amy azzaritopast & present

past and present: history of the fork + collecting & care

by Amy Azzarito

illustration of various forks types by Julia Rothman
For my second, past and present column, I thought we would take a look at the fork. I’ve included a few tips on simple collecting and care of silver as well as a little “fork etiquette section” (and there’s even a little bonus section at the very bottom!) In addition, I’ve pulled out a few “facts to know” that will give you something to talk about the next time you’re stuck for conversation at a dinner party!

It might surprise you to know that the tool you use to eat with every day was once considered immoral, unhygienic and reminiscent of the devil! Before the introduction of the fork, most people preferred to eat with their hands. There would be a ewer and basin at the table for cleaning hands, and the table napkins and tablecloths were frequently changed during the course of the meal. If an utensil was necessary, a spoon was used and the nobility might eat their meal using two knives, one in each hand.

from the V&A museum. from top: ivory handle with silver piqué work and red and green painted enamel, 1698; handle of horn and mother-of-pearl with engraved brass, 1600-1700; handle of ivory and piqué work, 1682.

CLICK HERE for the rest of Amy’s post after the jump!

The word fork is derived from the Latin furca, meaning “pitchfork.” The first dining forks were used by the nobility in the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire. When in 1004 Maria Argyropoulina, niece of the Byzantine Emperor was married in Venice to Giovanni, son of the Doge of Venice, she brought with her a little case of golden forks, which she used at her wedding feast. The Venetians were shocked at this strange utensil and when Maria died two years later of the plague, Saint Peter Damian proclaimed that this was God’s punishment for use immoral use of the fork: “Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge.”

Marriage at Cana. Paolo (Caliari) Veronese. Venice, Italy, 1562-63. detail. (Painting at the Louvre)

With such an ominous beginning, it’s no wonder that it took centuries for the fork to work it’s way into Italian culture. It wasn’t until the late 15th century many of the Italian nobility and merchant class used a dining fork. That early fork was two-pronged and was used to eat candied fruits or other foods that might stain one’s hand. These forks might be used by shared by several diners, which gave the utensil the reputation of being unhygienic (although, custom dictated that you wipe the fork off before passing it to the next person!) There was still an air of immorality about the fork.  In the painting Marriage at Cana (detail above), the courtesan in the top right corner, has a slight seductive smile as she holds her fork in her mouth.

from the Cooper-Hewitt. from top: sucket fork, 1840-45; steel and gilt bronze fork, ca. 1550.

Once again, it was another marriage that brought the fork to a different park of Europe. Forks did not become common in the rest of Europe until the marriage of Catherine de Medici (1519–1589) and the future Henry II (1519 – 1559). At that time the culture, food and fashion of Italy was legions ahead of the France. When Catherine arrived in France, not only did she bring Florentian cooks, fashionable attire, and the idea of a theatrical dinner but she also brought the Italian banking system, ballet, and the fork. (This is the same Catherine who owned a rock crystal chandelier! She was one trend-setting lady!)

from the Cooper-Hewitt. Fork and leather case. Southern Germany or Austria, mid-18th century.

By the 17th century, people would carry their own knives and forks with them. Because one would carry their single set of utensils at all times, cultery became a status symbol. As the fork began to increase in popularity, the design changed. The two-pronged fork was perfectly adequate for stabbing food, but not well-suited to scooping. The straight, two-pronged fork was fine for spearing foods but not well adapted to scooping. The addition of a third or fourth tine, made made food less likely to slip through, and addition of a slight curve to the tines made it a better tool for scooping.

As the style of the fork changed, so did its usage. After a bite was cut, the knife would be placed on the edge of plate, and the fork was transferred to the right hand to take the bite into the mouth. This style of eating was called transfer style and was popular in France until well into the 19th century. The English chose to use the knife as little as possible and the majority of the meal was eaten with the fork held in the left hand. The transfer method was adopted by 19th century Americans and is now sometimes called “American” method.

I found these 19th century sterling silver dessert serving forks on ebay last night. (They sold for $119 for the pair!) You can tell they are French because the monogram is on the underside of the fork. The French set their table with the down tines vs. the American way of setting the table with the tines up!

It was in the 19th century that the variety of specialized utensils for dining exploded and as you can see from Julia‘s illustration, there is almost a fork for every type of food! My favorite are the speciality forks. I love the strawberry forks! In the late 19th century people began to cultivate strawberries (which were only previously found wild). The strawberry fork would be used to pierce the strawberry and dip them into to different condiments — powdered sugar, brown sugar, or whipped cream! (Doesn’t that sound delicious!) If you’d like to hunt for your own silver fork, I’ve got some tips below!

