The Origin of the Fork

The following is an article from Uncle John’s All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader.

Of the three eating utensils we normally use, only forks have a modern origin. Knives and spoons are prehistoric- but as recently as 1800, forks weren’t commonly used in America. Some food for thought…


Centuries ago, few people had ever heard of a “place setting.” When a large piece of meat was set on the table (sometimes on a platter, sometimes directly on the table), diners grabbed the whole thing with their free hand… then pulled out a knife and sliced off a piece with their other hand. Most eating was done with fingers: Common people ate with all five, while nobles -who understood sophisticated table manners- ate with only three (thumb, forefinger, and middle).

At that time, there were no utensils. In fact, most men owned just one multipurpose blade, which, in addition to carving food, was used for fighting, hunting, and butchering animals. But wealthy nobles had always been able to afford a different knife for each purpose, and by the Middle Ages, they had developed a setting of two knives, for very formal dining. One knife was thrust into a large piece of meat to hold it in place on a plate, while the second was used to cut off a smaller piece, which the eater speared and placed in is mouth.


One of the drawbacks of cutting a piece of meat while holding it in place with a knife is that the meat has a tendency to “rotate in place like a wheel on an axle,” Henry Petroski writes in The Evolution of Useful Things. “Frustration with knives, especially in their shortcoming in holding meat steady for cutting, eventually led to the development of the fork.” The name comes from furca, the Latin word for a farmer’s pitchfork.

The first fork commonly used in Europe was a miniature version of the big carving fork used to spear turkeys and roasts in the kitchen. It had only two “tines” or prongs, spaced far enough apart to hold meat in place while cutting it; but apparently it wasn’t something you stuck in your mouth and ate with -that was still the knife’s job.


Byzantine Fork and Spoon

Those first table forks probably originated at the royal courts of the Middle East, where they were in use as early as the seventh century. About 1100 AD they appeared in the Tuscany region of Italy, but they were considered “shocking novelties,” and were ridiculed and condemned by clergy, who insisted that “only human fingers, created by God, were worthy to touch God’s bounty.” Forks were “effeminate pieces of finery,” as one historian puts it, used by sinners and sissies but not by decent, God-fearing folk.

“An Italian historian recorded a dinner at which a Venetian noblewoman used a fork of her own design,” Charles Panati write in The Extraordinary Origins of Ordinary Things, “and incurred the rebuke of several clerics present for her ‘excessive sign of refinement.’ The woman died days after the meal, supposedly from the plague, but clergymen preached that her death was divine punishment, a warning to others contemplating the affectation of a fork.”


Early French Forks 

Thanks to these derogatory associations, more than 250 years passed before forks finally came into wide use in Italy. In the rest of Europe they were virtually unheard of. Catherine de Medici finally brought them to France in the 1500s when she became queen. And in 1608 an Englishman named Thomas Coryate traveled to Italy and saw people eating with forks; the sight was so peculiar that he made note of it in his book Crudities Hastily Gobbled Up in Five Months:

The Italians… do always at their meals use a little fork when they cut their meat… Should [anyone] unadvisedly touch the dish of meat with his fingers from which all at the table do cut, he will give occasion of offense unto the company, as having transgressed the laws of good manners, insomuch that for his error he shall be at least browbeaten if not reprehended in words… The Italian cannot by any means indure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not alike clean.

Coryate brought some forks with him to England and presented one to Queen Elizabeth, who was so thrilled by the utensil that she had additional ones made from gold, coral, and crystal. But they remained little more than a pretentious fad of the royal court.

Fork Use 1624

Forks became more popular during the late 17th century, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that they were widely used in continental Europe as a means of conveying food “from plate to mouth.” The reason: French nobles saw forks as a way to distinguish themselves from commoners. “The fork became a symbol of luxury, refinement, and status,” writes Charles Panati. “Suddenly, to touch food with even three bare fingers was gauche.” A new custom developed- when an invitation to dinner was received, a servant frequently was sent ahead with a fine leather case containing a knife, fork, and spoon to be used at dinner later.


EĢdouard Manet's Oysters 1862

But before this revolution took place, the fork had to be redesigned. The first forks were completely useless when it came to scooping peas and other loose food into the mouth- the gap between the tines was too large. So cutlery makers began adding a third tine to their forks, and by the early 18th century, a fourth. “Four appears to have been the optimum [number],” Henry Petroski writes in The Evolution of Useful Things. “Four tines provide a relatively broad surface and yet do not feel too wide for the mouth. Nor does a four-tined fork have so many tines that it resembles a comb, or function like one when being pressed into a piece of meat.”


One of the last places the fork caught on in the Western world was colonial America. In fact, forks weren’t even commonly used until the time of the Civil War; until then, people just ate with knives or their fingers. In 1828, for example, the English writer Francis Trollope wrote of some general, colonels, and majors aboard a Mississippi steamboat who had “the rightful manner of feeding with their knives, tip the whole blade seemed the enter the mouth.” And as late as 1864, one etiquette manual complained that “many persons hold forks awkwardly, as if not accustomed to them.”

(Title image credit: David Jackson)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader.

The 13th book in the series by the Bathroom Reader's Institute has 504 pages crammed with fun facts, including articles on the biggest movie bombs ever, the origin and unintended use of I.Q. test, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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