The fork that lays to the left of the dinner plate has a rich past, not often enough considered when twirling spaghetti around its tines. Functionally it fills the need to spear and pick up food. Its antecedents were probably the stick and skewer used for cooking over an open fire. Successive ages have decorated and interpreted the fork according to varying views of morality, beauty and manners.

Empoli. Italy

It is believed that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used large forks in ritual ceremonies and also for cooking. The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum also revealed small silver forks. Some museum collections hold late Roman cast bronze forks, usually with three tines, though here it should be noted that the number of tines is not necessarily an indication of a fork’s age. Similarly, recalling a Gallo-Roman fork found with a physician’s instruments near Paris , it is difficult to determine usage from these rare excavation finds.

In the Middle East , the fork has been used for eating from perhaps the seventh century on. A very beautiful bronze fork of about the sixth century, probably from Persia , has a long twisted handle topped with a human figure, its finely sculpted shoulders attached to the two tapered tines. The length (over seven inches) of this Byzantine fork suggests it was used for cooking or serving.

Mathieu Le Nain,
The Family Dinner, ca. 1645-48
oil on canvas
32 1/2 x43″
Toledo Museum of Art , Ohio

In the West, however, the fork stayed mainly in the kitchen until a Byzantine princess in the early eleventh century returned it to the table-much to the astonishment of the Venetians. Married to Doge Orseo II, the princess, according to the story, did not eat with her fingers like everyone else, but had her meat cut up into pieces by her eunuch. She then ate with a small two-pronged gold fork. Even the sophisticated Venetians were shocked, and the church denounced the fork as an instrument of the devil (referring to Satan’s portrayal with a pitchfork). It seemed unnatural to use a metal instrument when God gave one fingers to eat with. This association of forks with depravity would last for centuries.

In medieval iconography, forks were not seen on tables, but they were described in inventories like that of King Charles V of France in 1379. The accepted medieval custom was to carry your own small knife and perhaps spoon with you in a leather or embroidered case. These utensils were elaborately decorated as befit your social position. If you did not bring your own, you used the common spoon, then wiped it with your napkin and passed it on. Your knife was to spear or cut off a piece of meat to bring to your trencher (a four-day-old oblong of bread that absorbed any juices and was then given to the dogs or others less fortunate). From the trencher, your fingers brought food to your mouth. This necessitated a lot of handwashing; hence the numerous ewer-­and-bowl sets in museums today.

Kristero Alexandra Milano ,
Spaghetti Twiriling Forks, 1995
Sterling Silver
8 x 1 1/4 x 1/2 “

Tracing the history of the fork through paintings shows that in the fifteenth century it continued to be a symbol of the dissolute life. For example, two panels (1484-91) by Italian painters Francesco and Raffaello Botticini on the praedella of the Tabernacolo del Sacramento in the Tuscan town of Empoli make interesting moral contrasts. On one side is the Last Supper with its sober table, few plates, and no forks. On t other is the banquet of Herod, where the head John the Baptist is being presented to a table very rich banqueters. Here the tablecloth is ornately embroidered and each diner has his or her own trencher, ecuelle (squat tureen similar a porringer), knife, and gold fork. The guests do not face each other, but view a tiered display of silverware, as was the medieval custom. The panel would have symbolized decadence to the congregation, which would have seen forks useless luxuries.

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The fork is noticeably absent from bourgeois-style table of Basel goldsmith Hans Hug Kluber, as painted in 1559. The table is set with wood trenchers and fine silver drinking vessels; one would expect that if forks were in ­fashion, they would be present. Although it has been said that some silversmiths made forks, but never ate with them, it is likely they were not yet commonly used in Switzerland . It is also possible that Protestants were slower to accept the fork because of its association with things Italian and Papist.

Only in late Renaissance Italy was the fork routinely depicted, although it_ was probably accepted there much earlier. Paolo Veronese painted an extremely large rendition of the marriage feast of Cana for the refectory of a Benedictine monastery in 1562-63. This Noces de Cana has been called the first modern banquet, because in this brilliant princely, scene each diner has his or her own place setting of napkin and fork. It is the dessert course, and a gentleman diner twirls his fork on a plate; a woman places her fork delicately in-her mouth.

