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Inspiring Objects – the fork

January 14, 2013

I believe museums are inspiring places because they can capture the imperceptible changes in life that we do not normally notice. If the past is a foreign country, then museums are guides to the past, and objects are the resources museums use to understand the past. I find it is often the small things in life that are more poignant and telling. For instance can you imagine a world without forks? Sounds strange, but before the eighteenth century, most north European households had not seen a fork.

The traditional way to eat a pasty, no fingers!

The traditional way to eat a pasty!

The European diner would have used their hands with a knife, and food would often been served off a “trencher” a piece of stale bread rather than the familiar plate. The pasty is a modern descendant of this tradition, although originally the crust was not eaten only the filling. Forks, as table implements, found there way into Europe from the east reaching Venice in the eleventh century. Although you may think a fork was a practical everyday tool, this new fangled dinning utensil did not spread fast across the continent. The idea of not handling your food was considered excessive delicacy or worse, a sign of devilry, did not Satan wield a fork?

Early modern German cutlery: V&A Museum

Early modern German cutlery: V&A Museum

But the use of forks did spread.  Originally the fork was used as a carving fork or to eat sweet meats at the end of the meal.  As the fork evolved into the utensil we use today it changed from a 2 pronged tool to one with 3 or 4 tines. However it was not until the nineteenth century that forks became ubiquitious. Silverware was considered the best material for cutlery because the metal did not affect the taste of food. The introduction of silver plating and mass production brought down the cost of cutlery and allowed more modest budgets to enjoy the benefits of silverware.  Mealtime was now a strictly no hands affair now, and etiquette demanded the proper use of a knife and fork.

modern cutlery

bakelite cutlery

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  1. Small is beautiful. And so is this blog.

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