The Complete History of Dining Utensils

Prehistoric diners used sharp stones, some made sharper by chipping to cut food.  Coastal tribes used shells. A stick fastened to a shell provided a longer reach and protection from hot foods, and hollowed horns of sheep and goats were used to hold liquids, all which might have been the beginnings of the spoon.

But humans were born with very useful, built-in eating tools at the ends of our arms!


People have always eaten with their fingers, which may be messy, but efficient. And even before Emily Post or Miss Manners  there was a correct way to use one’s fingers at mealtime. During the mid-1500s it became the custom that refined people ate ate with only the first three fingers, thus clearly distinguishing the lower class who used all five from the upper class.

Erasmus, Dutch humanist and author of the first modern book of manners in 1526, was among the first concerned about table manners. He insisted that diners never lick their fingers or wipe them on their coats. It was better, according to Erasmus, to wipe one’s fingers on the tablecloth, a custom that, unfortunately, some people observe today.


Chopsticks, two long thin sticks, were developed as early as the 3rd Century BCE in China.   The Chinese word for such implements meant “quick ones,” or “quick sticks,” so the English translation became “chopsticks.”

It’s possible that chopsticks were developed when people cooked their food in large pots which retained heat well, and hasty eaters broke twigs off trees to retrieve the food.

By 400 BCE, a large population and dwindling resources forced people to conserve fuel. Food was chopped into small pieces so it could be cooked more rapidly, thus using less fuel.

Also the Chinese had a food tradition, believing that it was barbaric to serve food that resembled the original animal and uncouth to carve up a carcass at the table. The Chinese took care of that unseemly chore out of sight in the kitchen and served food already diced and sliced, ready to eat, so there was no need for knives and forks at a Chinese dinner.

Confucius may have influenced Chinese utensil selection with his nonviolent philosophy and discouragement of knives at the dinner table. He equated them with aggression – and felt they would disturb the tranquility of the meal.

History of Knives

Knives have been used as weapons, tools, and eating utensils since prehistoric times.

history of utensils - knives

Since hosts did not provide cutlery for their guests during the Middle Ages in Europe, most people carried their own knives in sheaths attached to their belts. These knives were narrow and the sharply pointed ends were used to spear food and then raise it to one’s mouth.

Table knives were introduced around 1600, but long after knives were adopted for table use, they continued to be used as weapons. Thus, the multi-purpose nature of the knife always posed the conceivable threat of danger at the dinner table.

Once forks began to gain popular acceptance, (forks being more efficient for spearing food), there was no longer any need for a pointed tip at the end of a dinner knife.

In France, in the 1630s,  Armand Jean du Plessis (better known as Duc de Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII) got tired of watching people stabbing their knives and daggers into chunks of food, picking their teeth with the sharp ends of the daggers at the end of the meal. He ordered the kitchen staff to file off the sharp points of all house knives, and soon round-tipped knives became the latest thing.

The grinding down of knife points led to other design changes. Cutlers began to make the blunt ends of knives wider and rounder so that any food which fell between the two tines of a fork could be piled on the knife. In fact, many knives were designed with a handle like a pistol grip and a blade which curved backward so the wrist would not have to be contorted to get food to the mouth.

Pointed Knives Banned

In 1669, King Louis XIV of France banned pointed knives, at the table or as weapons, trying to reduce violence.

early blunt-tipped knives

This birth of blunt-tipped knives in Europe had a effect on American dining etiquette. At the beginning of the 18th Century, few forks were being imported to America.

The blunted knives imported from Europe are not so easy to eat with as pointed ones were. As such, Americans started using the spoon to steady food as they cut and then switch the spoon to the opposite hand in order to scoop up food to eat. The beginnings of what is known today as the zig-zag method.

This distinctly American style of eating continued even after forks became commonplace in the United States.

Be sure to check out our article on table manners.

In England during the early 18th century, knives began to be fashioned with wide, almost spoon-shaped (though still flat) tips. This new design made it easier to use them for conveying food to the mouth.

By the beginning of the 19th Century, knives began to lose their curved, bulbous curved tips.

In the1920’s stainless steel is invented, providing an inexpensive, easy-to-maintain, and non-reactive metal for making table knife blades. Prior to now, special sterling silver fish and salad knife blades were required to prevent an unpleasant taste that often resulted from using a steel blade on these two items.

History of Spoons

history of spoons

Spoons have been used as eating utensils since Paleolithic times. It is most likely that prehistoric peoples used shells or chips of wood as spoons.   The English word “spoon” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “spon”, which means a splinter or chip of wood. Latin words for spoon are derived from “cochlea”, meaning a spiral-shaped snail shell.

In the 1st Century CE, the Romans designed two types of spoons.

The first, a ligula, was used for soups and soft foods. It had a pointed oval bowl and a handle ending in a decorative design. The second style of spoon, acochleare, was a small spoon with a round bowl and a pointed, slender handle for eating shellfish and eggs. The earliest English spoons were likely modeled after these two types of spoons due to the Roman occupation of Britain from 43 to 410 CE.

During the Middle Ages, spoons, generally made of wood or horn were supplied by dinner hosts.