Facts to Know

  • The word fork is derived from the Latin furca, meaning “pitchfork.” And the early two-pronged fork certainly evoked the devil in many people’s minds!
  • The fork was first adopted in Italy and Catherine de Medici brought it to France, in the 16th century, when she married Henry II.
  • As late as the 17th century, people would carry their own utensils with them.

If you love learning about implements of the table, as much as I do, there are three books that I’d recommend. There were all helpful in constructing this post: Laying the Elegant Table, The Art of the Table, and Feeding Desire (which was based on this exhibit at Cooper-Hewitt).


Silver Collecting & Care Tips!

Collecting silver can be intimidating. There are all those maker’s marks and various types of silver – coin silver, Mexican silver, sterling silver. So you tell yourself that you’ll wait to buy anything until you learn more about it. But I’m going to suggest that you throw caution to the wind and just jump in. Go to your nearest flea market or thrift store and look for the junkiest, dirtiest box of silverware that you can find and get ready to dig! You’re looking for silver that is tarnished, but doesn’t have any deep dings and feels heavy.


Rather than try to gather matching sets, I look for pieces with similar patterns – all florals or geometric shapes. My favorite thing to find is monogram silver. I always keep an eye out for anything with a monogram for myself or for friends (for Christmas last year, I gave my sister a little bundle of teaspoons with her monogram).


You can also be on the look-out for some of those speciality forks. Can you guess what fork is on the far left? It’s a strawberry fork! Wouldn’t a mismatched set of silver strawberry forks be fun for a summer party?

Most silver flatware that you see at a flea market is going to be silverplated rather than sterling (sterling is mostly solid silver and is usually pricey). The word “sterling” is found on American silver dating before 1860. Early American silver is rare, so if the piece you’re looking at isn’t labeled “sterling” it’s likely silverplate. Silverplate usually has the maker or company name and some description of the amount of applied silver such as “A1″ or quadruple plate.”

When you bring your forks home from the flea, give them a quick wash with warm soap water. Then get ready to polish!

I hunted around for a non-toxic way to polish silver. Wouldn’t you know it, the simplest way worked the best! Use water and baking soda to make a paste, rub that paste on the silver with a soft cloth. Rub it into the silver until it looks clean, then rinse and polish dry!

You can see that my patterns don’t match exactly, but they have a similar geometric shape. Once your silver is clean, the best way to keep it looking great is to use it often. After use, wash in warm soapy water and polish dry! (don’t put it through the dishwasher and don’t soaking too long)

Enemies of Silver

  • Rubber (don’t use rubber gloves or set silver on rubber mats!)
  • Table salt
  • Olives
  • Salad Dressing
  • Eggs
  • Vinegar
  • Fruit Juices

A Little Fork Etiquette (Just for fun!)

  • Never use your fork to gesture.
  • If you use the wrong fork, just remedy the situation quietly. No need to apologize.
  • Don’t half-eat anything on your fork. If you place a piece of food on your fork, be prepared to eat the entire bite.
  • If it’s on a plate, use a fork. In a bowl, a spoon.
  • Fork and knife, together on the diagonal, indicate you are finished with the meal.

Bonus Section! Mini-Roundup of Modern Cutlery:

Although I think collecting silver piece by piece is fun, I couldn’t resist putting together some modern cutlery options! If this isn’t quite enough for you, there’s always the full d*s modern flatware guide, which has lots of other options!

[image above, clockwise from top left: latticework flatware $95, ivory cutlery $80, bistro cutlery $53, midas cutlery $111, dansk torun flatware $73, dandelion greens flatware $24, georg jensen cutlery $140, laguiole flatware $79]

[image above, clockwise from top left: famished cutlery $80, open-air cutlery $230, famished cutlery $75, marcel flatware]

[image above, left to right: artik place setting $74, artisan hammered flatware $35]

I hope you’ve enjoyed this fork journey as much as I have! I have a fun DIY project planned for my next post. Keep your suggestions for future columns coming. I’ve been looking into all of them!

Suggested For You


  • I’ll never look at forks the same way again! Love the illustration, that yellow background is fab. Now how does it go fruit or was it fish or pastry first…

  • This is the best post ever!!! Amy A is my hero.

    god, i love the etiquette bits. Someone needs to start an etiquette blog!!