Byzantine Fork, ca. 6th century bronze
length 11 1/4″
The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, London
Knife and Fork, ca. 1690
steel, silver, ivory
length 9″
The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, London

In the early 1600s, well-known British traveler Thomas Coryat confirmed that the fork was no longer a symbol of perdition in Italy , when he recorded that “all the Italian cities that I have visited have a custom that is hardly in use in other nations of Christianity. The Italians.always serve their food with a little fork.Everyone who touches the meat with his fingers transgresses the rule of civility.The forks are made of iron or pewter, the nobility have them sometimes in silver.” (1)

Myth has it that the fork traveled from Italy to France in 1533 with Catherine de Medici, who at the age of fourteen “arrived to marry Henry II accompanied by a train of attendants, perfumers, fireworks manufacturers, embroiderers, cooks, pastry cooks, confectioners, and distillers. Her pack animals carried to France for the first time: parsley, artichokes, lettuces, forks, glazed earthenware plates.” 2 It is more likely that there had been exchanges of ideas and people between Italy and the rest of Europe for some time, but the fork did not easily gain acceptance outside Italy . It was still portrayed as an object of luxury and ostentation in northern European painting in such works as Henrick van Balen and Jan Breughel’s 1616 l’Hiver. Here it is associated with sensuality and promiscuity, as a buxom woman prominently displays her small gold fork while she dines on oysters with an elderly gentleman. In France , the first known representation of the individual place setting did not occur until the 1640s. In The Family Dinner by Le Nain, the knife, fork, and spoon are pictured together to the right of the plate. As was the European custom, the spoon and fork are turned downward with their engravings visible on the back. Six hundred years after the Church in Venice denounced its use, the fork was now seen as recommending the morals of the time: a reverence for and distance from the food. After being associated with luxury and sensuality, the fork is now found on the table of people of the highest moral rigor. An early eighteenth­-century French book on manners later confirmed this: “It is absolutely against civility to touch the meats and even worse the potage with the fingers. It is necessary to use your fork to bring the meat to your plate.” (3 )

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The French court began to incorporate forks with the place setting during the reign of Louis XIV, although the king himself is said never to have eaten with one. In 1680, eight dozen spoons and forks, along with three dozen knives and other basins, ewers, candlesticks, casters, and salvers, were ordered in sterling silver for the dauphin from goldsmith Nicolas Delaunay. Unfortunately, this tableware was soon melted down in one of the many sumptuary declarations designed to return silver to the state as bullion.

The French silver trade was highly structured, and so a specialized workshop probably made the dauphin’s cutlery. Sets of matching knives and forks, often with elaborate ivory or inlaid handles, were often given as wedding gifts. These had straight steel tines and blades, and the fork’s two tines followed the design of the knife, because it was mostly used to hold meat while cutting. But by the late 1600s, as forks became more common, they began to be made completely of silver, and followed the design of the spoon with its curving handle and angled bowl. Soon three and four curved tines became the norm, and the fork functioned well both as a scoop for vegetables and for spearing meat. Fork handles could be held between the thumb and forefingers like spoons, rather than clutched with a fist like knives.

With the opening of porcelain factories in Europe in the early 1700s, the porcelain plate replaced the bread trencher, and joined with the napkin and matching knife, fork, and spoon to form a couvert or place setting. This changed the atmosphere of the dining table. It appeared more unified, with matching sets of plates and flatware. Socially, each diner had a personal space and control of his or her own plate. Whereas in the past, one enjoyed the intimacy of having a fellow guest (preferably one with well-washed hands) pull a morsel from the stew pot for a neighbor, the new place setting affirmed the sense of individualism that would be the hallmark of amore modern era.

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The new era was also marked by the philosophy of Rene Descartes, with his belief in reason and distrust of the senses. Advances in chemistry and physiology promoted scientific rationalism and replaced the theory of humors, in which temperaments were thought to be modified by the intake of various types and temperatures of foods. In the kitchen a repertoire of techniques and rules became established that still forms the basis of French cuisine. In the geometric, formal potager at Versailles , foods from the New World were introduced, and food commanded a new respect. Still-life paintings of vegetables and fruits illustrated the changed sensibility. Instead of the medieval masking of the individual flavor of a food with spices, a nouvelle cuisine developed in France . Delicate sauces became the jewel in the crown of this cuisine, and they would have been awkward to eat with spoons and knives only. As a nineteenth-century historian noted, the adoption of the fork coincided with real progress in the art of cuisine. (4)

