Eating or serving with utensils made of silver, silver-plated metals or stainless steel is relatively recent. Silver needed to be discovered in sufficient quantities, the smelting processes necessary to hand-craft silver needed to be refined, and in Northern Europe it took several centuries before the more civilized Latin table manners replaced the cruder Anglo-Saxon ones.
Henry VIII, the most famous of England's Tudors, used his hands to tear off large pieces of beef from an entire roast set before him, throw the meat on his trencher board, chop off smaller pieces and shovel them in his mouth. Such table manners were acceptable until the publication of books on manners by Castiglione (1478-1529) and Peacham (1576-1643). Around that time, fine silver table services and eating implements were introduced into English court life. Banquet halls started to use solid silver platters and plates, silver-mounted drinking vessels, silver-handled knives and a variety of spoons. Unassisted bare hands, however, remained the norm for the "lower orders" in England for another century or so.
The spoon was one of man's earliest inventions, possibly as old as the custom of drinking hot liquids. In Northern Europe, the first spoons were carved from wood. Later specimens were fashioned out of horns of cattle, ivory tusks, bronze, and eventually silver and gold.
The earliest mention of spoons made from precious metals is found in the Book of Exodus, when Moses is commanded to make dishes and spoons of pure gold for the Tabernacle. Moses asked Bezalel (the first spoon-maker known to us by name in history) to work in gold, silver and brass. Since Bezalel had come with Moses out of Egypt, he must have learned his trade there.
Many Egyptian spoons were cast in the form of handled dishes with a cover and a spout, an elaborate but not very practical design. Greek and Roman spoons, on the other hand, looked much more like the spoons we are used to seeing in modern times. Pan, the patron of shepherds and huntsmen, was honored with spoons in the shape of a goat's foot. The Roman fiddle-patterned spoon, originating in the first or second century A.D., resembles the modern type we know today, except for its squared off stem-head, rather than the arched appearance with which we are familiar.
The first English spoons, made of horn or wood, were probably imitations of those brought in by Roman troops in Britain. The Angles and Saxons introduced a spoon with small, pear-shaped bowl. By the fourteenth century, castings of bronze, brass, pewter and sheet tin were fairly common.
The knife, used by hunters and soldiers for cutting and spearing the meat, was first made of flint, then of metal. Its main characteristic was a sharp edge. Traces of the primitive knife, such as the incurved shape at the top, or the beveling of the metal to achieve an edge, are still present in some of our styles today. Handles at first were only long enough to allow a firm grip for carving.
In the 1630s, the Duke de Richelieu, chief minister to France's Louis XIII, ordered the kitchen staff to file off the sharp points of all house knives and bring them to the royal table, thereby introducing the knife as an every-day eating utensil for the aristocracy.
Forks were introduced at the table around the time of the Crusades, at the beginning of the twelfth century, when Venice's Doge Domenice Silvie and his Dogess placed a fork beside each plate at one of their banquets. The forks took about three centuries to gain acceptance, probably because the custom of placing food in one's mouths with both hands, five fingers, or—for the refined few—three fingers, was more expedient than using a new gadget.
Most dinner guests first carried their own knives. After the introduction of forks, the custom of guests providing their own eating utensils continued, and attention was given to minimize the space occupied by the knife and fork when not in use, with the fork sometimes serving as a handle for the spoon.
The production of tableware on a wide scale in England after 1650 played a large role in improving the dinner-table etiquette. In time, strict laws demanding high standards greatly enhanced the quality of silverware. Silversmiths were required to stamp their name, the place, and the date of their manufactured goods on their pieces. The word "sterling" came to mean "of unexcelled quality." From 1670, English homes of the upper classes had silver spoons as a matter of course, and had already started the custom of passing them on to their heirs. American silversmiths widely copied these spoons. In fact, the colonial craftsmen's first silver goods were spoons. Table knives with steel blades started to appear around this time as well. However, silver forks and sophisticated serving vessels were rare until the late eighteenth century.
Before the seventeenth century, silver could be melted and poured into shaped molds to be cast into a variety of objects, but more often it was hand beaten with sledge hammers on an anvil, or coerced into flatsheets of the required thickness by a version of the old-fashioned laundry mangle with iron instead of wooden rollers. The hammering of the sheet caused it to become brittle after a certain amount of time, and therefore unfit for further working. At that point, it was annealed, or placed under heat of about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (540 degrees Celsius), then plunged into cold water, after which the hammering could be resumed.