Royalty often had spoons made of gold, and non-royal wealthy families owned silver spoons. Beginning in the 14th Century, spoons made of tinned iron, brass, pewter, and other metals became common. The use of pewter especially made spoons more affordable for the general public.

 The modern spoon style dates to the 18th century.

History of Forks

The word “fork” comes from the Latin “furca” and the Old English “forca”. Small forks used for eating first appeared in Tuscany in the 11th century, but they were still a rarity in Italy by the 14th century.

early two-tine forks

Kitchen forks trace their origins back to the time of the Greeks. These forks were fairly large with two tines that aided in the carving and serving of meat. The tines prevented meat from twisting or moving during carving and allowed food to slide off more easily than it would with a knife.

By the 7th Century CE, royal courts of the Middle East began to use forks at the table for dining. From the 10th through the 13th Centuries, forks were fairly common among the wealthy in Byzantium.

In the 11th Century the Venetian Doge, Domenico Selvo, married a Greek princess who brought the practice of eating with forks to his court. This was regarded as a scandalous and heretical affectation, and when she died shortly after it is perceived as a divine punishment.

Forks Wide Adoption

It was not until the 16th Century that forks were widely adopted in Italy.

During the reign of Charles V of France (1364 to 1380) forks are listed in his inventory of plate, but it is specified that they are only to be used when eating foods that might otherwise stain the fingers.

Catherine de Medici

In 1533, forks were brought from Italy to France when Catherine de Medici married the future King Henry II.

Catherine de Medici pictured above (April 13, 1519 – January 5, 1589), born in Italy as Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de’ Medici, and later lived in France under the name Catherine de Médicis, was Queen of France as the wife of King Henry II of France, of the Valois branch of the kings of France, and mother of three kings of that branch.

The French, too, were slow to accept forks, like the Italians, using them was thought to be an affectation.

In 1560, according to a French manners book, different customs evolved in different European countries. For eating soup, Germans are known for using spoons, Italians are known for using forks (presumably the fork assists in eating solid ingredients and the remaining liquid is drunk out of the bowl as it was in the Middle Ages). The Germans and Italians provide a knife for each diner, while the French provide only two or three communal knives for the whole table.

An Englishman named Thomas Coryate brought the first forks to England around 1611 after seeing them in Italy during his travels in 1608.

The English ridiculed forks as being effeminate and unnecessary. Coryate was mocked for promoting the use of forks and called “Furcifer,” meaning fork-bearer.

Many British clergymen were vehemently opposed to forks; they believed that only human fingers were worthy of touching God’s food. Often, when someone died after having used a fork, these clergymen preached that it was God’s way of showing His displeasure over the use of such a shocking novelty.

Forks Adopted By The Wealthy

Slowly, however, forks came to be adopted by the wealthy. They were prized possessions made of expensive materials intended to impress guests.

Small, slender-handled forks with two tines were generally used for sweet, sticky foods or for foods such as berries which were likely to stain the fingers. By the mid 1600s, eating with forks was considered fashionable among wealthy British. Forks used solely for dining were luxuries and thus markers of social status and sophistication among nobles.  The upper classes of Spain were also using forks in the 16th Century.

Early table forks were modeled after kitchen forks; two fairly long and widely spaced tines ensured that meat would not twist while being cut. This style of fork was soundly designed, but small pieces of food regularly fell through the tines or slipped off easily.

As forks become more common implements at the table in the early 17th century and were used for holding food steady while cutting and for conveying the food to the mouth, it is less necessary for knives to be made with pointed tips. They begin to be made blunt at the end.

3-tine forks

In late 17th Century France, larger forks with four curved tines were developed. The additional tines made diners less likely to drop food, and the curved tines served as a scoop so people did not have to constantly switch to a spoon while eating. By the early 19th Century, multi-tined forks had also been developed in Germany and England and slowly began to spread to America.

In 1630, Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had the first and only fork in colonial America.

Four-Tine Forks

In the early 18th century, the four-tine fork has become the rule in Germany. However, in England, forks still have two tines and are not so helpful for scooping up bites of food.

The fork has achieved the form which is now most familiar, four curved tines, in Europe at the mid-18th century.

By the beginning of the 19th Century, additional tines were being added to forks in Europe, and the use of forks is starting to become popular in the United States. They are sometimes called “split spoons.”

During Victorian Years specialized utensils proliferated in the West, more in response to the Victorian fondness for bric-a-brac than to any real need. Tomato servers, sardine forks, jelly knives, and cheese scoops are among the many elaborations in silverware.

History of Napkins

Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used “serviettes,” napkins the size of bath towels.

In the 1700s it was acceptable at the table to use the serviette to also wipe off all utensils, as well as greasy fingers and lips.

Maybe someone got tired of washing all those huge serviettes, since people were encouraged to first wipe their fingers on a hunk of bread.

As the use of forks rather than fingers become popular the less large napkins were needed, and they became smaller.

Explanation for CE or BCE date designations.

CE stands for the Common Era, also known as the Current Era or the Christian Era, alternative names for AD (Anno Domini –Latin for “in the year of our Lord”) . It is the period of time beginning with year one of the Gregorian calendar.

When using CE, earlier years are described as “before the Common Era” or BCE.

Looking For More Information on the History of Dining Utensils?

Come join us in our online community and ask our experts your dining utensil question!