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Early Knives and Forks

Eating tools are of comparatively recent date. Even at the time of the discovery of America, the ewer and basin, ancestors of the modern finger bowl, were necessary items at the end of a meal. Forks were especially late in appearing on the dining table, though Italians were using a small two-pronged utensil by the middle of the fifteenth century. It reached England about 1610 when it was at first considered a silly piece of Continental foppery.

Gradually the British viewed the new implement with less alarm and it became an established piece of tableware. One of the earliest forms was the sucket fork, used for sweetmeats. Made of silver, it had a rounded spoonbowl at one end and a short two-pronged fork at the other. English and American silversmiths produced these combination tools through most of the seventeenth century. Not many American-made sucket forks are still in existence. Probably few were made, since they were among the luxuries ordered by those wealthy colonists who could pay for them.

Steel knives with matching two-pronged forks, on the other hand, were made in England for some years before the first colonists set sail for America. They had decorative handles, and each set was provided with a leather case so that the owner might have them at hand when he ate away from home.

Incidentally, the early fork with its sharp prongs was designed for holding the meat when cutting it; the knife of the same period had a wide upcurved tip for carrying food to the mouth. So began a socially correct custom of eating with the knife which continued in the United States until nearly the middle of the nineteenth century and persisted even longer in rural areas.

During these years, most English and American tables were furnished with knives and forks of steel, usually bearing the marks of some Sheffield cutlery manufacturer. The forks were made with two fairly short prongs and the knife blades had the wide curving tip suited for use as feeding tools. The handles might be bone, horn, or hard close-grained wood.

The maker's mark was stamped on the knife blade rather near the handle. Practically all were those of English cutlers. Old steel is anything but stainless, so years of daily scouring and frequent sharpenings have had their effect on these marks. Today the majority are only partially visible. Those showing a legible mark, such as Barton Brothers, Sheffield, are apt to be of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

By that time, the three-pronged fork had appeared and the knife blade had less the outline of a feeding tool. After 1850, steel knives and forks took on the shape still in use today. They also bore the marks of American cutlers to some extent. Today they are in special favor for informal table settings on porch or terrace.



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