The Mystery of Victorian Dining Utensils

One of the reasons I am most interested in working as a curator once I am done school, is because every day is different and curators are constantly answering questions and researching new things! In saying that, I love it when I am presented with a question to solve.

A few weeks ago, Susan (our tour manager) asked me if I knew what a specific object was that was found in Covenhoven. Herself, along with the various tour guides had made guesses on what the object might be. The object was relatively small, silver, with a long straight thin handle and a curve piece that was a few centimetres at the top. Initially, I had no idea exactly what the item was, but I figured it was some form of a utensil, but for what purpose I could not tell you!

During the Victorian period, which ranged from 1837 to 1901, Queen Victoria designed different utensils for nearly every purpose imaginable. Specific vegetables had their own utensils, for example there were specific tongs for asparagus, or a special dish that fish bones were to be placed in. There was a real enthusiasm for etiquette, not only in dining but in most aspects of Victorian daily life, from clothing and home decor, to social interactions.

As the Van Horne’s lived during the Victorian Period and later the Edwardian Period, the posh etiquette of the period was practiced at the Van Horne’s. If you have ever looked around the perfectly set dining room table in Covenhoven you will notice that the table has more dishes then what you would see at your own home! Meals were broken down into many courses, with each having a specific beverage, plate, and utensils. When Van Horne was entertaining at Covenhoven, he could host up to twenty-four guests at his table. Currently in this photograph the table is set for eight guests, but there were three additional leaves that could be added to the table.

Now the mystery utensil I discovered following reading a handful of articles about Victorian utensils is called a food pusher. A food pusher was a Victorian utensil that was used in the late 19th century to help children eat food by themselves. It was frowned upon if children touched their food at all, so the food pusher would help children guide the food to their fork or spoon.

In reading about an assortment of obscure utensils I thought I would share a few of my favourites:

  1. Toast Serving Fork. This utensil was used to stab and lift our bread or rolls from a break basket to the main dinner plane. The reason why they used a fork instead of their hands was because they felt that using your hands was not sanitary, and the fork will help prevent spreading any germs or diseases. Perhaps in the current COVID-19 pandemic world, this would be an appropriate utensil to reintroduce!
  2. Grape Sheers. These were used during the dessert course during a Victorian dinner. The small delicate sheers which look like modern day scissors were used as a plate of grapes were passed around during dessert, only once the grape sheers had been use to cut off a bundle of grapes could guests uses their fingers to eat the grapes.
  3. Knife Rest. During a dinner there could have been between four to twelve different courses. In order to help to keep the utensils clean between courses, as with the number of courses that were served if a utensil could be used for more than one course it typically was to prevent the staff from having to wash dishes in between courses. The knife rest would also help to keep the table cloth from getting dirty in between the many courses that were served during dinner.
  4. Ice Cream Slicer. During the 19th century ice cream was a treat that was enjoyed by the wealthiest people, compared to the easily accessible treat that is enjoyed by most people during the summer today! When ice cream was served an ice cream slicer, which was a flat blade was used to divide up the ice cream to guests.

The next time you are visiting Covenhoven make sure you take a close look at the different dishes and utensils found at the dining room table!

Published by Laura Oland

Laura Oland is an Art History PhD student at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. In 2018, Oland completed a Master’s degree at The University of Glasgow in Art History: Dress and Textile Histories, following her undergraduate studies in History at Acadia University. Oland also completed a year of Viking archaeology at Lund University in Sweden. Professionally, Oland has worked for the New Brunswick Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Hunterian Museum, and the Randall House Museum.

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