May 13, 2010

The Table Knife is Born – 1637

As you probably know, people use several different items when eating food—fingers being the most popular and universal. Chopsticks, spoons, knives, and forks are also widespread and ancient. However, for centuries the knives used at dinner tables in the West were sharp-pointed hunting daggers (or special dining knives that were shaped just like sharp-pointed hunting daggers).

Apparently France's Cardinal Richelieu didn't like the fact that his dinner guests picked their teeth with the points of their knives. On this day in 1637, he ordered that the points of his dining knives be ground down into rounded ends.

His new table knives caught on. Everyone in Louis XIV's court wanted a set! Louis XIV himself ordered his dinner knives have rounded tips—and went further to decree that all his subjects follow suit. Eventually, the new table knife spread throughout the European continent, to England, and to the British colonies in the New World.

More than just table knives...

When it comes to dinner manners, we got more from the French than just table knives and not picking our teeth with our knives. We got the word etiquette, a fancy word that means “manners.” Basically, etiquette is a code of behavior for social occasions.

A formal set of manners is at least as ancient as the Fifth Dynasty of the ancient Egyptians. Some of the “good manners” of the past would be unacceptable now. For example, at certain places and times, it was considered good manners to throw one's chicken bones and beef rib bones onto the floor, and to wipe one's fingers on the tablecloth. An early etiquette guide from the Dutch philosopher Erasmus, in 1526, states such gems as:

  • “You should wipe your spoon before passing it to a neighbor."
  • "Do not blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat.”

Etiquette isn't just a set of arbitrary rules. Its purpose is to help people in groups to feel more comfortable. We all benefit from the fact that people know not to spit at the table, for example. We prefer to eat with people who ask for food to be passed rather than reach over us to grab food, and we prefer to eat with people who don't gobble food and slurp soup.

Picture by Chris Robert Santieau

Modern guides to man

Where do modern families look for guides to etiquette? The internet, of course.

Family Education has a comprehensive guide that includes table manners.

Squidoo has a shorter guide, with just 10 rules.

More help with manners.

Hallmark has a set of short animations starring Hoops and Yoyo.

These comics aren't really about good manners. I'd say they're more about the bad variety. Can humor teach us what NOT to do?

Here are some books about manners:
  • The Berenstain Bears Forget their Manners
  • Manners, by Aliki.
  • It's a Spoon, Not a Shovel, by Carolyn Buehner.
  • Say Please, by Virginia Austin
  • Perfect Pigs: An Intro to Manners, by Marc Brown and Stephen Krensky
  • What Do You Say, Dear? and What Do You Do, Dear?, by Sesyle Joslin
  • Monster Manners, by Bethany Roberts

(This list is from the Child Fun website. That website has some games to help kids learn manners, too.)

1 comment:

  1. I've got to get better at wiping my spoon. I always forget that one.