practice of carrying your own knife around to use as both weapon and
eating utensil began to disappear in the 1600’s. First, knives
started to be laid out on the table, along with forks (which were
new). Cases of identical knives were being sold, instead of
personal, individual ones.
knives stopped being sharp, thus taking power away from them
physically, not just personally. The purpose of a knife is to cut,
and for a civilization to deliberately make knives blunter is because
of extreme politeness (or passive-aggressiveness).
As the story goes, in 1637 Cardinal Richelieu (Louis XIII’s chief
advisor) saw a dinner guest using the tip of a double-edged knife to
pick his teeth. The cardinal was horrified, and ordered all his own
knives to be blunted. It’s not known whether he was horrified at the
guest’s manners, or the danger. In 1669, Louis XIV forbade French
cutlers to make pointed dinner-knives. They used to be sharpened on
both sides (like a dagger), but now this changed.
At this time, culture was undergoing some dramatic changes. The
Catholic Church was no longer as unified as it had been, and the
chivalric codes of behaviour were long gone. Things that were once
normal now disgusted people – drinking soup straight from the bowl;
using the fingers to take meat from a common dish; using a single,
sharp knife to cut everything. Table manners and table utensils were
changing, and the Europeans, like the Chinese, began to distrust
sharp knives at table. But unlike the Chinese, they kept them at the
table, blunted and less threatening.
In France, knives were often kept off the table in general (except
for certain tasks such as peeling/cutting fruit, which personal
knives were still used for as always).
But in England, knives stayed on the table and became blunter. Table
knives from the 1500’s and 1600’s look like miniature kitchen knives,
with various blade shapes, from dagger-like to pen-knife, even
scimitar-like. The blade could be double-edged or single-edged.
Knives from the 1700’s are completely different. The blade often
curves gently to the right, ending in a rounded tip.
The way to hold a knife also changed. Sharp knives were held with
the whole hand, in a stabbing pose. Blunt knives were held like we
do now – with the index finger along the spine, and the palm
wrapped around the handle.
The blunting of table knives, and the consequent new way to hold
them, is why many people have bad knife skills in the kitchen.
Holding a kitchen knife like that is actually dangerous – you
should strongly grip the bottom of the blade between thumb and
So the English in the 1700’s sat at table with their pretty, useless
little table knives, trying to avoid any gesture that could suggest
violence. By the late 1700’s, the Sheffield table knives were really
just about display – in high London society, people laid them out
on the table to show off the host’s taste and wealth. They were
beautiful objects, but that was about it.
Carrying a knife with you was very bad manners, now. In 1769, an
Italian man called Joseph Baretti was charged for stabbing a man in
self-defence in London, with a small folding fruit-knife. Baretti
defended himself by saying that on the Continent, it was normal to
carry a sharp knife around for cutting fruit and sweetmeats. A
century ago, he wouldn’t have had to explain this.
The Sheffield cutlers used carbon steel for table knives, which was a
better metal for forging than previous metals used. But for taste,
it was dreadful. Non-stainless steel reacts badly with acid, turning
black, and giving a gross metallic taste/aftertaste to the food.
This is why even today, the French consider it bad manners to cut
salad leaves – vinaigrette in particular reacted badly.
And fish. For centuries, people had eaten fish with lemon – but
until stainless steel was invented in the 1920’s, lemony fish would
be ruined if you ate it with a knife. In the 1800’s, silver fish
knives were invented – silver is non-corrosive and doesn’t react
with lemon juice. Of course only the rich could afford them. They
had a scalloped shape, originally to distinguish them in the cutlery
drawer, and because fish was soft and didn’t need strong/sharp
cutting. If you didn’t have silver fish knives, then you’d use two
forks, or a fork & piece of bread – or put up with the gross
Stainless steel is also called inox steel, or non-rusting steel. It
is a metal alloy with a high chromium content. What happens is that
the chromium forms an invisible layer of chromium oxide when exposed
to the air. This stops the knives from rusting, and keeps them
In 1908, Friedrich Krupp built a 366-tonne yacht called Germania
with a chrome steel hull. Before WW1, Harry Brearley (of
Thomas Firth and Sons, in Sheffield) was trying to find a metal for
gun barrels that wouldn’t corrode. This led to stainless steel
At first, stainless steel was hard to work in all except the simplest
of cutlery patterns. But WW2’s industrial innovations meant that
stainless steel knives could now be made cheaply and efficiently, in
the shapes people wanted.
This is a Yang ring I made for a dear friend in exchange for some seriously delicious oatmeal raisin cookies. I think it came out really nice, and he loves it, too!
The ring is stainless steel (so no green fingers!), engraved with Yang’s symbol and the words “I Burn.” The symbol and text are colored with an opaque, enamel-like ink, and the ink and ring are protected with a clear epoxy resin.