Knife, Fork, and Spoon Etiquette in the 1800s

“The knife and fork were not made for playthings, and should not be as such when people are waiting at the table for food.”[1] This was one of the many gems of advice offered by nineteenth century etiquette experts who saw appropriate table etiquette as way to display proper breeding. Eating a meal in the 1800s was not a simple thing. There were rules to be considered, and it was noted that table manners were “like the hyphen-marks of grammar, which unite without confusing.”[2] It was also why etiquette books advised people to avoid sinning against the simplest laws of table etiquette, as doing so not only displayed a want of breeding but also “actually annoy[ed] those about them … [with] their sins of omission and commission.”[3] This also meant that proper etiquette needed to be observed when using the main instruments of dining, the knife, the fork, and the spoon.

Knife, Fork, and Spoon Etiquette

Etiquette books frequently noted that a knife was not a fork and a fork was not a knife. This was why Our Deportment, Or, The Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society asserted that “the knife should only be used for cutting meats and hard substances, while the fork, held in the left hand is used in carrying food into the mouth.”[4] The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness echoed this same sentiment, “Never put a knife into your mouth, not even with cheese, … [as that] should be eaten with a fork.”[5] There was also this knife and fork advice given to gentlemen in particular:

“Your fork is intended to carry the food from your plate to your mouth, and no gentleman ever eats with his knife.”[6]

Moreover, if you needed to send your plate to be refilled, you were not supposed to send your knife and fork along with the plate but rather “put them upon a piece of bread, or hold them in your hand,”[7] and, at the end of meal, you were supposed to cross the knife and fork across the plate as an indication you were finished. (These last two pieces of advice, however, were sometimes contradicted depending upon the etiquette book.) When it came to the knife, it never acquired the same exalted status as the fork because

“[The] fork … subjugated the knife … [and] the subugation [sic] of the knife is so complete … any attempt to give the knife undue prominence at [the] table is looked upon as a glaring offense against good taste. This aversion to the use of the knife probably arose first from the more agreeable sensation to the lips that is produced by the delicate tines of the fork in contrast to the broad blade of a knife. Also the fact that the steel of which knives were … made, impart[ed], by contact, a disagreeable flavor to many articles of food.”[8]

Diners Illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson, Public Domain

Diners illustrated by artist Thomas Rowlandson. Public domain.

This disagreeable taste was also one reason why it was advised:

“Silver knives and forks must always be used with fruits, as steel becomes colored by contact with the fruit juices and imparts a disagreeable flavor.”[9]

Because both the knife and fork were involved when cutting things, some people thought it awkward to shift them between the hands and offered this advice:

“It is a good plan to accustom yourself to using your fork with the left hand … as you thus avoid the awkwardness of constantly pass the fork from your left to your right, and back again, when cutting your food and eating it.”[10]

In Social Life, Or, The Manners and Customs of Polite Society it was noted that “fork daintiness should be cultivated,”[11] and as the fork was identified as the main eating instrument diners were expected to use it properly. For instance, a person was only to take what “the fork … will easily carry and no more … [and to not] load the fork with meat and vegetables at the same time … [because it was] an offence against manners and digestion.”[12] When using the fork it was not to “be kept against the palm, as to do so would give it an awkward appearance in lifting to the lips.”[13] There were also rules if the fork was used in the left hand rather than right:

“It should be lifted to the lips, tines pointing downward [and] … the fork, which should convey but a very moderate amount of food, should always be carried to the mouth in a position as nearly parallel to it as possible. This does away with the thrusting motion and the awkward sweep of the elbow that is so annoying to the onlooker.”[14]

Knife, fork, and spoon etiquette

Knife, fork, and plate. Author’s collection.

Additionally, the fork was “used to convey back to the plate bits of bone or other substances unfit to swallow,”[15] and people were admonished to eject these bits of bone or substances “quietly upon the fork and quickly deposit them upon the edge of [their] … plate.”[16]

There was also plenty of advice when using a spoon. First, “never use a spoon for anything but liquids,”[17] and, second, “never touch either your knife or your fork until after you have finished eating your soup.”[18] When a person finished their soup, they were advised to leave the spoon on the soup plate, so that it could be removed simultaneously with the bowl and plate. In addition, when eating soup, people were also admonished to “never blow your soup if it is too hot, but wait until it cools, [and] never raise your plate to your lips, but eat with your spoon.”[19] There were further details about soup eating:

“Your soup you eat with a spoon — I don’t know what else you could eat it with — but then it must be one of good size … I beg you will not make that odious noise in drinking [or slurping] your soup. It is louder than a dog lapping water … It is [also] not custom to take two helpings of soup … [as] it is liable to keep other people waiting, which … is a selfish and intolerable habit.”[20]

Despite all the knife, fork, and spoon etiquette, there were still a few things eaten with the fingers. “Bread is, of course, eaten with the fingers, and it would be absurd to carve it with your knife and fork.”[21] Fruit was another regularly finger-eaten food.

“Grapes are plucked from their stems and the pulp squeezed into the mouth, while the fingers hold the skin which is then laid on side [of] the plate. This is far daintier than to put the fruit in the mouth and then eject the skin into the hand or upon the plate. Bananas are peeled and eaten from the plate with a fork. Oranges are skinned, divided into sections, and eaten from the fingers, rejecting the seeds into the hand … Pineapple is the only fruit that must be eaten with a knife and fork.”[22]

Dining Out, Public Domain

Dining out. Public domain.

No matter whether a knife, fork, spoon, or the fingers were used, The Habits of Good Society noted there was a way to determine the social status of a person:

“Let us go to dinner, and I will soon tell you whether you are a well-bred man or not; and here let me premise that what is good manners for a small dinner is good manners for a large one and vice versa.“[23]


  • [1] Young, John H. Our Deportment, Or, The Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society, 1879, p. 123.
  • [2] Etiquette for Gentlemen, or Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society, 1847, p. 19.
  • [3] Cooke, Maud C., Social Life, Or, The Manners and Customs of Polite Society, 1896, p. 216.
  • [4] Young, John H., p. 124.
  • [5] Hartley, Cecil B., The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1873, p. 58.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 55.
  • [7] Young, John H., p. 124.
  • [8] Cooke, Maud C., p. 216.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 226.
  • [10] Hartley, Cecil B., p. 56.
  • [11] Cooke, Maud C., p. 216.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 217.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Hartley, Cecil B., p. 58.
  • [18] Ibid., p. 54.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Ibid., p. 60.
  • [21] Ibid., p. 58.
  • [22] Cooke, Maud C., p. 226.
  • [23] The Habits of Good Society, 1863, p. 229.

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