Secret Life of Antiques: Antiques at the Table {the history of eating utensils}


Delectable food, gorgeous surroundings and elegant tables set with glittering silver and gold have delighted our senses for centuries.

The tradition of sitting down for an enjoyable meal with family and friends dates back as far as civilization, but dining traditions did not begin to resemble our modern “practices” until the 18th century. During the Renaissance, there was no flatware or silverware, knives were the only utensils used during meals, along with perhaps a wooden spoon. King Louis XIV of France decreed in 1669 that knives brought to the dinner table have a ground-down point, banning pointed knives at the table in an attempt to curtail violence at banquets.

victorianmeatforkfullsdVictorian Salad Serverving Fork

Most food was eaten from the communal trencher with a diner’s fingers, the upper classes ate with their first three fingers as a show of dignity, distinguishing them from the lower classes that used all five fingers. Even then, there were rules of etiquette: diners were never to lick their fingers but to wipe them on the table cloth, and spitting food across the table was considered bad taste.

engravedserverset1-1Victorian Fish Set

Forks were introduced as early as the 11th century, but were extremely controversial and even scandalous for hundreds of years, not gaining widespread favor in Europe until well into the 18th century. Italian gentlemen were among the first Europeans to embrace the use a two-pronged fork as an eating utensil in the early 1600s, though many considered the practice “effeminate” and some even believed it to be heretical.

The French were slow to make using forks {sometimes called “split spoons”} acceptable, the English also saw them as effeminate and needless. Finally in 1633, King Charles I of England declared, “It is decent to use a fork,” thereby ushering in what many considered the beginning of civilized dining, although it took almost a century before forks were commnonplace and accepted in society.

AntiqueOysterservingspoonFrenchGardenHouseFrench Sterling & Vermeil Oyster Spoon

The Georgian period, {which began in 1714 with the coronation of George}, was a time of true dining transformation. Throughout Europe, the fork has achieved the form which is now most familiar, four curved tines. The curve assisted in scooping up food and allowed for a clearer view of the food being cut. Sterling flatware, massive dinner services, furniture created specifically for dining, and the dining room itself all provided the backdrop for many majestic gatherings. Dinners of the Georgian period were elaborate and quite formal affairs that lasted four or five hours. Guests enjoyed meals in a well appointed dining room, with an amazing amount of porcelain and sterling serving dishes overflowing with soups, meat, fish, pies, vegetables and relishes which were freely passed around the table. Later, a second full course of roasted game birds, pastries and pies would replace the first. Since diners were not expected to sample everything on the table, but were expected to eat the dishes closest to them, a small bribe by a smart guest to a high level servant meant that the tastiest dishes would always be nearest to them.

AntiquesilverOpalineSaltFrenchGardenHouse31Antique French Opaline Salt Cellar

Many people still ate with a knife and their hands during this time, though. While some French hosts provided two or three communal knives at the table, diners who wished to use a fork were expected to bring their own. It really wasn’t until the mid 1800’s, that dining came into “the gilded age.” For the Victorians dining was an event. An event that could make or break a hostess in the upper echelons! The Victorians were the first to furnish a specific room as the dining room and the furnishings and accessories were often the most expensive in the house. This room was beautifully appointed with massive, hand carved tables, buffets and sideboards, walls were covered in lavish papers, murals and gilded mirrors, every corner boasted decorations of porcelain, silver and glass.  Tea sets were produced in a vast array of patterns, for hostesses to display their wealth even further, most beloved were those with Blue and White Oriental patterns, the Victorians adored “the Orient”!

spodeantiqueteasetfrenchgardenhouse003Antique Blue & White Spode Tea Service

The Victorians also introduced a bewildering assortment of flatware. Taking the motto “the more , the better” to new heights, a different utensil now existed for every conceivable use. There was a spoon for cream soup, another for clear soup, special spoons for oysters, tomatoes and ice cream. There were luncheon knives, dinner knives, butter knives, dessert spoons, breakfast coffee spoons, five o”clock spoons, the array was dizzying! A single place setting at a formal Victorian dinner might have included at least eight different forks, eight knives with accompanying knife rests, numerous spoons, crystal glasses, a butter pick, game shears, nut picks, asparagus tongs, and salts.

Observing table manners provided a means by which one could identify the “uncultivated” who were attempting to rise above their condition and masquerade among the wealthier classes of society. It’s no wonder that etiquette books were prolific to educate unexperienced diners who were terrified to use the wrong fork to spear an olive. Knowing the code for the immense assortment of eating implements could mean the difference between being accepted in polite society, or not.

VictorianEAPGBridesBasketSilverFrenchGardenHouse2Silverplated Basket Holder with Glass Insert

Apparently, to the Victorians, the list of crimes against proper table manners was long.  It was improper to:

  • Let food fall upon one’s clothes;
  • Reach for food across the table;
  • Gulp one’s meal or tea down lustily;
  • Remove food from one’s teeth at the table;
  • Smack one’s lips after finishing that meal;
  • ‘Loll’ at the table; and
  • Misunderstand the various utensils at the table, including butter knives, salt-spoons, sugar tongs, and napkins.

Silversmiths vied to outdo each other both here in the United States and abroad to create exquisite flatware services, porcelain dish sets, silver epergnes, centerpieces, and tea services.  Tiffany & Co. produced amazingly extensive sterling flatware services during this period, Limoges made the finest and most extensive porcelain dinnerware sets, table linens were hand embroidered and embellished with the finest lace, it truly was the golden age of dining!

LimogesHarrisonRoseSchl150FrenchGardenHouse5 French Haviland Limoges Dishware Set for 6

While for every day, our dining traditions have changed and relaxed somewhat over the last century, we still adore a beautifully set table. Thankfully, the Victorians were such lovers of lavish, fully set tables that there are many wonderful silver serving pieces, forks, spoons and knives, Limoges porcelain sets and exquisite linens from that time for us to use at our own table.

We still love to set a gorgeous table for holidays and special events, and  a pretty antique napkin goes a long way to add beauty to an every day meal. While our traditions may have changed, we still wonder at these amazing creations, their beauty is timeless, some traditions are worth preserving.   I hope that you enjoy setting lovely tables using some of our antique silver, dishes and outstanding linens!

If you want to romance your Home and Garden with antique and vintage treasures to make you smile each time you come home, visit our shop FrenchGardenHouse.

6 thoughts on “Secret Life of Antiques: Antiques at the Table {the history of eating utensils}”

  1. Well,that was a most interesting read! I must say I am very glad we no longer eat with our fingers!

  2. Me too, Ruth! Not to mention that I love setting the table with all the glorious antique silver and dishes!

  3. This was very informative! And the fork stimulated a whole new industry. Imagine, just that one implement.

  4. Candice

    So interesting, I always learn something fabulous from you. When will the sterling servers I bought arrive, in time for Thanksgiving? So looking forward to adding these to my antiques at my table. Thank you. Candy

  5. JohnPaul

    Antiques at our table are what we always have. Our silver meat dome purchased from FrenchGardenHouse center stage, still love it each and every time and always looking at FrenchGardenHouse for other beautiful additions.

  6. Nanci C.

    So interesting. For some reason I thought forks and spoons were used for centuries, I love to learn things, and always do on your blog. Merci.

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