  • I love this series of posts – more please!

    Is the Julia Rothman Forks drawing available for purchase?

    • liz

      i’m not sure! you can drop julia a line at her website and see if she’s open to selling prints or digital versions of this :)



  • Quick trick – if you ever want to polish silver and you have limited resources (say, for instance getting ready for your brother’s wedding only to find all your silver jewelry tarnished), toothpaste with baking soda cleans it like magic. Just rub the toothpaste on gently, wash it off, and dry!

  • Love, love, love this column !!!Love the style, the idea, everything !!

    Plus, even if I’m a silver collector already, I still learned a lot.

    I wanted to add a bit about “stamps” (don’t know if that’s the correct term in English). I always bring a magnifying lens along, to check the stamp. It helps knowing if you’re buying silver plated at a sterling price.

    Another bit of etiquette: always put your fork with the prongs down; otherwise, it’s considered agressive. In the same spirit, the sharp end of a knife should always face you, not the table. Anyway, that’s French etiquette, but I guess it applies anywhere.

  • Fork history is fun! However, as a former waitress, I was taught that crossed silverware on a plate means a diner has paused, and will resume eating. Fork and knife laid together on the plate means the diner is finished. Have I been wrong all these years?

  • I love the famished cutlery set, especially the “furca!” This is such a great idea for a post. I feel a little smarter now after reading this and the next time I see silverware anywhere, I will have a little more appreciation for it. :)

    • Mmmm hi I just found a number of silver cutlery as I have a prblem reading the inscriptios help. All I am able to read is the number 100. Also as it is very tiny the lettering seems to be in hebrew as it was handed to me from my mother….Are you able to enlighten me or what should be my next step would be very greatfull.. Thank you…………

  • I’m in love with that fork print (Julia Rothman), but don’t see it for sale on her site. Where did you find it?

    • hi april!

      i left a note about this in the comment section above- but just to clarify, this was a drawing julia did just for this post (thank you, julia!) so it’s not on her website.

      i’m not sure if she’d be willing to sell the image, but you could email her at her site (www.juliarothman.com) and ask :)


  • love the additional tips for polishing silver!

    jenni-i know that emily post says that utensils shaped in a “v” means paused… i’m trying to remember where i saw the info. about crossing knife and fork… i did some googling just now and did see a thing about victorian table manners where they crossed their forks! http://www.currensnet.com/ladies/tablemanners.HTM i don’t want anyone to make a faux pas on my account though, so i’m going to take it out of the post and if i can find the book where i saw it, i’ll add it back in!

    loora-thanks for more etiquette tips! don’t you love how much information can be conveyed through the way you use your utensils? it’s endlessly fascinating!

  • All those different types of forks make my head spin! Wow..who knew that salt and fruit juices were bad for polishing silver! I remember Martha Stewart recommending Lemon Juice and salt to clean silver many years ago….wow…Martha wrong?

  • I love little history lessons like this. The accompanying artwork is beautiful, too, and really informs the content of the post. Thanks!

  • That drawing by Julia Rothman is making me so happy — I really, really hope it makes it out into the world in other forms…maybe wrapping paper?

  • Fascinating! There’s a scene early in the film “Becket” where Thomas introduces a fork to Henry II (in 12th Century England!) so demonstrating his sophistication.
    By the way, have you ever come across Welsh Loving Spoons? They have 2 or more bowls attached to one ornately carved handle.
    Keep up the good work!

  • I LOVED this post, especially the etiquette bits and all the comments about etiquette – more people should practice good table manners!

    I too love the Julia Rothman drawing, I wonder if she has a knife and a spoon one too….would look fab in my dining room :D

  • I didnt look at the chart on the side to see if i could test myself. I did pretty well actually, I only missed 3 (never knew of an ice cream fork). Love the post again about the origin of the fork…

    I would love to know the origins of the mirror, the mattress, and Andirons (what are they for exactly?).

  • Thanks so much for all the nice words about my fork illustration. Since so many people have emailed me requesting a print, I decided I will make one! So just send me an email (julia@also-online.com) if you want to be notified when it becomes available in my shop.
    Great post Amy!

  • For my college graduation, my grandmother gave me several beautiful tea spoons, as well as a large serving spoon from her mother. I was planning on using one of the teaspoons for a scoop in a salt dish- is that a bad plan? I’m so glad you wrote this article!

