THE STORY OF FLATWARE©

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Knives?     Food was cut with sharpened rocks and shells.
Forks?       Food was speared with twigs.
Spoons?    Food was scooped with cupped hands.

Rocks, shells, twigs and cupped hands were serving utensils.
Our ancestors used fingers for eating.

Eating implements evolved over many millennia.  The Book of Hours provides a glimpse of 15th Century eating mannerisms and we see only knives used to cut pieces of game, held with the fingers.  Leather finger coverings were used to handle meats boiled in fat. Knives had very sharp points; it was centuries before they were rounded to prevent people from killing each other at table and stories of knives as conveyors of poison—apparently are true.

Horsemen and hunters carried two-pronged forks, a knife and sharpener. Traveling implements consisted of a handle with inserts for a blade and fork which fit into notches on the back of a small bowl-like spoon.

Historians claim Italians were the first to use forks — considered an excessive sign of refinement.  Catherine de Medici brought forks from Italy to France; for macaroni?  As tines increased from two to four—as our fingers—forks became more bowl-like.

Hosts did not supply eating utensils; dinner guests had to bring their own. The very wealthy used eating implements of gold and in descending order; silver, brass, bronze and iron. Silver coins were hammered into spoons, forks and knife handles — and often embellished with mother-of-pearl, enamel, porcelain and petra dura.

By the 18th Century, individual place setting knives, forks and spoons made of silver, resembled what we use today and call silverware — even when it’s made of stainless steel.  As culinary arts expanded, a repertoire of place setting and serving pieces evolved for each course as well as for specific foods.  Special knives and forks were designed so diners could debone their own fish; table appointments had become status symbols.

When did we begin to call knives, forks and spoons– flatware?
Probably when category labels were established for commercial classification purposes.

Silversmithing, brought to colonial America by English craftsmen, centered in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.  Artisan-made sterling flatware soon graced tables of the wealthy. By the mid-1800’s, many artisan businesses evolved into factories capable of mass-producing excellent quality sterling flatware.

Well known U.S.commercial producers were: Reed & Barton (1824),  Gorham (1831), Wallace (1833),  Kirk-Steiff  (1846), Towle (1857) and International Silver (1898).

The late 19th and early 20th Centuries introduced electricity,
radios, refrigerators, typewriters, telephones, steel mills,
automobiles and movies—which generated jobs, leisure time
and disposable income.  

Sterling flatware  began to grace ‘proper’ dining tables of the
middle-classes who used silver-plate for ‘everyday’. The U.S.
flatware industry was alive and well.

A post-WW I demographic shift to cities ended America’s agrarian economy. We welcomed the ’Roaring 20’s —  soon disillusioned by the Great Depression —then united by WW II. Prosperity followed with a proliferation of goods generated by educated GI’s, increased numbers of working women, suburbia and an explosion of baby-boomers.

The American Sterling Silversmiths Guild ran heavy promotions of sterling flatware for brides and also for baby gifts. By 1950, sterling silver flatware had become a staple on bridal registeries. Pre-teens poured endlessly over sterling flatware advertisements in SEVENTEEN MAGAZINE.

After all, a favorite sterling pattern guaranteed a gracious lifestyle!

But the 1960’s juxtaposed computer science, the Cold War, Civil Rights and Women’s Movements with hippies, an anti-establishment uniform of jeans and the ‘me’  generation. This dichotomy continued through the 70’s with Watergate, Vietnam, energy crises, inflation and much disillusion. Sterling flatware?  Scarcely a priority!

By the mid-1980’s, most of my FIT students had no desire to own sterling or silver-plate flatware. It was labor intensive to make and the students thought it was labor intensive to own. Pampering knives and forks didn’t ‘fit’ their planned lifestyle. How prophetic!

Since the U.S. government suspended silver bullion sales by the treasury in November 1961, silver prices fluctuated from a low of $1.29 a troy ounce to a high of $49.45.

The average price of a troy ounce of silver for the past five years:
2010:     $ 20.19 
2011:      $ 35.12  
2012:      $ 31.15    
2013:      $ 23.79 
2014:      $ 19.08
2016:      $ 14.56

Erratic rises and falls of the price of a troy ounce of silver are generated by global supply and demand for pure silver—not only for high-tech industrial applications but also for personal and government investment holdings.

Volatile retail price changes and continual lifestyle changes are largely responsible for declining consumer demand for sterling silver jewelry, flatware and hollow ware. Flatware manufacturers were most negatively affected: resulting in mergers, buy-outs, factory closings and bankruptcies.

On February 12, 2011 the New York Times reported:
“Spoons and forks, the metal flatware that everyone uses,are no longer made in the U.S.  The last factory in an industry stretching back to colonial times closed eight months ago in Sherrill, N.Y., a  small community in the foothills of the Adirondacks. 80 employees lost their jobs.”

The future of sterling flatware?

If you need to complete your sterling service, or want to purchase
new sterling flatware….read on….

Through licensing and acquisitions, patterns designed, manufactured and marketed by Gorham, Towle, Wallace, International Silver, and Kirk-Steiff  are currently made and marketed by Lifetime Brands Inc. in San German, Puerto Rico, an American Territory and sold in many U.S. retail stores.

FLATWARE TODAY?

With little exception, flatware of any metal sold in U.S. retail stores is imported. 

When I comparison shop diverse brands, metals and patterns of flatware in diverse stores, I find diverse countries of origin — and diverse quality.  Some is excellent, some good, some less-than-good. You must judge the quality for yourself and this series of posts will help you.

Flatware quality is determined by raw materials and production methods, not price. We still use our fingers but we’ve come a long way from using rocks, shells, twigs and cupped hands.

We need timeless, unbiased standards of quality for raw materials and production methods (e.g. walls of each fork tine must be polished) and labeling transparency. Information is power. 

Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY

MY NEXT POST:  FLATWARE IN OUR LIVES