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A Brief History Of Cutlery

Mar 18, 2008
Cutlery has been around for a long time, although to watch some people eat in restaurants you'd think they it was a relatively new invention. The precise date for the introduction of cutlery is unknown but it is believed to have been around the mid 17th century that forks were first used at the dinner table.

Cutlery has been made in many centres around the world, probably the most famous being Sheffield in England. Sheffield steel was prized all over the world because of its quality. Over the years a tradition of manufacturing fine cutlery in Sheffield only added to the desire for people to own a piece hence the reputation grew and grew. The industry sprang up in Sheffield due to the cities proximity to plentiful coal to power the furnaces ample water to cool the steel.

The steel industry still survives in Sheffield today but on a vastly reduced scale of that in the 1890's - 1980's. Chances are you'll have a piece of cutlery for Sheffield in your kitchen drawer.

Cutlery was invented by our enterprising Neanderthal forebears 300,000 years ago. Carved from flint and stone, these early implements were used to skin and hack animals into bite-size morsels. During the Iron Age (from c1100BC) iron was used for all kinds of cutlery until the invention of stainless steel in the 19th century.

The word cutlery originates from the cutlers who forged these iron knives (the Middle English cutellerie was derived from the Old French coutelerie which came from cultellus, the Latin for knife).

As previously mentioned forks area relatively recent invention and didn't arrive on these shores until the 17th century when the British, who had previously been perfectly happy to shovel food into their mouths with their hands or scoop it with pieces of four-day-old bread known as 'trenchers', finally caught on.

Variations of the fork had been used on the continent since the 11th century, when a Greek princess brought them to Venice. The Venetian court was so outraged by this heretical new invention that, upon the princess' death shortly after her arrival, the forks were blamed.

In 1611 Thomas Coryat, an English traveller and writer, attempted to bring forks back from Italy but was widely ridiculed with the grave insult 'Furcifer', or fork bearer. However forks gradually seeped into English culture, and by the mid-19th century the factories of Sheffield and Birmingham were churning out modern four-pronged forks in their millions.

Although medieval Europeans shunned the spoon, preferring to eat soup or stew straight from the bowl, the utensil has been around since the dawn of civilisation. The ancient Greek and Roman words for spoon were derived from cochlea, meaning a spiral-shaped snail shell.

In northern Europe our ancestors tended to use carved wood instead - the Anglo-Saxon span meant a chip or splinter of wood. It wasn't until the 19th century, with the arrival of forks, proper tableware and more elaborate etiquette, that slurping soup from the bowl suddenly became the height of rudeness, making the spoon essential.

Chopsticks are synonymous with the Chinese. The English word seems to be derived from the Chinese Pidgin English term 'chop chop', meaning 'quickly', while the implements themselves are thought to have developed more than 5,000 years ago in China.

By 400BC, a rapidly growing population meant that fuel had to be conserved, so meat and vegetables were chopped into small pieces for quicker cooking, making them the ideal size for chopsticks and making knives unnecessary at the dinner table. At around the same time Confucius advised his vegetarian followers not to use knives while eating, as they would be reminded of the slaughterhouse, cementing the chopstick's place as the Chinese utensil of choice.

By 500AD chopsticks had spread throughout Southeast Asia, the earliest versions being joined together at the top, like tweezers.

Manipulating chopsticks is a visual motor skill mastered by most Chinese children at around 4.5 years of age. Chopsticks are generally made from bamboo, and there is rising concern over the landfill implications of disposable chopsticks - in Japan alone more than 63 million pairs of chopsticks are discarded every day, while every year the Chinese jettison 45 billion, which equates to 25m trees.
About the Author
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You may not always agree with my writings but I hope to inform.

Harwood E Woodpecker
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