I found a lovely box down in the archives, and was expecting some medals, or maybe a certificate or an award. I got forks instead. Really cool forks, with only two tines, and some knives with super round tips. The set belonged to the Lougheeds as part of their original furnishings when they first moved into Beaulieu. These pieces are beautiful, so I did a little digging. Probably a little too much digging. As you’ve probably come to expect from me, I went back to the beginning.
Out of spoons, forks, and knives, spoons are by far the oldest. The first spoons would’ve been fashioned out of seashells, stones, or bits of wood, and probably didn’t even have handles. The earliest evidence for a handled spoon is from 1000 BCE in Egypt, where they were made from ivory, wood, flint, or slate. These heavily-decorated spoons were used for religious rites. Medieval Europe used spoons for much the same purpose, in addition to slurping; for a while, the British coronation ceremony involved being anointed via spoon. Spoons took on their modern form around the 18th century.
Forks are much the same in their history, except for the fact that they were actually kind of abhorred for a little while by some God-fearing Christians. St. Peter Damian, a Benedictine monk in the 11th century, once wrote that “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating.” We eventually got over our fear of forks, though it took a few hundred years. They were popularized during the Renaissance, because people in Italy started using them to avoid getting filth on their food, and whatever the Italians were doing in the Renaissance was what everyone else wanted to do.
Knives started out as very convenient weapons – you could stab your dinner to death, and then eat it using the same tool. This worked pretty well up until the middle ages, when Louis XIV had had enough of drunk dinner guests putting holes in their cheeks (or each other’s cheeks, if they got mad). He decreed that all dinner knives would be rounded from then on, and that’s how we ended up with butter knives.
For most of its history, cutlery (from the Old French coutelier) was meant more for the upper classes. This began to change in the 18th century as manufacturing processes grew more streamlined. Even so, there were certain factories and locations that prided themselves on making high-end cutlery. The most famous is probably the English town of Sheffield, which was home to many skilled cutlers who produced exquisite cutlery sets over the last few hundred years.
The set I uncovered today is from Sheffield. Produced sometime between 1866 and 1900, this set of fruit service cutlery was made by HB&H: Harrison Brothers and Howson (who really should’ve used a clearer brand; it took me way too long to decipher their stamps). The blades are electroplated nickel silver, an imitation of the Chinese alloy paktong, and the handles are carved from mother of pearl. HB&B shut down during the Second World War, but the company was revived in 1978 and still make cutlery to this day. You can order some off their website, actually, and it looks like the quality hasn’t dropped a bit. Overall, considering that it came from Sheffield and the materials used in the construction, it’s no surprise that this cutlery set was fit for use in the sophisticated home of the Lougheeds.
-Jake, Summer Student