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Filing Cabinet - Jamestown

Colonial Table Manners:
The Fork

In 1609, Elizabeth and Abigail would have eaten their food with a wooden spoon, a knife and their fingers . . . but not with a fork.

Thomas Coryat in a book published in London, 1611, claims to be one of the first Englishman to use a fork while traveling in Italy.

"I observed a custome in all those Italian Cities and Townes through which I passed that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither doe I think that any other nation of Christendome doth use it, but only Italy. The Italian, and also most strangers that are cormorant in Italy, does alwaies at their meales, use a little fork when they cut the meate; for awhile with their knife, which they hold in one hand, they cut the meate out of the dish, they fasten their forke which they hold in their other hande, upon the same dish, so that whatsoever he be that sitteth in the company of others at meate, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meate with his fingers, from which all at the table doe cut he will give occasion of offence unto the company as having transgressed the laws of good manners, insomuch for his error he shall be at least browbeaten, if not reprehended in words.  This forme of feeding I understand is generally used in all places of Italy, their forks being for the most part made of iron or steel, and some of silver, but these are used only by gentlemen. The reason of this their curiosity is because the Italian cannot endure by any means to have his dish touched by fingers, seeing that all men's fingers are not alike cleane. Hereupon I myself thought to imitate the Italian fashion by this forke cutting of meate, not only while I was in Italy, but also in Germany, and often-times in England since I came home."

Thomas Coryat, Coryat's Crudities Hastily Gobbled Up in Five Months Travels in France, Savoy, Italy, &c. (1611)

Even when the fork was first used in England, it was used to spear a piece of food, lift it from the plate or bowl, or shake the sauce from it, but not to put the food in the person’s mouth.  Once the food was speared, the individual would use his fingers to take the food from the fork and put it in his mouth.

The first fork in America was owned by Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts in 1633 and was in a leather case with a knife and a bodkin.  It is doubtful that Governor Winthrop used the fork in the modern custom of today.  According to Wallace Nutting, in his book Vermont Beautiful (1922), the fork sent to Governor Winthrop in the Massachusetts colony was accompanied by a note that read:  “A fork for the useful applycation of which I leave to your discretion.” 

The first notation of a fork in Virginia was in an inventory of the estate of Richard Hobbs of Rappahannock, who died in 1677.  Even then, that inventory includes only a single fork.

1 Records of Rappahannock County, Vol. 1677-1682,  p. 11, Virginia State Library.

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