“Knives were the first pieces of silverware,” writes Richard Osterberg in “Sterling Silver Flatware.” Long before we had forks or spoons - much less individualized forms of all three - there were knives. Over the centuries, a remarkable diversity of knives has evolved.
Table knives were created to address a single function: to cut meat. At the time of the knife’s invention, food was consumed by hand, and getting meat into bite-sized portions was the role of a sharp knife. Metal knives from Sheffield, England are dated from as early as the 1200s, and knives of stone and obsidian predate that by centuries around the globe. In the Middle Ages, the presence of tableware was uncommon, and the pieces that did exist were crude by today’s standards. Often, wealthy people traveled with their own utensils, including their knives.
The shape of the knife, like that of most things, has changed with time. Legend has it that Cardinal Richlieu demanded knives used at his table have blunt ends. It seems a frequent guest at his table used a sharp knife to pick his teeth, and this so annoyed the Cardinal that he mandated blunt-ended knives. Another tale cites King Louie XIV as the source for blunt-ended knives, based on his passage of a 1669 law making it illegal to carry a pointed knife. Blunt-ended knives worked well for cutting, and sharp-ended ones were more often used for fighting - thus the law sought to avoid violence when tempers flared. Whatever the cause, sharp-ended table knives seem to have been doomed in seventeenth-century France in favor of blunt-ended ones.
Design and style have also shaped and reshaped our sense of what the blade of a table knife should look like. The idea of an individual carrying his or her own flatware gave way to the practice of hosts and the inns of the time providing eating utensils. This custom evolved into the provision of matching sets of eating utensils by the early 1800s. Once a place setting was a desired table feature (and changes in manufacturing made it possible and affordable for people to begin to acquire such objects), the explosion of flatware and knife forms began.
The nineteenth century saw the advent of dinner knives, place knives, luncheon knives, dessert knives, steak knives, fish knives, junior knives, tea knives, breakfast knives, fruit knives, butter knives (or spreaders), orange knives, and more. In general, the most-used knife over time has been the dinner knife. It is the largest of the knives (usually 9 or more inches in length) that are included in a place setting, and may be called a “place size, large” or “table” knife. The oldest patterns and forms will have blunt blades, with more recent ones having French-styled blades, and the newest having “modern” blades. That is a general rule, but of course there are exceptions. Currently, a form of the smaller place knife is more popular than the dinner knife. Place knives came into popularity after World War II, and are usually sized between the larger dinner knife and the smaller luncheon knife. Luncheon knives (7 to 8 1/2 inches) are smaller yet and, used with a similar down-sized luncheon fork, often provide utensils more accommodating to the smaller hands of women.
Looking more closely at the shape of the knife blades, the “blunt blade,” the oldest form, has long, parallel, straight sides and a rounded end. The bottom side of the blade, near the handle, has a small indent or notch to indicate the bottom from the top of the knife. To some this shape of blade might resemble a metal tongue depressor.
The “old French” blade has one side that has a slight curve. The tip of the old French blade is mostly blunt, and also has a notch or indent on the bottom side of the blade near the handle.
The “new French” blade has slight curves on both sides of the blade, and an indent or bottom side notch near the handle.
Modern blades are most common on stainless patterns, and lack the notch or indent near the blade/handle juncture.
The use of stainless steel after World War II dramatically changed knives on the table. Older knives often had blades of silver-plated steel. Contact over time with salt caused the blades to pit. If the blades were silver-plated, once the plate wore off the blade would rust. All of that changed with stainless steel. The century-old practice of setting a blade of a second, more durable, metal into a silver handle passed as stainless steel proved more durable and quickly became the choice for tableware knife blades.