The shape and decoration of pieces of cutlery, and especially their handles, can tell you a great deal about when they were made.
It's rare to find sets of cutlery made before 1700. They didn't exist at all in Britain before 1660, when the monarchy was restored; Charles II brought the fashion with him on his return from exile in France.
Before this date, pieces of cutlery were individual items. Knives and spoons were important possessions, and were meant to last the owner a lifetime. Spoons were often given as christening or wedding
presents. Knife handles varied widely in the materials and decoration used, while spoons, usually made of either pewter or silver, had long, slender handles that were typically topped with a moulded finial. Forks were very rare before the Restoration, and considered foppish and eccentric tools.
Rather than attempting to find a complete canteen, today's collector is often happier to build up a set by buying single pieces of the same pattern and around the same size. To do this, you need to be able to recognize the basic shapes of flatware (spoons and forks) made since the 17th century. The most important part of a piece for this is its handle.
ANATOMY OF FLATWARE
The top of a handle is considered to be the place where it joins the business end of a spoon or fork. The join itself is called the peg. The main part of the handle is known as the stem, and the bottom is known as an end or terminal. The shape and decoration of these parts determines the pattern of the spoon or fork.
Late 17th-century spoons had flat handles with trefid ends. What would otherwise have been a simple curve was altered by cutting two notches either side of the centre of the end. By the early 18th century, this had become a double-curved shape, a little like a hound's head seen from above. The resemblance earned the style the name 'dog nose'. The style was revived much later as Queen Anne.
Trefid spoons were eclipsed by the Hanoverian pattern, introduced around 1710. A simple, rounded, upturned end, a raised spine of metal running down the stem, and a short strengthening piece, known as a drop, at the peg, were the main features of this style, which was the basic standard for around 50 years.
In mid century, the Hanoverian style was adapted. The drop was replaced by a tapering ridge that ran down the back of the spoon bowl. This feature,
known as a rat tail, had first been seen on trefid spoons in the second half of the 17th century. The handle shape of rat tail spoons is similar
to the Hanoverian. The raised spine that runs along the hand e typically opens into a
flat, curved triangle at the rounded terminal.
Another variation of Hanoverian, the scroll end or Onslow (named after a politician of the day), was introduced around 1760. The main
difference was the end, a triangular scroll made separately, then added on.
At the same time, the Old English shape, based on medieval spoons, got more popular, and had taken over from Hanoverian by
1700. There was no central spine, and the plain rounded ends curved down rather than up, at least on the spoons - downturned forks can be difficult to use.
Pure Old English spoons usually have no decoration, but various
designs can he found applied to the basic shape. Solid silver spoons will often have bright-cut engraving
or chasing all down the handle. Feathered edges, introduced around 1770, were a favourite decoration, while the fashionable neo-classical designs
of Robert Adam inspired the restrained decoration known as Georgian bead.
Very early in the 19th century the fiddle shape made its appearance. It
developed out of a design known as shouldered Old English and its main feature was that the usual taper from the terminal to the peg was not continuous. The terminal was much longer and broader than usual, and ended in
sharply angled shoulders from which sprung a slender stem.
The new shape was quickly followed by the fiddle and thread design
(1805), where each side of the handle was outlined around its whole length with a raised, thread-like moulding. A further variation, the fiddle, thread and shell, appeared a year or so later, with the thread scrolling into a scallop shell design at the terminal and the peg.
The shell is also to be found on most variations of the King's pattern, first introduced in the 18th century, and one of the most popular shapes throughout the 19th century. It still retains the broad terminal of the fiddle, but this swells into a curve at the end and has a second curve, rather than shoulders where it joins the stem. The whole handle was typically ornamented with a raised design based on scallop shells and honeysuckle blooms, all entwined with
scrolling threads. A similar design, but possessing even more voluptuous curves, became known as the Queen's pattern.
Towards the end of the 49th century, a variation of the trefid spoon came back into favour, though
with lots of fancy work at the terminal. Dubbed the Charles II style, it has been popular ever since.