Henry Petroski, in The Evolution of Useful Things, makes the argument that it is not so much that necessity is the "mother of invention" as that invention takes place in response to dissatisfaction at the shortcomings of an already existing way of doing things.
The eating utensils we use and the ways we use them are the result of centuries of experimentation. Following are a few milestones from over the years.
Naturally occurring sharp pieces of stone are observed to be helpful in scraping and cutting foods. When enough sharp flints are not available naturally, people begin to fashion their own cutting edges by chipping stone into the proper shape.
Coastal peoples have access to an abundance of shells. A stick fastened to the shell allowed for a longer reach, or protection from steam, if a liquid were hot. The hollow horns of sheep and goats also function as a vessels for liquid. Thus began the development of the spoon.
The scramasax, a sharp-pointed knife made of bronze or iron, with a wooden or shell handle, acts as weapon, eating utensil, and all-purpose tool for its owner, who is never without it. Food can be cut with the sharp edge (sometimes using a piece of bread to hold the piece in place) and conveyed to the mouth on the tip of the knife.
The word "spoon" comes from the Anglo-Saxon spon, which means a splinter or chip of wood. Indeed, by this time, spoons are carved from wood, as well as many other materials (among them bone, shell, stone).
Most people eat with their hands off of slices of four-day old bread known as "trenchers." Only the wealthy use utensils -- and not so much because they are perceived to be necessary, as because they are impressive. Often these are highly decorative spoons made of rare stones and metals, but the utensil that is most commonly depicted at the dinner table is the knife. Among the nobility, male diners bring their personal knives to eat with and are expected to cut food for the women when necessary. In a practice leading up to the introduction of the fork, two knives are sometimes used, one to cut and the other to hold the meat still.
The Venetian Doge, Domenico Selvo, marries a Greek princess who brings to his court the practice of eating with forks. This is regarded as a scandalous and heretical affectation, and when she dies shortly thereafter it is perceived as a just divine punishment.
1364 to 1380
The reign of
Charles V of
Catherine de Médicis
According to a French manners book, different customs have 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, observes forks in use in
Early 17th century
As forks become more common implements at the table and are 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.
Governor Winthrop of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony possesses what is said to be the first and only fork
King Louis XIV of
Early 18th century
The four-tined fork has become the
Early 19th century
The use of forks has become popular
The Victorian Years
Everywhere in the West specialized utensils proliferate, 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 on the theme.
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.
From Hand to
Mouth, Or, How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons and Chopsticks, and the
Manners to Go with Them by James Cross Giblin.
of Useful Things by Henry Petroski.
The History of
Manners by Norbert Elias.
Spoon by Habbakuk O. Westman.