  • hey everyone! i’ve asked a conservator friend to weigh in here on what we should and shouldn’t do with silver. i think the bottom line is the more expensive the silver is the less, you want to experiment. but she’s going to pop in to give us all some dos and don’ts! :)

  • Thanks for a great post! I’m actually writing my thesis on this topic. (well, history of how we went from one fork per family and one knife per person to the excess of Victorian 180-piece plate settings and now down to three to seven pieces per person pretty much across the board) The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit was amazing – I went to see it when it toured to Winterthur in Delaware. I’d love to see some posts on cars (history of the trunk? carhops and the American diner? driving suits?) and radios. I have a great radio cabinet from way back – and a water-proof radio for my shower.

  • Hey, conservator here! I don’t specialize in objects/silver conservation but in general here are a few things to keep in mind. Like AmyA said in her post, silver can be plated and alloyed with other kinds of metals, which means that the layer of silver can often be extremely thin, sometimes just a few atoms thick. Every time you polish to remove tarnish – silver sulfide, a chemical by-product of the silver reacting and oxidizing with sulfuric components in the air – you are removing a microscopic layer of silver. Baking soda, toothpaste, and similar home-made polishes are really pretty abrasive, so yep, you’re getting rid of the tarnish but you are also introducing tiny scratches and, over time and repeatedly, will remove details from highly decorated and intricate pieces. If you like your silver, don’t use toothpaste. Silver polishes are generally okay but follow the directions closely. Be very wary of using “dips” since these can be toxic. Store silver away from rubber, wool, and silk. Use the “anti-tarnish silver-cloth” storage bags, they are impregnated with silver particles and trick the sulfur in the air into reacting with them instead of your silver stuff.

    Let me adjust my glasses and lab coat to say that one of the most fun, effective and simplest ways to remove tarnish from everyday* silver objects, is to do some electrochemistry using aluminum foil, hot water, and backing soda (sodium bicarbonate) to chemically reverse the silver sulfide back to silver. Don’t use any similar recipes that include salt since that can lead to pitting and other chemical interactions that will damage your silver. Here is a good set of instructions with some nice and balanced chemical equations for those of you so inclined: http://educ.queensu.ca/~science/main/concept/chem/c03/C03DEEA1.htm

    Yay! Science!

  • Baking soda, ash, and toothpaste all work for the same reason; they’re abrasives. It’s a little like cleaning your furniture with sandpaper… it’ll work, but each time you’re doing a little damage.

    Chemical polishes remove only the tarnish, and little or none of the underlying silver. As for their environmental impacts, I would posit that they are minor compared to most other things we do to bring a little beauty into our lives.

    One thing to note – tarnish is silver sulfide; i.e. sulfur is needed to create it. Certain foods, like eggs, are high is sulfur – avoid using silver for these foods and you will avoid many tarnish problems.

  • According to “The Art of the Table” by Suzanne Von Drachenfels, the temporary placement of the knife and fork (in conversation), American style, the knife is laid on the right rim of the plate in the 4 o’clock position and the fork is rests near it ( but not parallel), tines upward.

    When you are finished, flatware is place on one side diagonally and parallel. Handles in the four o’clock position and tips on the center of the plate toward 10 o’clock. This allows for a good grasp of the plate when clearing the table.

    When setting the table American style, fork tines are upward because that is how we eat. The tines are downward in a Continental table setting.

    It is the most complete book I’ve ever read regarding table settings.

  • I just found this site by accident and LOVE it. I am interested in all the little trivial topics that no one seems to talk about anymore or even care about for that matter. I will be checking back frequently. There are great program topics.

    As for the comment that Sue made about Martha Stewart recommending lemon juice and salt for polish, it was for cleaning and polishing copper. It does work. I don’t think it is meant for the lacquer coated copper,though.

  • i came upon this when i was google-ing for forks..

    m not sure if someone has already mentioned this but tamarind can be used as an effective method to bring back the sheen on brass and silver ware :)

  • i found a small fork that looks like it has been part of a necklace or maybe a pendant it is 4 cm’s in length it also looks like it has a onyx inlay in the handle. it is complete so has not been made out of a fork. anyone got any idea if it has a use or is it just a quirky pendant?

  • I have some silver passed to me frm my family in Germany , I’m trying to figure out the different water marks on the back, I’ve found some information, but have come up w/ a lot of blanks,can you help?