what fork is on the far left? It’s a strawberry fork! Wouldn’t a mismatched set of silver strawberry forks be fun for a summer party?
Most silver flatware that you see at a flea market is going to be silverplated rather than sterling (sterling is mostly solid silver and is usually pricey). The word “sterling” is found on American silver dating before 1860. Early American silver is rare, so if the piece you’re looking at isn’t labeled “sterling” it’s likely silverplate. Silverplate usually has the maker or company name and some description of the amount of applied silver such as “A1″ or quadruple plate.”
When you bring your forks home from the flea, give them a quick wash with warm soap water. Then get ready to polish!
I hunted around for a non-toxic way to polish silver. Wouldn’t you know it, the simplest way worked the best! Use water and baking soda to make a paste, rub that paste on the silver with a soft cloth. Rub it into the silver until it looks clean, then rinse and polish dry!
You can see that my patterns don’t match exactly, but they have a similar geometric shape. Once your silver is clean, the best way to keep it looking great is to use it often. After use, wash in warm soapy water and polish dry! (don’t put it through the dishwasher and don’t soaking too long)
Enemies of Silver
- Rubber (don’t use rubber gloves or set silver on rubber mats!)
- Table salt
- Salad Dressing
- Fruit Juices
A Little Fork Etiquette (Just for fun!)
- Never use your fork to gesture.
- If you use the wrong fork, just remedy the situation quietly. No need to apologize.
- Don’t half-eat anything on your fork. If you place a piece of food on your fork, be prepared to eat the entire bite.
- If it’s on a plate, use a fork. In a bowl, a spoon.
- Fork and knife, together on the diagonal, indicate you are finished with the meal.
Bonus Section! Mini-Roundup of Modern Cutlery:
Although I think collecting silver piece by piece is fun, I couldn’t resist putting together some modern cutlery options! If this isn’t quite enough for you, there’s always the full d*s modern flatware guide, which has lots of other options!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this fork journey as much as I have! I have a fun DIY project planned for my next post. Keep your suggestions for future columns coming. I’ve been looking into all of them!