It would have been very easy to set the table in the early 1600s. Guests wore their own knives to the table, and forks were only used as cooking tools in the kitchen, so they would not be laid out on the table either.

Except in Italy. At about that time, an English visitor to Italy observed the natives using a device “not used in any other country” and that was “a little fork” which the Italians used to hold meat in place while it was cut. Kate Dolan discusses the history of fork usageThe visitor, Thomas Coryate, soon adopted this fashion himself and when he returned to England his friends including poets Ben Jonson and John Donne made fun of him for his fork habit. Another poet announced a few years later that they “need no forks to make hay with our mouths to throw meat into them.”  Real men did not use forks. But less than 100 years later, everyone in Europe was using them.  As with the transition to dull table knives, using a fork was a fashion statement, and so the implements became more popular first with the upper classes. They carried forks with them just like their ancestors had done with knives.

The concept of a fork-like instrument dates back to at least Roman times, but the devices were used only to spear certain foods or to cook over an open fire. But the idea of using a fork –instead of your fingers–to hold meat steady while cutting it or to convey pieces of food to your mouth was considered weird if not unholy for hundreds of years. The first documented instance of the use of a table fork was by Byzantine princess who married the doge of Venice nearly 1000 years ago. She was criticized by church officials for preferring to use the absurd instrument instead of eating with the fingers God had given her. When she died from plague, people said it was punishment from God from eating with a fork. Church officials were still making fun of the princess and her fork for hundreds of years.

But something changed, and it started with the Italians. Food historian Bee Wilson credits the popularity of pasta, but other sources say that pasta was eaten with the fingers until Americans began covering it with rivers of tomato sauce in the 19th Century. Either way, the Italian fashion eventually spread, and I suspect it was at about the same time that cleanliness became more fashionable.  Years ago I heard that forks were invented as a way to eat without dirtying the enormous white Elizabethan collars that were popular among the upper classes. But the surge in fork popularity seems to occur after the popularity of the ridiculous ruffled collars.

It took a while for the new fork fashion to catch on with the common people, and it seems unclear just how long. Wilson says that knives and spoons far outsold forks until the early 19th Century. Inventories and excavations of 18th Century sites show more fork usage that previously thought. What this means for me is that when I go back and revise the books I’ve written set in the 18th Century, I may have rewrite scenes involving the use — or absence of forks.

I’m glad I can eat messy food with a fork without someone making fun of me (or risking the wrath of God.) But now I also know when I grab food with my fingers, it is not because I am not too lazy to get a fork, it is because I am merely exercising the genteel fashion of an earlier era.

 About the picture:

The forks in the photo are two that I have bought at Ft. Frederick Market Fair in past years. The event is a recreation of an 18th Century market fair (with more “market” and less “fair” then citizens would have seen in the 18th Century). I first purchased the two-pronged, very primitive looking fork. It is designed for holding meat in place while it’s cut, and it’s impossible to use to scoop up cooked bits of meat of vegetables. I know because I tried and felt like an idiot. So then I bought the second fork, which has a bone handle and looks like it’s made of stain (as opposed to stainless) steel. It’s probably a 19th Century style from a time when forks were quite common.

Much of the information in this article comes from Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson (2012).