Most of have probably never thought about the origin of the steak knife. I know I haven’t, but in times of old, the steak knife would have been superfluous. In medieval times, before the widespread adoption of the fork, a sharp knife was the primary implement for consuming meals. At least until events set into motion by Cardinal Richelieu in the 1600’s…
Cardinal Richelieu… became annoyed by table manners of those eating with pointed knives, which were used as a way of picking teeth.
He had his knife edges rounded, the legend goes, in an effort to discourage bad behavior by his guests.
…Cardinal Richelieu was a powerful, influential man, and his knife-dulling approach gained enough currency that in 1669, 27 years after he died, King Louis XIV issued a decree making pointed knives illegal in France, whether inside the home or out in public. Suddenly, a lot of sharp knives got pretty dull.
The above quote comes from a fascinating read from Popular Mechanics diving into the “Secret History of Steak Knives” as it were, and it is worth reading the whole thing. It follows the evolution of the table knife into the blunt tipped tool we all know, and the subsequent rise of the sharp table knife with surprisingly recent origins in my own home state of Maryland.
What might be surprising to an observer is that steak knives, at least in terms of how we consider them in the modern day, aren’t old innovations with centuries of history. In fact, the modern steak knife didn’t truly make itself known until after World War II.
A device of simple design and surprising sharpness, the turning point for the steak knife came in the form of a reconstituted letter opener. That letter opener, designed by a Maryland machinist named Paul C. Culver in 1946, was originally a gift for businessman Charles D. Briddell Jr.
Briddell’s father, Charles Sr. was a man who chose blacksmithing over farming as a teenager, eventually turning his preferred career path into a namesake company. It was already a quickly growing company by the mid-1940s, with the company’s Crisfield, Maryland factory building equipment during World War II.
The company was also involved in manufacturing cutlery at the time, which is perhaps why the gift from Culver proved particularly fruitful for the Briddell family, especially after Charles Jr.’s brother, Tom, saw the delicate craftsmanship of the knife and realized it made more sense on the dinner table than as a tool for opening letters.
Tom had the company produce a set of prototypes with an included case and took it on the road to gauge interest. The response must have been worth it, because the Briddle’s released the first common steak knife as we think of them today, the Carvel Hall for $16.50 per set.
By 1953, the knives were a $3 million business for Briddle!
Another noteworthy development in steak knife history involves industrial designer Thomas Lamb and a company that is still doing business today.
[Lamb’s] research into handle design became a key element of modern knives. His wedge-lock handle eventually became so well-known that the Museum of Modern Art displayed his work.
…Soon, he licensed the design to a company called Alcas, which released a line of knives called Cutco in 1952—the same Cutco that people sell door-to-door today.
One more cool thing to share. It also seems that steaks knives may also have contributed to the rise of the modern kitchen knife block found on countertops across the world.
Later on, the rise of in kitchen knives led to a need for storage, and that came in the form of the slotted knife rack, which was first discussed in newspapers around 1975.
“Knives that have the quality of steel but can maintain a sharp edge are prized by most good cooks. And when they can be handsomely and conveniently displayed, they take on even more importance,” Los Angeles Times Home magazine columnist Joan Dektar wrote of the slotted knife rack.
Such racks, while fairly common kitchen mainstays these days (thanks to the fact that it’s a naturally good place to store knives), doesn’t appear to have caught on in its current form until the late 1970s, meaning that for decades, people were storing their knives in very awkward ways. While many of the examples highlighted by Dektar, produced by Chicago Cutlery, were for larger knives, the company did also produce a set for steak knives with a built-in sharpener.
Unfortunately, the originator of the steak knife genre is no longer in business, having first closed up shop in 1989, reopening under new ownership, and finally closing for good in the year 2000. The article said it best:
Admittedly, it’s weird and depressing to think about the fact that a company so fundamental to the way we eat food has faded so severely with the passage of time.
Hopefully, this quick mention will give it a fresh cut in the history books.
Indeed. Having spent my formative years on the Delmarva peninsula, I had no idea this Eastern Shore, MD company even existed, which makes me sad.
It may not matter anymore, but I paid my penance by finding a used set of Carvel Halls to purchase.