Although the origin of the fork may go back to Ancient Greece, its use in the average household was most likely not normalised until the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, where they were in common use by the 4th century.
Records show that by the 9th century in some elite circles of Persia a similar utensil known as a barjyn was in limited use. By the 10th century, the table fork was in common use throughout the Middle East.
Chronographers mention the astonishment that the Byzantine princess Theophanu caused to the Western Europeans as she was using a fork instead of her hands when she was eating (she moved to the west because she married the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II).
In addition, according to Peter Damian, the Byzantine princess Maria Argyropoulina brought some golden forks to Venice, when she married Giovanni Orseolo, the son of the Doge Pietro II Orseolo in 1004. Damian condemned the fork as “vanity”.
The same story (with Maria Argyropoulina) was said about the Byzantine princess Theodora Doukaina who came to Venice to marry the Doge Domenico Selvo and used forks at the meals.
By the 11th century, the table fork had become increasingly prevalent in the Italian peninsula before other European regions because of historical ties with Byzantium and, as pasta became a greater part of the Italian diet, continued to gain popularity, displacing the long wooden spike formerly used since the fork’s three spikes proved better suited to gathering the noodles.
By the 14th century the table fork had become commonplace in Italy, and by 1600 was almost universal among the merchant and upper classes.
It was proper for a guest to arrive with his own fork and spoon enclosed in a box called a cadena; this usage was introduced to the French court with Catherine de’ Medici’s entourage.
Although in Portugal forks were first used around 1450 by Infanta Beatrice, Duchess of Viseu, King Manuel I of Portugal’s mother, only by the 16th century, when they had become part of Italian etiquette, did forks enter into common use in Southern Europe, gaining some currency in Spain, and gradually spreading to France.
The rest of Europe did not adopt the fork until the 18th century.
The fork’s adoption in northern Europe was slower. Its use was first described in English by Thomas Coryat in a volume of writings on his Italian travels (1611), but for many years it was viewed as an unmanly Italian affectation.
Some writers of the Roman Catholic Church expressly disapproved of its use; St. Peter Damian seeing it as “excessive delicacy”.
It was not until the 18th century that the fork became commonly used in Great Britain, although some sources say that forks were common in France, England and Sweden already by the early 17th century.
The fork did not become popular in North America until near the time of the American Revolution. The standard four-tine design became current in the early 19th century.
The usage of the utensil expanded to lower classes in the nineteenth century due to innovation and discovery.
They became an affordable option following the invention of electroplating in England during the 1840’s. Around the same time, silver was found in the Comstock Lode and other places throughout the west, making it less expensive in the United States.
Now retired Curator and Head of the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt, Sarah Coffin, said: “Suddenly, there was a boom of ingenuity to create the most interesting and efficient fork for every single type of food so nobody could say Americans weren’t as sophisticated as their European counterparts.”
Whereas the fork itself used to be a status symbol, now wealth and class were demonstrated by the knowledge of which fork was appropriate and where it belonged on the table.
There were forks for everything–cherries, pickles, scallops, lobsters, lettuce, even ice cream. (Although that is not entirely as absurd as it sounds since ice cream was usually frozen solid due in to it being kept in blocks of ice to maintain a cold temperature.)
In the United States, one dinner pattern could contain 146 unique pieces. This was a great contrast to Europeans, who had vastly fewer options.
See how the Byzantines taught Europe to use the fork.
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