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What is Cutlery?

By Deborah Ng
Updated May 16, 2024
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Cutlery is a fancy word for silverware or flatware. It's the pieces we set on the table on a daily basis — forks, knives and spoons. Most Americans associate cutlery with knives and other kitchen cutting implements, but in reality, the term "cutlery" can be associated with any type of utensil. The history of cutlery is quite interesting.

Although there are cutting implements dating back through human history, the earliest known bit of metal table cutlery was the knife, which is believed to have been used as early as 2,000 BC, though it was extremely rare. Spoons came along probably around 5,000 BC; the earliest found were made of stone or clay, not metal. Forks came years later, somewhere around the 9th century. These didn't look like the fork one sees around the kitchen table nowadays, more like a small spear.

Folks in the middle Ages primarily used their fingers to eat. If there was a knife on the table, it was shared with the rest of the family. Table knives didn't come around until about the 16th century. Prior to that, men used pocket knives, daggers, or whatever they may have been carrying on their person at the time.

At that time, there may have been a spoon present on the table as well. It's not sure exactly when people started using cutlery, especially forks, on a daily basis, though it's believed to be some time around the 17th Century.

As you can well imagine, only royalty or those of extreme wealth set their tables with cutlery on a regular basis. While many medieval families may have had a couple of pieces of cutlery in their possession, it was considered too fancy to be used on a regular basis and was kept in a drawer or put away for special occasion, much like what we do now with our good silverware and china.

At the end of medieval times, cutlery became more popular as table settings among the lower classes when it became trendy for people to entertain by hosting dinner parties. Before that, food was considered to be only a means to an existence. Once it became a reason to socialize, the silversmiths began to have a field day. Soon tableware could be purchased in many sizes and patterns. The emergence of cutlery in different patterns led to other coordinated table components such as dishes, cups and bowls.

Although we may take our cutlery for granted, but way back when, there were those who considered eating with a fork and knife a great privilege.

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Discussion Comments
By cardsfan27 — On Jun 11, 2012

@TreeMan - There are things like sporks and the like that are combinations of different types of silverware. I don't know of any other interesting things. There are different variations on the normal silverware like salad forks and dessert forks, but that's not too interesting.

I just think it is interesting that the knife and spoon came before the fork. I suppose it makes sense when you stop and think about it, but it seems odd considering that the fork is the most used utensil now. I would say the knife is the most needed of all types of cutlery, though. You can always bite off chunks of meat, but if you don't have a knife to butcher animals or chop things up, you're going to have a problem getting the meat in the first place.

It's interesting, too, to think about having a dinner with one set of silverware on the table. Especially when you consider that most families were pretty big.

By TreeMan — On Jun 11, 2012

@Emilski - Good point. I wonder if maybe thing types of pasta like spaghetti came along later. Maybe back in those days before they had real cutlery they ate pasta like lasagna noodles that are easier to handle.

I am curious if anyone knows anything about the history of chopsticks. When did they make their first appearance? Considering that they are pretty much like the spears that were first used, I'm guessing Asians were using them well before the first knife came along. I guess it might have taken some time for anyone to come up with the trick of holding the chopsticks and picking things up, though.

Are there any other types of cutlery around that are much different than the normal stuff we have now like forks and knives?

By Emilski — On Jun 10, 2012

@bagley79 - I assume you're talking about Medieval Times. That place is great! I've been there quite a few times and have always loved the experience. You're right, though, there is always plenty of food, but eating with your hands is pretty fun.

I remember the first time I went, they served barbeque ribs. Needless to say, that was a messy affair. You do bring up a good point, though. How did people eat things like pasta before they had silverware?

I am certainly not an expert on the history of food, but considering Italy's association with pasta, I'm guessing that it was probably around well before the 17th century when the article says most families had silverware. I can't believe that no one had thought to mix together eggs and flour by that point.

By jcraig — On Jun 10, 2012

@LisaLou - You are absolutely right. Having the right knives for the job is a huge time saver and stress reliever in the kitchen. When I first started cooking for myself I underestimated the necessity of having good knives. I just used a really basic knife set that I bought for $10 or something.

One time, I was at a friend's house helping her make dinner. Since she's quite the chef, she had a set of good knives to use. It made cutting things up a breeze. Before I used her knives, I just assumed that you were supposed to saw through an onion. If you've got the right knives, though, you should be able to slice through it with hardly any pressure.

I've since bought my own knife set. Personally, I like the feel of the German steel knives. The best part is that as long as you sharpen then regularly, a good set of knives should last forever.

By LisaLou — On Jun 09, 2012

I keep a cutlery block on my counter to store my knives in. I like having this block for the sharp knives instead of storing them in a drawer. It seems like a safer place to keep them so than just throwing them into a drawer with no organization.

I know which knife I need to use for whatever job I am doing. The knife I probably use more than any of the others is my bread knife. I like to bake my own bread, so having a good bread knife is important to me.

If you have ever tried to cut bread without the right knife, it just seems to mash down and the pieces of bread never look right.

I also like to use knives that are sharp. I heard many years ago that a having a good set of knives in the kitchen will make your work much easier. I have sure found this to be true, and haven't bought any cheap cutlery for a long time.

By John57 — On Jun 09, 2012

I don't have any kind of special cutlery set. When our family sits down to a meal, I feel like I am doing good if everyone has silverware. Worrying about everyone having matching pieces isn't even something I concern myself with.

I do remember my mom had a silver cutlery set when I was young. This was stored in a special case that was lined with velvet. Before holiday meals, it was my job to get out the case and shine the silver.

I never liked doing this job and found it to be quite boring. Having special silverware that shined was just not something I was interested in as a kid. I guess I haven't changed much, because having nice cutlery still isn't on my list of things I wished I had even today.

By bagley79 — On Jun 08, 2012

We went to a dinner theater once where the whole meal was served without any eating utensils. A five course meal from appetizers to dessert was served without any silverware.

At first I wondered what they would serve, and if there would even be enough food, but I didn't need to worry. I was so full by the time it was over and found that I enjoyed every minute of it. They also made sure to provide plenty of napkins to wipe your hands on.

If you ate every meal this way, you would be quite limited in what you served, but this was a fun thing to try. I don't think they would ever try to serve something like spaghetti or salad at something like this.

By Mykol — On Jun 08, 2012

I can't imagine sitting down to a meal and not using any silverware. My toddlers seem to prefer their fingers over a spoon any day though! I think they even manage to get more in their mouth with their hands than a spoon when they are first learning.

Today they have more choices in toddler cutlery than when I was growing up. I only remember one or two pieces of silverware that were intended for children. Everything else we used was the same as the adults.

Cutlery for kids today comes in plastic and many bright colors to choose from. It helps encourage young kids like mine to use their silverware instead of their hands.

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