The Evolution of Setting the Table

There is a three-pronged fork in our silverware drawer. I don’t know where it came from, but it has lived in our house for a long time. It’s always the last fork picked when setting the table and I have watched others trade the fork for another in the drawer before eating. I am not very fond of this fork either and avoid it when possible. Perplexing as this behavior may sound, I get it. Everyone wants the best tools, not the so-so tools. The fork has been a subject of crisp discussion at times with one family member fussing at the other for giving them “the bad fork.”

After years of discussion and avoidance of the fork, it has been relegated to spearing olives at the bottom of a jar. For this purpose, it is excellent. This ritualistic family engagement over utensils seems silly, but back up several hundred years and you might find yourself fork-less and hoping to be able to afford a three-pronged fork. After all, the fork was the last utensil invited to the table.

It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint when and where utensils were first invented by humans. As we are tool makers, I feel certain that there are fragments of simultaneous beginnings around the globe as different cultures most likely had parallel ideas of improving their meal experience. In Paleolithic times, shells were often fashioned as spoons. As human skills advanced, spoons were carved from wood and eventually made of many different metals like tinned iron, brass, and pewter. Ever wonder where the phrase “born with a silver spoon in his/her mouth” came from? From the Middle Ages forward, different materials were used to make utensils and the possession of such could often be a declaration of your societal status. Royalty and the affluent would have silver utensils, possibly even adorned by precious or semi-precious stones. Common folk, if they could afford utensils at all, would most likely have something made from wood or pewter.

It is recorded that forks made from bones were found in China dating to the bronze age 2400-1900 B.C., according to the Royal Museum of Greenwich. Forks’ first purpose was to spear and turn meat. They were usually two-pronged and not something you would see placed to the left of your plate. More civilized dinners happened after the invention of the fork, when King Louis XIV of France ruled all pointed knives on the street or dinner table illegal and had all knife points ground down to reduce violence. Knives were first and foremost a weapon, then they found their way to the dinner table as a tool. When tips were blunted by decree, a pronged fork then became more suitable than the knife for spearing, serving and eating meats.

In the 1500s, Italian forks became popular in the French court, when Catherine de Medici, the Italian wife of Henry II, brought several dozen intricate silver forks with her to the marriage. This is also around the time when Cadena’s became fashionable – a small box in which to bring your own utensils to dinner parties. BYOU – bring your own utensils – to dinner became a cultural normality.

According to the Royal Museum of Greenwich, “Forks, however, never really caught on in Britain. Whilst our European cousins were tucking in with their new eating irons, the British simply laughed at this ‘feminine affectation’ of the Italians, British men would eat with their fingers and were proud! What’s more, even the church was against the use of forks (despite them being in the Bible). Some writers for the Roman Catholic Church declared it an excessive delicacy, God in his wisdom had provided us with natural forks, in our fingers, and it would be an insult to him to substitute them for these metallic devices.” Eventually, they caught on around the 18th century – about the same time that the curved, four tined fork variety became popular after its development in Germany.

What happened in England at the time would eventually migrate to America, and so after hundreds, perhaps thousands of years the place setting was complete with a knife, fork, and spoon. Well, we thought it was complete but really there is always room for improvement. If you are a camper, one improvement would be the invention of the spork patented in 1969. Another utensil variation would be the creation of edible silverware, which is actually not a new invention but has been around since the Elizabethan era. Apparently edible cups, bowls, platters made of sugar paste was a sign of wealth at that time. In 1562, a recipe for edible tableware and cutlery, such as knives, forks, chopsticks and spoons, was published by Alexius Pedemontanus, a famous 16th century Italian Physician and alchemist, in his book The Secrets of Alexis of Piedmont.

As wealth in the colonies grew, several excellent American silversmiths emerged in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore but New England was the epicenter of this new industry with Jabez Gorham becoming the most prominent silversmith in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1831, the Gorham Company began manufacturing silver spoons. Due to its fine reputation, the company was commissioned to make a tea service for Mary Todd Lincoln. In an undated Gorham catalog titled, “Entertaining the Sterling way,” captions fill the pages: “Breakfast – as a social function, Luncheon – the feminine showpiece, Tea – the symbol of hospitality, Dinner – the hallmark of civilization, Formal Dinner – a matter of ritual.” With pictures of beautiful place settings throughout. Formal place settings would grow to include utensils like butter knives, salad knives, oyster forks, soup spoons, appetizer forks, dessert forks, iced tea spoons, individual salts and even personal ashtrays. If all of this overwhelms you, see a link to Emily Post’s website on how to set a formal table – this is an excellent resource.

Silverware is a term that is loosely used today. When we say silverware, most of the time what we really mean is stainless ware. Stainless steel has become the preferred utensil for its ease of use. Dishwasher safe and always polished, not only is it less expensive but also more practical. That being said, many households may still break out the true silverware at holiday occasions. Silver or stainless, there are many ways in which to create a stunning table for guests and make your table stand out that has nothing to do with utensils.

In this undated Gorham catalog, notice the cigarettes, matches and ashtray at each setting.

Let’s talk tablecloths. In Anglo-Saxon times the tablecloth would duel as a communal napkin. Thankfully, we use napkins today. Tablecloths rose to fashion in medieval times, with only the very poorest unable to afford a rough hemp covering. In England at this time, a tablecloth was often referred to as Board-cloth or bord-cloth. Linens were of great worth, often embroidered and many times handed down in wills. Today, tablecloths and table runners (a strip that runs down the center of the table) of all shapes, sizes, colors, and fabrics are easily purchased at a variety of stores and can be used to enhance the look of a table by color or by fabric, like damask patterns, fine linen, lace trimmed or specialized embroidery. Napkins, color accented and folded neatly, are another way to add a softness to the table. Another way to accent your table is with a centerpiece. This is up to your own whims and creativity. While most prefer flowers, I once put two paper Mache turkeys my sons had made in elementary school art class as a Thanksgiving centerpiece, and they sparked some delightful conversation.

A formal dinner setting as explained by the CF Mueller Co. catalog, circa 1930.

Clean glassware adds sparkle and candlesticks vary widely whether they be candelabra, simple straight silver, pewter, glass, or carved and/or painted wood; candles add soft light and ambiance – if that’s what you are looking for. Even salt and pepper shakers can add to a table as well, whether mini sets for everyone, antique salt cellars (tiny dishes with mini spoons), or salt and peppers to match the occasion (example: ceramic Mr. and Mrs. Claus shakers). Bread baskets with linen liners are a nice addition, and molded butters are also a crowd pleaser. The Thanksgiving Day turkey butter mold is a classic.

An informal dinner setting as explained by the CF Mueller Co. catalog, circa 1930.

Whether you keep it simple and fun or go fancy, your guests will appreciate anything you do to make a table inviting. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “True hospitality consists of giving the best of yourself to your guests.” However, be warned, if you serve after dinner drinks like port, cognac, ice wine or coffee and lay out a small silver tray of mints, your guests may never leave.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

Readings and Resources

Emily Post – Proper Table Setting 101 first and basic rule,if it will be used.)

The history and art of table setting: ancient and modern, from Anglo-Saxon days to the present time.

Tablecloths in the Middle Ages or bord-cloth,smaller pieces of table linen

The History of the Fork

A History of Western Eating Utensils From the Scandalous Fork to the Incredible Spork

Invention of the Fork, How did Forks Come to Be?

Knives, Forks and Spoons – California Academy of Sciences

Tested and Proven Recipes with Suggestions on Table Setting, Table Service, and Table Etiquette. The Mueller Company. 1930.

Learn five napkin folding techniques with Jenny W. Chan from Origami Tree

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