The History of the Table Knife and the Spoon

The Knife

Regarded as humanity’s first tool, the knife, in all its evolutions—beginning with the humble flint—is believed to be two million years old, the table knives seen today on dining tables being a relatively recent variation on the ancient theme.

If the popularity of the fork in the West was due to its introduction by two powerful women from the East, then the transformation of the knife into a relatively benign dining utensil was certainly a masculine contribution—by two powerful men of the West. It is widely believed that around 1637, Cardinal Richelieu, in an attempt to discourage people from picking their teeth at the dinner table with the sharp points of their knives, recommended the blunting of pointed knives. But to a perhaps larger degree, the table knife owes its beginnings to France’s King Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” In 1669, in an attempt to discourage violence, the king declared all pointed knives illegal, requiring that their sharp tips be rounded off. Prior to Louis’ decree, it was customary for men to carry their pointed-blade knives in their waistbands, and those same knives would be used at the dinner table to cut and spear food. But when knights and knaves carry knives, trouble will sometimes ensue—occasionally at the dinner table…. As knives became less treacherous on account of the decree, they began taking their rightful place, along with forks and spoons, in table settings. And today, 400 years later, knives at the dining table are symbols of manners, not mayhem.


The Spoon

In the Paleolithic age, people used objects found in nature to perform spoon-type functions. The Greek and Latin words for “spoon” derive from “cochlea,” a spiral-shaped snail shell; while the English word “spoon” derives from the Anglo-Saxon “spon,” meaning “chip” or “flint” (presumably of wood), both the Greco-Latin and Anglo-Saxon derivations suggesting the natural inspirations for what would eventually be designed as the spoon by modern man. The earliest preserved examples of man-made spoons are from Egypt, and spoons are referenced in the literature of ancient India. By the first century C.E., the Romans had designed two types of spoons, typically made of bronze, which basically resemble present-day spoons: ligula, a spoon with an oval-shaped bowl resembling most modern-day spoons; and cochleare, a spoon with a perfectly round bowl, typically used for eating shellfish and eggs. And of course, wherever the Romans went during their years of conquest, so went their wares. In those days, people not only did as the Romans whilst in Rome, they also did as the Romans wherever Romans ruled. Early English spoons, for example, were patterned from Roman spoons as a result of the Roman occupation of Britain from 43 C.E. To 410 C.E.

During the Dark Ages, many materials were used in spoon-construction, but royalty and the nobility tended to use the precious metals silver and gold. It was not until the 14th century, when iron and pewter were used to construct spoons, that the implement became a household item—in the typical home; and by 1760 the spoon had taken on the shape that it assumes until today.

In 1915, Harry Brearley, a metallurgist from Sheffield, England, applied for a US patent for stainless steel, only to discover that American Elwood Haynes had already applied for a patent in 1912 (Haynes was granted the patent in 1919). Haynes and Brearley decided to collaborate, pooling their funds and identifying investors, and together they formed the American Stainless Steel Corporation, headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Their joint effort would forever change cutlery.


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