If we are what we eat, then civilisation can be measured by our diets. How we prepare, serve and eat our food is perhaps a better yardstick to gauge refinement, taste and dignity, for cutlery, in its many forms, has been the tool of man since the dark ages and has evolved into his essential household companion.
The first cutler was the cave dweller who shaped a piece of bone, or hammered a sliver of bronze until it had a crude edge with which to saw his food; his achievements, his environment – even his growing intelligence – can be evaluated through that simple step forward.
Today, cutlery and its concomitant table companions still perform the same basic, but essential task. Equally, they are still a symbol of the table and the discernment of the owner. A possession then, as well as routine household implements, reflecting to the outside world a family’s taste and imagination. Yet this everyday product is indelibly linked with an English city: Sheffield, home of cutlery for almost one thousand years.
Unknown craftsmen in this city fashioned a knife so good that the English warrior King Edward III counted it among his treasured possessions. How do we know? His will, published in 1377 specified a Sheffield knife as part of his legacy. Ten years later, the English poet and dramatist Geoffrey Chaucer spoke of a Sheffield knife in the Reeves Tale and he was invariably seen in portraits with such a knife hanging from his robes.
There is ample evidence then that the Yorkshire city was producing outstanding knives in the 14th century and it is self evident that such skills were not acquired over a single generation. But why was Sheffield the birth place of a cutlery tradition that has survived for so long? Simply because of its unique position and resources.
Five rivers splash down into Sheffield from the surrounding ring of hills to drive water wheels. Coal was available in abundant quantities; so was iron ore. And nearby quarries provided enormous supplies of the milestone grit from which the cutler’s grinding wheels were fashioned. Slowly, the craft of the blade making developed from scythes through kitchen knives, into scissors and pocket knives, and finally into table cutlery and its complementary hollow-ware – tea and coffee pots and trays.
William Turner – Sheffield Cutler
It was a remote settlement in the Middle Ages, a valley community near the northern tip of Sherwood Forest. Indeed, Robin Hood, if he really existed, would have been familiar with the collection of villages then coming together as Sheffield. Perhaps because knives were coveted goods, which were always in demand, yet which could also be carried by pack horse, the trade grew, finally overriding all other British cutlery centres. Even Birmingham, that engine room of the Industrial Revolution preferred to make flatware – forks and spoons – rather than compete with the Sheffield knife.
When centuries of history are distilled into a product, then it carries in its very design and manufacture, an invisible but potent tradition. Restoration plays had characters wearing Sheffield knives. Quips and proverbs spoke of their sharpness.
Indeed, the name of the city and its most famous product became linked; so much so, that in those boom years before the English Civil War, Parliament itself granted control and inspection rights in knife making to a Cutlers Company of Hallamshire, the local name for the area surrounding Sheffield. This proud Company, headed by an elected Master Cutler, continues today, its record books filled with the marks of Sheffield cutlers over more than three centuries. Some are still in use.
That a legal framework for the supervision of the trade was necessary indicates how, by 1640, it had grown from a backwoods craft into a major British industry. Knives themselves were changing too, after centuries of utilitarianism. Small, much more delicate table knives were being produced, often decorated with silver, amber, ivory or agate. Sometimes sold in pairs in a decorative sheath of leather – one knife to hold the food and the other to cut and eat with. Forks were still a foible of the Italian gentry…
Scissors were in great demand, and these Sheffield blades, one of man’s first precision tools, were designed so well and manufactured with such accuracy that a tailor of 1700 would be quite at home with today’s scissors, although he would admire the finish and sharpness. Quill pens, and the increasing literacy of the population had brought a market for penknives too. A schoolteacher’s manual of 1590 recommended: “A right Sheffield knife is the best.”
Design flourished in Georgian times as cutlery canteens began to make their appearance, holding matched knives and forks, with the spoon, hitherto a kitchen tool, now emerging as an eating utensil too. Cooking became more elaborate and soon butchers and chefs were demanding knives from Sheffield as much for their performance as for their established status.
