Kitchenalia: Fish Eaters
In the 1880s, while the ‘Old Money’, the aristocracy, ate their fish course using two table forks, the ‘New Money’, the nouveau riche, adopted distinctive knives and forks for the same purpose. These cutlery forms became increasingly popular, yet their distinctive shape serves no real purpose other than to distinguish ‘fish eaters’, or ‘fish-eating knives and forks’ as they were also called, from other pieces of table cutlery. Today, such cutlery has mostly fallen out of favour, which explains why so much of it can be found for sale in antiques and collectibles shops, online, and so on.
Victorian dining etiquette
The complicated dining etiquette of the Victorian era encouraged the development of utensils for eating particular foods. The proper use of cutlery formed an important and often lengthy section in the etiquette manuals published at the time to guide the unwary. As the century progressed, the rules for the use of some cutlery changed, reflecting the refinements that began to differentiate the manners and status of 'old' and 'new' money. The development of fish eaters is a good example of this. Until the 1880s etiquette manuals recommended that fish be eaten using two ordinary table forks or one fork and a piece of bread. But in the last quarter of the 19th century, middle-class families bought the newly developed utensils, such as fish eaters, to differentiate themselves from those who already owned more traditional cutlery sets. In 1838 a book of etiquette for ladies  recorded that, 'in first rate society, silver knives are now beginning to be used for fish: a very pleasing, as well as decided step in the progress of refinement.' People no longer used steel knives and forks, as the steel was said to react with acids in the fish sauces and taint the flavour of the food. By this time, fish knives and forks were commonly called 'fish eaters' or 'fish-eating knives and forks' (V&A Collections, online). Even so, in some circles the innovative cutlery designs were never accepted and have remained a subject for prejudice and exclusion to this day.
History of fish-eaters
For manufacturers of cutlery (cutlers), this was a highly successful time. Early to mid-19th century Britain was a period of thriving industry and wealth. This enabled the middle classes the money and time to use dining as a way to impress and display their wealth. Coupled with the idea of separate courses arriving in the 1850s, led to the demand for an assortment of utensils that would distinguish the serving and eating of various food types. At the peak of the antique silver fish service’s use, there were more than 200 distinct eating utensils used at the dining table. Cutlers were producing hundreds of design styles incorporating additional materials to the handles to make them more aesthetically appealing. In the case of fish servers, knife blades were frequently embellished with piscatorial-related engraved decoration (Tubbrit, 2016).
In the Victorian era, fish servers and cutlery sets made fabulous gifts. It was common for brides to request fish services as gifts to add to their silver flatware collection as a dining table could be set with twenty-two or more different pieces at each place setting. Undoubtedly the social and cultural changes brought about post two world wars led to a shift in dining habits. While it seems the practice of gifting fish services continued well into the 20th century, the sheer number of sets frequently encountered for sale reflects a trend away from such cutlery and their current lack of popularity.
What is a fish-eating knife and fork?
This small table knife is specifically designed to facilitate the eating of fish. The knife blade has a curved sharp edge, perfect for sliding between the skin and flesh of the fish. The broad blade is a useful feature as it assists in lifting the fish to the fork, whilst keeping flakes in one piece. The blade terminates in a relatively sharp point which is useful to lift small bones away from the flesh. The wide surface may also be used to scrape up, or spread any sauce served with the fish (Tubbrit, 2016).
As with the fish knife, the fish fork is used with fish dishes. The standard fish fork is smaller than a table fork at approximately 18½ cm to ca. 20 cm (7 ¼ to 7 ¾ inches) long. Fish forks (and knives) often have an incurve shaped form (pictured); this feature was likely simply to differentiate it from all the other forks that could be present on the table, as there were frequently many (Tubbrit, 2016).
Placement on the Dining Table
As with any other cutlery in a traditional dinner setting, the fish-eating knives and forks are placed in order of use. If fish is being served as an appetiser, the fish knife is laid to the right of the dinner knife and fish fork to the left of the dinner fork. In other words, they would be the first items of cutlery to be used working from the outside inwards (Tubbrit, 2016).
If fish is being served as a main course, fish cutlery should be placed nearest to the plate (fish knife to the right of the dinner plate and fish fork laid to the left of the plate). When it comes to the fish fork, it may be placed with either the fork tines upward in the American style, or downward for the continental style, as pictured below (Tubbrit, 2016).
Tubbrit, G., (2016), ‘History of Fish Knives and Forks’, Available on-line: https://www.acsilver.co.uk/acsnews/2016/03/24/fish-knives-fish-forks-etiquette/ (accessed March 4th, 2022)
V&A Collections, ‘Fish Knife’, Available online: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O48546/fish-knife-goldsmiths-and-silversmiths/ (accessed March 4th, 2022).
1. A.F., (1838), ‘The Ladies’ Pocket Book of Etiquette’, Golden Cockerel Press (1928).