The correct name for spoons and forks is actually flatware. Cutlery – if one was being pedantic – actually refers to knives! The humble spoon has been in existence for thousands of years, and although forks have also existed for a similar time period, they were rare until the 18th century. Complete sets of flatware i.e. tablespoons, table forks, dessert spoons, dessert forks and teaspoons are a relatively modern phenomenon, and in this complete form, are only known to exist from 1750 onwards.
The earliest known silver fork to be made in England was in 1632 in London, during the reign of Charles I (it is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum). The forks of the later 17th century (which are much rarer than spoons) have three prongs or “tines” as they are commonly known. The fork remained with three prongs until the mid-18th century until it was superseded by the fork one normally sees today (i.e. four prongs). The earliest complete flatware services were generally designed to be laid with the bowls and the prongs of the fork lying face down.
By the 1770s and 1780s, it was more common to lay the table as is the norm today with the prongs facing up (if one goes to France, the spoons and forks are often still laid face down). The later 18th and early 19th century gave way to an explosion in the varieties of patterns that were becoming available, and also in the variety of serving implements and accoutrements for the table.
Items such as fish knives and forks started to appear in the mid-19th century and the round bowl soup spoon was created around 1890 (although when watching 18th and 19th century dramas, one often sees them being used despite them not existing!) The knife has been around since time immemorial, but most knives in the 18th and 19th century had carbon steel blades affixed to a silver handle. The fixing was generally achieved by pouring molten pitch (tar) into the handle and then pushing the blade of the knife, which had a tang affixed, into the base of the knife.
This technique is generally not used today, as most knives today are stainless steel blade affixed in some sort of epoxy resin. The invention of stainless steel in 1913 was a bit of a game-changer, as no more did the blades rust as they did previously (although there is a moot point if they cut as efficiently). Methods of the manufacture of spoons and forks have changed throughout the last few centuries. Up to the third quarter of the 19th century, all spoons and forks were made out of a block of silver by hammering and annealing the metal by hand.
This was a long and laborious process, but the result of this hard work made the flatware very durable. By the late 19th century a great deal of flatware was produced in a more mechanical way, which resulted in far less work; however, the result was a somewhat inferior product which was not as durable. The hand hammering and annealing processes of earlier times often ensures that a 200-year-old flatware set is found in a very good condition; where one which is only 50-years-old made by machine can look worn and tatty. When buying flatware, and indeed most other products, always keep in mind that in the 19th century and earlier, materials were expensive and human labour cheap.
An interesting contrast would be comparing old prices. For example, in 1787 a tablespoon cost £1.50 to make (the equivalent of £300-400 today) and to engrave 84 family crests on a whole set of spoons and forks was just over a pound (around £250 in today’s money). The value of the spoon in 1787 was 50 per cent more than the engraving. The spoon from 1787 can be bought, for say £70 today, but the engraving today would cost about £3000 (now we know why modern buildings and other products are so devoid of character and artistry).