Making Silverware in the Good Old Days

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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A week or so ago, at the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, one of the new gadgets demonstrated was called the “HapiFork.” Inside the handle are sensors that time the interval between bites and vibrates if you’re eating too fast. In addition, the fork sends your Smart Phone information on how long it takes you to eat, how long you wait between bites, and how many bites you take. A spokesman for the creator says: “We created (the HapiFork) to help people take control of their happiness, health and fitness.” And it costs just $99.99 including battery and charger!

Now, to get away from what I consider silly, expensive, useless electronic items and back to reality.

When we’re sitting down to a table that’s been set for a fancy dinner, we usually find two forks, one for salad and one with which to eat the main courses. No one gives much thought to how these indispensable items of what we term “silverware” are made. Today, and for more than a century and a half, cutlery items, such as knives, forks and spoons, are machine made; however that was not always the case.

Sheffield, during the 19th century a gritty, smoky steel town in north-central England, became famous for “Sheffield Steel,” from which high quality cutting utensils have been manufactured since at least the 1600s.

In a reprint of the April 27, 1844 issue of Penny Magazine is an account of a visit to a factory in Sheffield where forks were being made by a group of men whose title was, appropriately enough, “Fork-maker.” Among the other job titles in the cutlery factories were: “Cutlery Caster,” “Tableknife-maker,” “Penknife-maker,” “Razor-maker,” and even “Spade and Shovel-maker.”

I found the account of how forks were made in 1844 interesting and I hope you do as well.

To make a fork, the workman started with a rod of “blister steel” (a low quality steel made by heating iron and charcoal together in a clay or stone container for at least a week) about 3/8 inch square. After heating the rod red-hot, the handle tang, the shank and the flat part were roughly formed on an anvil with a hammer.

A punch press was used to form the prongs and to give the fork its proper contour. This press consisted of a large anvil with two heavy iron rods extending vertically from its surface to the ceiling. The rods acted as guides for the hammer, or stamp, which weighed about one hundred pounds. The workman raised the stamp to a height of six or seven feet by means of a rope over a pulley.

On the top surface of the anvil, as well as on the underside of the stamp hammer, were mounted a die and a stamp properly shaped to cut the tines and form the fork. The fork blank was heated and placed into the die, the hammer was released and, when the stamp struck the blank, the prongs and the middle part of the fork were formed.

The forks were annealed by heating and gradually cooled, after which they were hand filed “… all around and between the prongs.” The next step was to re-harden the fork by heating again and then suddenly dunking it in water.

Now came the process which the author called “… one of the most lamentable operations in the whole series of manufacturing processes, from its deleterious effects on the health.” Since this was prior to the discovery of a process for silver plating (which was developed in Sheffield about 1845), the forks were ground smooth and polished, and the grinding process then in use would have never passed OSHA muster.

The grind stones were sharp gritted and almost white, some 18 inches in diameter and about two inches wide. “The grinder sits on a ‘horse’ or stool, bends over the stone, holds the fork crosswise against the stone, and grinds all parts of the surface to a smooth and even condition.”

For unstated reasons, there was no water used in the grinding process; it was done dry. This resulted in lots of sparks, but the main problem was that the “… face and head of the grinder are enveloped in an atmosphere loaded with small particles of steel and grindstone, which are inhaled into the lungs.”

The Penny Magazine author recounts the result: “… the workmen infallibly fall victims to a distressing disease known as the ‘grinders’ asthma. It is said that there are hardly any fork grinders more than forty years of age, since the disease carries off most of them before they reach that time of life.”

The problem had not been ignored however, and there had been efforts to introduce magnetic and ventilating devices “… to devise a remedy for this sad evil …” but the workmen themselves rejected any lifesaving equipment. The author wondered if the rejection was due to the inconvenience of the equipment, or because the “… grinders wish the occupation to remain unhealthy (so) wages may remain high.”

Now that the fork had been made and polished, it needed a handle, or haft, as they were called. This is where the “Haft and scale maker,” or handle maker came in (the flat pieces of material which make up the handles of pocket and pen knives were called “scales.” The hafts were sawn into small oblong pieces of ivory, horn, bone or wood on a small circular saw, and then shaped and polished by hand, before being drilled to accept the tang.

Horn could also be heated, softened, and pressed into a mold to provide handles with ornamental devices. Stag horn was usually left natural, while the pointed tips of ox and buffalo horns were usually left intact. Horn could be bleached or stained to give different effects.

It’s fascinating to read how common, everyday things, which are taken for granted today, required so much dangerous hand labor to make in the days before mechanization.

A “Haft and scale maker” using a circular saw to cut elephant tusks into blanks for making ivory handles for cutlery.
(Drawing from Penny Magazine)

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