Research at the California Academy of Sciences


CAS 0389-1643A,B: 19th C. Italian or Spanish knife w/ sheath

CAS 0389-1643 A,BKnives have been used as weapons, tools, and eating utensils since prehistoric times. However, it is only in fairly recent times that knives have been designed specifically for table use. Because hosts did not provide cutlery for their guests during the Middle Ages in Europe, most people carried their own knives, similar to the one at the left, in sheaths attached to their belts. These knives were narrow and their sharply pointed ends were used to spear food and then raise it to one's mouth.

CAS 0389-2106, -1973, -1960Long after knives were adopted for table use, however, they continued to be used as weapons. Thus, the multi-purpose nature of the knife always posed the conceivable threat of danger at the dinner table. However, once forks began to gain popular acceptance, (forks being more efficient for spearing food), there was no longer any need for a pointed tip at the end of a dinner knife. In 1669, King Louis XIV of France decreed all pointed knives on the street or the dinner table illegal, and he had all knife points ground down like those to the right in order to reduce violence.

CAS 0389-2106: 19th C. German (?) knife (left)
CAS 0389-1973: 18th C. German knife (center)
CAS 0389-1960: 18th C. (?) English (?) knife (right)

The grinding down of knife points led to other design changes. Cutlers began to make the blunt ends of knives wider and rounder so that any food which fell between the two tines of a fork could be piled on the knife. In fact, many knives were designed with a handle like a
CAS 0389-1664, -1921, -1922pistol grip and a blade which curved backward so the wrist would not have to be contorted to get food to the mouth
as can be seen to the left.

CAS 0389-1664: 18th C. English knife (left)
CAS 0389-1921 & 0389-1922: late 18th C.
           English knife and fork set (right)

Interestingly, this birth of blunt-tipped knives in Europe had a lasting effect on American dining etiquette. At the beginning of the 18th Century, very few forks were CAS 0389-1610, -1990, -1543being imported to America. However, knives were being imported and their tips became progressively blunter. Because Americans had very few forks and no longer had sharp-tipped knives, they had to use spoons in lieu of forks. They would use the spoon to steady food as they cut and then switch the spoon to the opposite hand in order to scoop up food to eat. This distinctly American style of eating continued even after forks became commonplace in the United States.

By the beginning of the 19th Century, additional tines were being added to forks in Europe, and knives began to lose their curved, bulbous curved tips like those to the right.


CAS 0389-1610 & 0389-1990: late 19th C. Dutch or
German fork and knife set (left)
CAS 0389-1543: early 20th C. German knife (right)




History of Eating Utensils Home




Portable cutlery


References & Credits

Anthropology Home

Online Exhibits Home

CAS Home

Return to top of page