It was not until the nineteenth century that forks were universally used in the West. Their slow acceptance is charmingly depicted in a seventeenth-century faience plate in the Museo Castello Sforzesco in Milan . Two gentlemen are shown dining with a lady. The men still use their napkins over their arms and eat with their fingers, while the lady at center uses a fork. Many men considered the fork an effeminate, effete instrument; only when a fashion for long lace cuffs took hold did some supposedly adopt its use. In rural parts of Europe where a meal was ordinarily composed of bread, soup, and perhaps some lard, there was no need for a fork. In North America, silver collections from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries show that colonists had few forks. Then on the Victorian table they multiplied. The concept of the proper utensil for each item of food expanded the place setting to include fish forks, salad forks, ice cream forks, and cake forks-mostly factory-cut and stamped from bar stock. Manners still played an important role, and knowing which fork to use was the sign of the educated person. The civilizing role of cutlery was stressed by nannies; and later interpreted sexually by anthropologists who saw the knife as masculine, the spoon feminine, and the fork ambiguous or Oedipal. The basic shape of the fork, however, had not really altered from Roman times. It still consisted of two, three, or four tines set above a handle. Embellishment followed the style of the period, and even today most silver flatware is based on traditional designs.

Rebecca Scheer
Futensils: Dinner Fork, 2000
forged sterling silver, rubies
length 8″

There are, however, contemporary metalsmiths more in sync with Rene Magritte and Surrealism than nineteenth-century pattern books. Magritte’s 1951 painting, The Magician, depicts a three-handed man at the dinner table. He cuts his meat with a knife in his right hand and fork in his left, while simultaneously bringing bread to his mouth with another left hand. The centuries-old symbolism, language, and function of our everyday tools for eating definitely influence certain makers of flatware. They are interested not only in the meaning of familiar items of our material culture, but in broader issues of food supply and consumption. Wry humor is often the result.

At the Millennium Canteen Exhibition in Sheffield , England , long a center of cutlery production, Howard Fenn’s fish fork reminded one of trying to hold onto a fish. The handle was articulated with gold pins and silicon rubber between hollow silver elements that wriggled as you grasped them-a call to remember the fish’s life before it became dinner.

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In the United States , contemporary metalsmith Kristoro’ Alexanara Milano has redesigned the fork with curvy tines, the better to twirl spaghetti. Boris Bally has played with the forklift and shovel aspect of tableware in his constructed serving pieces. And Jiro Masuda employed vice grips as flatware handles to suggest the moral ramifications of eating.

For her masters’ thesis at the Oregon School of Craft, Rebecca Scheer deconstructed knives, forks, and spoons to “call attention to the invisible process of their construction and to the maker’s investment of skill, labor and intellect.” The tines of the forks of her forged Futensils (2000) are articulated with hinges so they flap and cannot function. Acknowledging Surrealist thinking and Jacques Derrida’s theory of opposition, Scheer, like many other craft-based artists today, makes objects that express both utility and uselessness and decry art’s rejection of function for idea. Forks are signifiers of have and have not, civilized and uncivilized, abundance, and (in the case of the restaurant guide symbols), overabundance.

Jiro J. Masuda
Hybrid Flatware: Vice Grips, 1996
Steel, silver, found objects
Fork: 10 1/4x1x1 ½”
Knife: 10 3/4x 1 1/2×5″
Spoon: 9 1/2×1 1/2×1¼”

Since its appearance on Western tables a thousand years ago, the fork has carried more than its share of moral baggage. Medieval Christians rejected it as a symbol of the Devil and decadence. Seventeenth-century rationalist philosophy enabled its acceptance as a useful tool among upright people. Today, influenced by our world, and art and craft theory, the fork has been deconstructed to challenge our views on consumption and our unthinking use of domestic objects. As a silversmith who makes forks, I often wonder about the historical links between makers of forks. Did the medieval goldsmith wince when asked to make an object his church declared immoral? While handpolishing tines with rouge and leather in an atelier in Paris , did the seventeenth-century silversmith think of the fork’s use by courtiers at the groaning boards of Versailles ? Certainly many of today’s makers brood over the production of luxury eating utensils when much of the world does not have enough food to eat; that is why their forks offer eloquent commentary about life, craft, and consumption.

Baris Bally
Constructiion Serving Set, 1998
Silver, brass
Truss loader 2×2 3/4×16 ¼”
Beam backhoe: 2/2 1/8×14 ¼”
Photo: Aaron Usher III

Anne Barros is author of Ornament and Object: Canadian Jewellery and Metal Art 1946-1996. Her research on the fork was supported by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

  1. Thomas Coryat, Crudities Hastily Gabled up in Five Months Travells (1611) (Glasgow: MacLehose, 1905), p. 236.
  2. Barbara Ketcham Wheaton , Savoring the Past (New York: 5cribner, 1983), p. 43.
  3. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, Les regles de la bienseance et de la societe…, quoted in Zeev Gouarier, Arts et manieres de table, (Thionville: G. Klopp, 1994), p. 118.
  4. Alfred Franklin, La vie privee, (Paris: Plan, 1888), 7, p. 3.