The History and Use of Silver Forks

Silver Forks

Silver forks are a staple of silverware with different types being available on a traditional dinner table. From simple table forks to salad forks to the highly specialized pickle forks, this item comes in several different sizes.

It also has an interesting history that comes from an area of the world outside of Europe. Today, silver forks crafted by English and Scottish silversmiths are highly prized and many are still found today in households around the world.

But where did the fork come from and how did it become part of the dinner table? Why were several versions created? Understanding the answers will provide better insight into why silver forks are so unique.

The Origins of the Fork

Of the silverware that is present on the dinner table, the fork is the newest of the lot. This is because knives date back to prehistoric times.  They are the oldest cutlery used at the dinner table. Knives were a creation derived from the hand axes that were a common tool at the time. Spoons also date back to the early days of civilization and usually made from objects that could scoop up liquids.

The ancient Greeks used a trident-like instrument to pull meat from a pot.  However,  the fork itself did not appear on dinner tables until the 8th or 9th century AD.  This was probably somewhere in Persia, the exact origins of the fork for the dinner table are unknown.  However, it does seem that Persia, today Iraq and Iran, was where the fork as we know it was created.

Byzantine Empire

The use of the fork spread westward thanks in part to the Byzantine Empire.  At the time this empire occupied most of modern-day Turkey. The fork was initially not accepted in many European societies, mostly because the way meals were prepared did not require its use.

That began to change around the 16th century when the usefulness of the fork started to become better known. This is thanks to Catherine de Medici who toured France for a year demonstrating what she believed was the proper way to eat food at the dinner table which included the fork. Most forks at this time were simple, two-pronged instruments meant to stab the food.

Different Sizes

The main reason why forks come in different sizes was not so much the ability to create them, but in that the primary purpose of the fork was to replace the hands as the means of securing and lifting food to the mouth. Arguably the main reason why the fork was rather obscure until the Middle Ages was because it was seen as rather useless since the hands could be used. That changes with the coming of the Black Plague and other widespread diseases and illnesses which swept Europe. After that, the fork was seen as a means of eating food without touching it with the hands.

And that is why different forks were created for different tasks to help prevent the spread of illness. Although admittedly it may not have worked to the degree that it was hoped, the use and creation of different forks was the result of concerns about directly touching food. Interestingly enough, those using forks before this change in attitude were seen as having poor table manners.

It was not until the turn of the 18th century that forks as we know them today came about. This is when royalty and the wealthy began purchasing multiple sets of silverware for their homes. And it was about this time that silver began to be commonly used to create the knifes, spoons, and forks, hence the word “silverware”. A word that is still used today to refer to dinner forks, knives, and spoons.

The Use of Silver to Make Forks

In Europe, the rise of the fork coincided with the use of silver to create what would be known as silverware. English and Scottish silversmiths began created all sorts of items from silver thanks to a combination of expanding mines and the high demand for silver products. As with most other items at the time, the silversmiths used the silver that was donated by the customer for their services.

The initial forks made from silver were solid, but over time with the different types of forks being created they became more elaborate in term of design. The dinner forks were being expanded into include other types of forks, some of which we still see today.

  • Table Forks
  • Dessert Forks
  • Pickle Forks and More

Crafted from silver or Sterling silver which provides additional firmness and durability, the forks created by the English and Scottish silversmiths were in high demand, peaking around the turn of the 19th century. At this time the designs became somewhat more elaborate as reflective of the times in which they were created.

The peak of the Sterling silver forks and silverware in general changed by the middle of the 19th century. The combination of mass production and desire for simpler, less elaborate silverware marked the end of an era. By the turn of the 20th century, silversmiths were only turning out a fraction of the forks and other products made from silver compared to a century ago.

Silver Forks Today

For the most part, forks are not made from silver since it has become far more expensive compared to other, far more suitable metals used in making cutlery. This means that the antique market today for dinner forks made from silver or Sterling silver has become quite pronounced. This is particularly true for the forks made by English and Scottish silversmiths.

These highly prized items from the turn of the 19th century fetch a good price at auctions and private sales. This is because they represent more than the simple value of the silver used in their creation. With different silversmiths came more elaborate designs in forks. This also includes the stamp of the silversmith and the logo or indication of where the fork was made.