When Fingers Served as Forks

Footnotes to Long Island History


OCT. 5, 1950


Thomas R. Bayles

       Forks were not often used for eating in the early settlements on Long Island before 1700, although iron forks were used in the kitchen for cooking purpose as early as 1683. In 1787, Ivory, bone, wood and horn handled forks appeared .Wooden spoons were used, and a few silver, but most of the spoons used by the colonists were pewter. Large drinking cups were beakers, tankards, and beer or wine bowls. A sneaker was a small drinking glass used by moderate drinkers.

       The table furnishings of the plain colonial farmhouse consisted largely of wooden plates called trenchers, which were usually made of the clean hard wood of the poplar tree. From a single trencher, two children, or a man and wife ate their meals. A household that provided a trencher for diner was considered luxurious. Bottles noggins, cups and lossets of wood were also used on colonial tables.

       Pewter ware soon began to replace woodenware and at the time of the Revolution, china was imported and began to take the place of pewter. A set of pewter platters, or chargers and dishes, made what was called a garnish of pewter, and was a source of great pride to every colonial housewife. Much time and labor was given to polishing them until they shone like silver. "Pewter-bright," was the sign of a good housekeeper.

       By 1729 tin was used in the kitchen, but was not plentiful. Mention is made a early as 1662, of "tynen pans and one tynen quart pot, and also of a great tyn candlestick," but they were rare at that period.

Iron was not a favorite metal with the colonists, although they had iron pans, candlesticks dishes, fire dogs and pots. Some of these were traded with the Indians for large and valuable tracts of land.

       Leather was used in the form of bottles, drinking cups and jacks, which were pitchers or jugs of waxed leather.

       Nearly all the glassware of the eighteenth century was of inferior quality, full of bubbles and defects. Many drinking glasses or flip mugs have been preserved. The flip glasses were tumbler shaped, and frequently painted, fluted or engraved. Some held more than a gallon.

        There were milk pots, milk ewers, milk jugs, sugar boxes, sugar pots, sugar basins, spoon boats and spoon basins, instead of spoon holders. There were also pickle boats twifflers, mint stands, and vegetable basins.

       The absence of forks in those days brought forth the sarcastic remark, "fingers were made before forks," when people were told not to eat with their fingers, but to use the newly fashioned forks, then so rare and highly prized.

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