Indeed, for many, this period was the apogee of cutlery design, and famous Sheffield patterns developed then – Rattail, and Kings in particular – have never been out of production. With such beautiful examples of table cutlery came matching holloware to embellish the table as people demanded the best the industry could provide. For cutlery and hollowware were assuming the proportions of table jewellery, both in Britain and her colonies.
The Victorian era brought the Sheffield industry to a production peak, with thousands of cutlers, ranging from one man workshops to giant companies satisfying the emerging American market , or selling the city’s high quality wares across the world. In 1869, one company alone was producing 36,000 table knives and 7,000 scissors a week. By the turn of the century, the company held 15 tons of ivory, for handles, in its stores.
But changes were coming. A Sheffield metallurgist, Harry Brearley, was perfecting the bulk production of stainless steel. His local cutlers were among the first customers, tackling all the problems that the wonder metal brought. Today, its use is widespread and its attributes, although scarcely revolutionary now.
Sheffield is no longer the source of all the world’s cutlery. Unwilling to compromise quality standards, or cater for planned obsolescence, it maintains its tradition of providing the very best, for people intelligent enough to realise, like John Ruskin, that there is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper.
Of the famous cutlery, he said: “In cutlers’ ironwork we have in the town of Sheffield, at this epoch of our history, the best of its kind done by English hands, unsurpassable I presume, when the workman chooses to do all he knows, by that of any living nation.”
The industry today is always aware of the debt it owes to its forebears, going back over the centuries. It is merely the custodian of the standards they set, and the reputation they earned by their craftsmanship. It produces cutlery for people anxious to share that tradition; wishing to invest in that famous and unsurpassable quality.
It is not merely a question of buying status, although Sheffield cutlery has always had such a cachet because of its accepted excellence. Neither is it a case of paying for beauty, although that is another inherent attribute.
One simply purchases craftsmanship. A table knife which performs its task with ease; scissors which cut with all the accuracy demanded. Coffee and teapots designed to be used, as well as to decorate the table. Specialist knives which become an extension of the expert hand. Pocket knives which assume the role of a companion tool.
Such products can rarely be mass produced by computer control. They need the human eye and the human brain, and the vast store of practical knowledge contained in the workforce of a dedicated company. Any engineer can design a production line to stamp out metal shapes and call them cutlery; but Sheffield produces cutlery for a lifetime and longer, and that is where craftsmanship still counts. Where expertise, tinged with tradition produces the very best table tools and, almost instinctively now, things of beauty to delight the eye and the hand.
Look around. Delve into drawers. It is not difficult to find Sheffield cutlery which is half a century old and more. Still performing its basic function without maintenance or repair. With only a modicum of care. Study the fine tables of the world; see the cutlery and hollowware they use. Not just because it comes from Sheffield, but because it is the best.
Of course there are limitations. Sadly, counterfeit products, masquerading as Sheffield-made, still appear, in spite of the city’s unending attempts to prevent cheapjack copies cashing in on its reputation.
Of course, there is nothing to stop anyone buying cheap cutlery, imitation or otherwise. Some are happy to eat food from paper plates and use crude plastic knives, forks and spoons. They may well be right when they argue that it makes not a jot of difference to the taste of their meal. They are perfectly entitled to their decision; Sheffield, essentially a practical city, would always defend their right to maintain a point of view.
Bur equally, there is a sound and coherent argument for buying the best cutlery one can afford. How many other household implements are expected to work three times each day, month in and month out, year in, year out, and still retain not just their functional beauty, but their effiency? Cutlery is a once in a generation purchase; little else today can give such long term pleasure and satisfaction.
Low price, low quality scissors, or specialist knives may work when they are fresh from the supermarket. But will they give the hair’s breadth accuracy that a user has the right to expect from decent tools? More than ever today, quality and durability in any product is directly related to price. Certainly, in cutlery and its sister products, the best is not the cheapest to buy.
And for all the tawdry imitations that occasionally occur, Sheffield cutlery is not difficult to find. It will bear the name of the manufacturer, be it cutlery, hollowware, specialist knives and steels, scissors. It will also bear the name of Sheffield. Clearly, and with unstated but unswerving pride.
British cutlery, Sheffield cutlery, is indisputably the best.