SILVERWARE. "Silverware" often refers generically to any flatware used for eating by most people in the Western world, and some parts of Asia and Africa—knives, forks, and spoons—whether it is made of silver, stainless steel, or a silver-plated base metal. Flatware, especially that used by most people when they eat informally, is usually made of stainless steel, not silver. "Silverware" also refers to dishes used for serving food and some decorative objects such as candlesticks.
In its narrowest sense, "silverware," which includes eating utensils, serving dishes, and decorative items, is made either of sterling silver—925 parts silver to 75 parts another metal, perhaps copper—or has layers of silver plated over another metal, often nickel silver. The more layers, the better the quality, and buyers are cautioned that flatware will be more durable and worth having if it is at least triple plate. Some manufacturers put extra silver on pieces at the point of most wear, for example, on the back of the bowl of a spoon, where it rests on the table.
Of the three pieces of cutlery used by most often by Westerners for eating, the knife was the first utensil. Because early humans were hunters and scavengers and ate meat when they could get it, knives—made of flint or obsidian—were necessary both for cutting meat away from the bone of a kill and for cutting it into manageable pieces for carrying it back to the campsite and for eating. Gradually, as metallurgy developed, knives were made of bronze, iron, and, finally, steel.
From the earliest times until well into the Middle Ages, knives were used for hunting and personal protection, and men always carried them. Because no utensils were provided with meals at the inns and taverns at that time, travelers used their own knives, which they also kept on the table in case they were attacked. Later, inns began to supply knives with the food they served.
Early spoons, used for eating liquids, were made of wood. Shells with attached wooden handles were also used fashioned as spoons. Metal spoons, when they began to be used, were made from the same metal used to make knives of the era. Forks were used in Roman kitchens, with smaller versions being used to carve meat at the side of the table. It is said that a Byzantine princess introduced table forks into Venice in the eleventh century, and their use as eating utensils spread across Italy. Eating with forks did not become fashionable, however, until the seventeenth century. The fact that forks had only two tines at first may account for the delay in adopting them as eating utensils because they were awkward to use. Thomas Coryate, an English traveler, is credited with introducing forks to England in 1608 after a visit to Italy. He wrote that forks were usually made of steel or iron, but that the nobility ate with silver forks. As the use of forks became popular, people began to carry their own forks in special cases when they dined at friends' homes.
Since the Romans, silver has been used to make utensils, but only royalty or the very wealthy could afford it until the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the ability to own and control precious metals has always been the prerogative of nobility and the wealthy merchant classes. During the Ottoman Empire, for example, only the Sultans ate from gold dishes, while the women of the harem had silver dishes for dining.
In the eighteenth century, silver eating utensils and serving pieces were popular in Europe and America for those who could afford them. Gorham Manufacturing Company began making table silver in the United States in 1831. Each piece was hand-forged, and two men could produce two dozen pieces a day. In eighteenth-century American society, silverware was identified with women of the moneyed classes. At that time, women could not legally own land or other property, so the scope of their lives was limited to home and family. For this reason, silverware was significant as a woman's contribution to the financial part of a marriage, and it was often purchased for her one piece at a time and kept in what was called a "hope chest," along with other household goods such as linens and quilts. Because it was bought with a woman's taste in mind, most silverware was designed for women. Silver flatware, along with other household goods, has traditionally been monogrammed with the bride's initials.
During the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries, wealthy families had servants who prepared and served elaborate dinners that required the use of many different pieces of silverware. There was a great amount of flatware and hollowware made from silver, and some of those servants were responsible for keeping all of it polished. It was a task that kept them busy. Complete sets of silver flatware came with specialized versions of the standard utensils: luncheon knives and forks, smaller than those used for dinner; place spoons (later called "soup spoons" in the United States and "dessert spoons" in Europe, but still listed as place spoons by manufacturers), which are larger than teaspoons; and salad forks and dessert forks, often the same fork used interchangeably. Specialty items of flatware included: iced drink spoons and fish cocktail forks, both long-handled and still available in flatware sets; butter spreaders, short knives that fit on bread plates in individual place settings (also still available); chocolate spoons for hot chocolate; ramekin forks (smaller than salad forks, to fit into small dishes—called ramekins—used to bake individual servings of food); tea forks and knives, about the size of luncheon silverware; sifting spoons with pierced bowls, to be used in sifting sugar over food; fruit knives; and demitasse, or coffee, spoons.
There was even special flatware made for children: pap spoons, which were small spoons with slightly elongated handles for feeding infants; small versions of forks and spoons for children old enough to feed themselves; and pushers, each piece with a plough-like blade attached at a right angle to the handle, used to push food onto a fork or spoon.
People in European countries also enjoyed silver flatware, but used different pieces specialized to accommodate Continental eating habits, for example, marrow spoons. These are long, narrow scoops, suitable for digging flavorful marrow out of meat bones. Special fish knives and forks are also used extensively. The fish knife has a broad flat blade, which makes lifting the flesh from the bones easy, and the fork tines are usually not as sharp as those of other forks. The flatware made to serve fish is similar, but larger. Fish sets are still used in European homes and restaurants, especially in Germany, Scandinavia, and Britain.