F irst used in the mid-nineteenth century, the term "silverware," referring to Sterling silver or silverplated tableware, has become synonymous with cutlery. Still, cutlery has been made of iron for centuries. In Great Britain, the area of Sheffield has been widely known for producing high-quality cutlery since the thirteenth century. With the introduction of silverplating in the late eighteenth century, the area also became identified with silverplated goods, thus "Sheffield plate."
Not surprisingly, Americans who sought to compete with Sheffield cutlery in the nineteenth century overcame opposition by reducing the cost of their cutlery through the use of powered machinery and simplification of the production process. By 1871, the Russell Manufacturing Company of Turner's Fall, Massachusetts, had reduced the sequence to sixteen steps, each of which might be performed by different individuals. The company consumed annually 700 tons of steel, 200 tons of grindstones, and 22 tons of emery; and for handles, 18 tons of ivory, 56 tons of ebony, 29 tons of rosewood, and 150 tons of cocoawood. Despite the growth, one thing that did not improve for workers in the United States was industrial hygiene. Grinders, especially, were subjected to large doses of metallic dust and commonly succumbed to "grinders' disease," or silicosis.
The most famous product innovation associated with the American cutlery trade was the Bowie knife. With its distinctive long, heavy blade, it was useful for both hunting and fighting. James Bowie, famed frontiersman, designed and popularized this large sheath knife. It became so popular and so commonly associated with violent crime during the 1830s that several states passed laws restricting its use.
William S. Pretzer
Later, the silversmiths (or "flatters") used more sophisticated techniques, such as waterwheels or horse-driven wheels, to pass the metal through the rollers many times until the desired thickness was attained. These techniques were replaced by the steam engine in the eighteenth century.
Special hammers—without small faces and sharp corners that might cut the metal—were used to raise the flat sheets of metal into hollow forms, such as pots or the bowls of spoons. Handles for spoons, forks, or knives were shaped by casting. The most common method was to embed a pattern (of gunmetal, wood or plaster) in a two-part frame filled with an adhesive loam mixture, bake it hard, open the frame and remove the pattern, then fill the cavity with molten silver, finally breaking the mold to remove the casting. Pieces fashioned this way showed gritty surfaces that required smoothing with file and pumice.
Sheffield plating was the first silverplating technique used. It consisted of attaching a thin skin of sterling to one or both sides of a copper brick, rolling it into flatsheets, and then working it in a similar manner as silver. This technique was replaced in 1842, when electroplating (or sterling silver deposited by electrolysis on a base metal) was introduced.
The raw material of silverware is stainless steel, sterling silver, or, in the case of silver-plate, a base metal (such as a high-quality copper alloy) over which a layer of silver is electrically deposited.
Stainless steel is a combination of steel, chrome and nickel. The finest grade of metal used in producing quality lines is 18/8 stainless steel. This means that it contains 18 percent chrome, 8 percent nickel. Stainless steel is very popular because of its easy care, durability, and low price.
The majority of silver is obtained as a byproduct of the extraction of lead, copper and zinc. Silver is separated from smelted lead bullion by the Parkes process, in which zinc is added to the molten bullion that has been heated to above the melting point of zinc. When the zinc has dissolved, the mixture is cooled and a crust of zinc-silver alloy forms on the surface, because the silver combines more readily with zinc than with lead. The crust is removed, pressed to remove excess lead and then processed in a retort to recover the zinc for reuse, leaving a silver-lead bullion with a high silver content. Further refining of the bullion is carried out in a cupellation furnace, where air is blown across the surface of the molten metal to oxidize the lead and other impurities to a slag, leaving the silver, which is cast into anode blocks. Final purification of the silver is made by an electrolytic process. Sterling silver consists of 925 pure silver and 75 parts of an alloy (usually copper). This proportion is fixed by law and therefore never varies. The copper alloy adds durability without sacrificing the natural beauty and workability of silver.
Silverplate is the result of a process that bonds pure silver (silver more pure than sterling) to a strong base metal. The resulting tableware is durable, has the look and feel of silver, but is much less expensive than sterling.
Final inspection checks the pieces for chafes, scratches, rough spots between a fork's tines, discoloration, or any other flaws that might have occurred when the pieces were stamped, shaped and polished.
Stainless steel is the preferred tableware for today's customers, and represents the future for flatware manufacturers. According to a senior executive at Oneida, the last major domestic manufacturer of silverware and plated ware in the United States, purchase of sterling and silverplated ware has been declining for the past twenty years, while demand for stainless steel continues to grow.
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Ettlinger, Steve. The Kitchenware Book. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1992.
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— Eva Sideman