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Victorian Age took utensils to the extreme

It would be difficult to do a quick inventory of the different utensils at the As You Like Silver Shop in Natchez.

First of all, where would you begin?

Horseradish spoons, mustard spoons, berry spoons, salt spoons, chocolate spoons, bouillon spoons, jelly spoons, lettuce spoons, sherbet spoons and pea spoons are a few of the examples of just the spoons that are on display.

But that is not to say there aren’t forks. There are plenty.

Lettuce forks, pickle forks, oyster forks, ice cream forks, bread forks and fruit forks are just a start.

And knives? Well just a cursory look through the shop’s many cases identifies knives for fruit, duck, fish, butter and oranges.

In the 21st century when most place settings include a simple grouping of a knife, a spoon and a couple of forks, looking at the plethora of utensils used in the 19th century might be enough to make anyone shake their head in disbelief.

“There was a piece for everything,” Juanita Robinson, manager of the Natchez store said. “There really was no end to it.”

But that is not the way it always was, Natchez’s Bethany Overton said.

Overton, who wrote the book “Nineteenth Century Natchez Made Silver,” said that before the modern manufacture of silver pieces, place settings at the table were far simpler.

Before the Victorian age there were no forks — just the simple spoon and maybe a knife.

“You did not see forks in American silver until 1815.”

As for the knife, “it was a steel blade with an ivory or bone handle,” Overton said.

“Most families were lucky to have just one set of spoons,” Overton said.

But that was soon to change with the advent of the industrial age and the mechanical process and a profusion of etiquette books.

Noel D. Turner, in his book “American Silver Flatware,” notes that by the end of the 19th century almost 250 books and manuals on manners and etiquette had been written.

“The ordeal of dining involved many traps for the unwary, to which the etiquette editors devoted loving attention,” Turner wrote.

“There was no television,” Robinson said. “Dining was a form of entertainment. A meal could last for hours.”

And include up to 18 courses, he wrote. As the dining experience became more elaborate, manufacturers were eager to offer new pieces to make the dining experience more specialized.

Turner wrote that after the Civil War the penchant for manufacturers to outdo one another reached a high point when one producer offered a single flatware line totaling more than 3,500 pieces alone.

“There was a piece for everything, that worked better for each situation,” Robinson said. “What better way is there to serve a sardine than with a sardine fork?”

“It was like cars today,” Overton said. “There are not just Model As and Model Ts. They made something for everyone’s desire.”

“The rules went on and on, and with each new rule, there came the need for even greater variety among the knives, the forks, the spoons, the tongs and the servers,” Turner wrote.

But by 1926, as house staffs became more rare and the more forms of entertainment developed, the fascination with dining began to wane. And so did the proliferation of flatware.

By 1926, Turner wrote, the maximum number of pieces introduced in any one pattern had been reduced to an average of 55 pieces.

“Our lives have been simplified to what we can manage alone,” Overton said.

But the fascination with the overabundance in 19th century flatware continues, said Robinson.

For her customers, Robinson still offers the same advice that Helen Cox, the original founder of the As You Like it Silver Shop, wrote in her guide to silver: “If you see a piece of silver that fascinates you, buy it. You may never see another one. You will figure out a way to use it. Silver pieces never need to be used in the way they were intended.”

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