Serving pieces used in Europe, the United States, and Canada include tomato servers (or slices), which are flat, circular, slotted pieces; tongs, ranging from large ones for serving salad or asparagus to very small ones for sugar cubes; cheese scoops, used to serve from large chunks of cheeses; dressing or stuffing spoons (called "hash spoons" in Ireland and Scotland), large, long-handled spoons suitable for digging stuffing from the insides of turkeys; ladles; and strainer spoons (like sifter spoons), used secularly to strain seeds from fruit punch bowls and ecclesiastically to strain impurities from the communion wine. Potato forks, wide, with six tines, were made in Liverpool, London, and Dublin. There were spoons for serving candy, nuts, and ice cream. Specialty forks were made to serve sardines, macaroni, and poached eggs. There were grape shears, cracker scoops, butter picks, nut picks, and lobster picks. Pie and cake servers and serrated cake knives are still being made. (A cake knife can be engraved with the names of a bride and groom and given to them for a wedding gift.) Berry serving spoons have broad, deep bowls, and lemon forks are short, with three tines, wide apart. The most common serving pieces are tablespoons, some with holes for straining vegetables served in their cooking liquid, and meat forks.
Flatware has also been made of silver combined with various other materials such as gold, porcelain, wood, or enameled metals other than silver. Inspiration from other cultures influenced styles of silver produced in the United States. Textile designs and other forms of art from Russia, Persia, India, China, Japan, and England were imitated to develop designs for silver pieces. Mokume, a wood-grained metal from Japan, was also copied in silver.
Like flatware, silver hollowware has been used for centuries and made for many purposes. There are containers for every conceivable food. Bowls of all sizes and shapes have been made of silver, along with water pitchers, tea and coffee serving sets, sauce boats, cups, goblets, tankards, salt dishes, salt-and-pepper shakers, bread trays and baskets. Containers for cooking or keeping foods hot have been made of silver: chafing dishes, coffee serving sets, and samovars, the Russian urns in which tea is made. Silver vases, candlesticks, and other decorative objects have all been used on dining tables to enhance the place settings and make the meal a special occasion for families and guests.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States led the world in manufacturing silverware and purchasing it as well. In the 1890s, as the price of silver bullion kept decreasing and competition among manufacturers increased, silver became sufficiently inexpensive that lower-middle-class consumers could afford to own it.
Like other Continental nations, Scandinavians used silver for fine dining and held it in high regard. Georg Jensen Solvsmedie, a firm in Copenhagen, Denmark, began manufacturing tableware in 1904. Jensen's modern, clean designs were a change from the rococo and neoclassic designs of the nineteenth century, and, by 1938, the United States was the largest market for Danish sterling silverware. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was still a Georg Jensen showroom in New York City.
The purchase and use of silverware, however, have been steadily declining since World War II, perhaps because families are unwilling to spend money on it and have neither the time nor the servants to care for it. Furthermore, many European families lost their silverware during wars and so had none to pass on to the next generation. It is also true that meals have become less formal, and stainless steel flatware and hollowware better-looking and more acceptable, not to mention less expensive, than silver as the twentieth century ended. However, sterling silver is still for sale and is still being collected and enjoyed by those who can afford it.
See also Cutlery ; Etiquette and Eating Habits ; Kitchen Gadgets .
Cullen, Noel C. Life beyond the Line: A Front-of-the-House Companion for Culinarians. Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 2001.
Dolan, Maryanne. 1830s–1990s American Sterling Silver Flatware: A Collector's Identification and Value Guide. Florence, Ala.: Books Americana, 1993.
Hagan, Tere. Sterling Flatware: An Identification and Value Guide. Rev. 2d ed. Tempe, Ariz.: TAMM, 1994.
Newman, Harold. An Illustrated Dictionary of Silverware. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Tiffany & Company. Tiffany Table Settings. New York: Crowell, 1960.
Trager, James. The Food Chronology: A Food Lover's Compendium of Events and Anecdotes from Prehistory to the Present. New York: Holt, 1995.
Venable, Charles L. Silver in America, 1840–1940: A Century of Splendor. New York: Abrams, 1995.
Wealthy Romans customarily presented a silver spoon to a newborn child. To be "born with a silver spoon in its mouth" meant that the child had many advantages from birth. When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 312 c.e., Romans continued to give silver spoons to newborns. To indicate that the child had been baptized, the Chi-Rho, or XP, the Greek symbol for Christ, was engraved on the bowl of the spoon. The Corinium spoon was found in Roman ruins in England, near what is now Cirencester, called Corinium during the Roman occupation of Britain. Sterling silver replicas of the christening spoon were sold in the 1970s by Leonard Jones Ltd. of Cirencester.
In Britain, a formal type of restaurant service is called "silver service." Foods are brought to the table in silver-plated serving dishes and platters and are placed on the diners' plates by the serving staff.