There have been specialized types of flatware-the sardine fork, the cucumber server, the hot cake lifter, etc.-made mostly during the Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian ages, but the fish slice (along with its cousins the tart and pudding servers) is among the earliest of such individualized utensils. The eighteenth century laws that helped to enrich already rich landowners and the industrial Revolution, which created a rising middle class of merchants and professional people, created a new appetite for silver tableware that was not satisfied with just knives, spoons, ladles and forks. Specialized servers “in the French manner” were desired, and these broad-blade servers led to a revolution of their own at the table. Its form was largely dictated by its special function, yet this noble piece still manages to speak to us of elegance and grace. Saw-piercing, bright cutting, and elaborate cartouches are natural on these blades.
The fish slice is a broad blade or trowel shaped server, most often used for dividing and serving fish at the table, but the earliest examples were used to serve fried fish directly from the pan. These early servers, circa 1740, use the name “slice,” but their blades are rounded and symmetrical. Elaborately saw-pierced, their main purpose was to drain unwanted cooking juices. As the whitebait fish was commonly fried in the eighteenth century home, the early examples where called whitebait servers. More elongated slices, fish shaped but still symmetrical, appeared after about 1745, and these eventually evolved into the a symmetrical fin shape we see most often. The symmetrical shape still persisted, but such later examples were usually longer and slightly pointed. Further, the most familiar scimitar blade was rarely made before 1800. The earliest known example was possibly made in London, ca. 1780, by Joseph Steward II (pudding and cake servers appeared at the same time).
The scimitar blade made its first known appearance on the Continent around 1780, but on either side of the Channel there is a bit of a gap, from the early 1780s until the early 1790s, during which almost no such examples were produced. The study of existing examples would suggest that the scimitar shape made its return around 1790 and saw steady gains in popularity until, by circa 1800, it had become the preferred shape for the fish slice. The blade recalls the shape of a fish’s fin, but a suggestion has been made that, especially in its more elongated form, it resembles the outline of a headless fish. This would be very much in keeping with the manner in which the fish appeared at the table.
The baroque and rococo style saw-piercing of the earliest fish slices usually covered the blade from side to side, sometimes leaving a border of less than one quarter inch, with more metal removed than retained. A close examination of the scroll work will show, however, the blade is not at all weakened and the holes are quite strategically placed. The piercing often featured a cartouche or reserve to be engraved with an armorial device or a monogram. The piercing was often enhanced by bright-cutting, with one or more fish forming a central motif; fishnet pattern backgrounds were not uncommon. The more elongated neoclassical slices and fin-shaped examples often featured fish backbone-style piercing, while others were pierced with stars or comma shapes, using a punch. During the latter part of the eighteenth century the blade might also feature a border of classical-style interlocking scrolls.
The piercing of Georgian fish slices took two forms. Saw-piercing by craftsman was the only method employed when they first appeared and was used throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the steam-driven equipment introduced by Matthew Boulton and James Watt in the late 1760s resulted in mechanical die fly-cutting. This expensive equipment, however, was afforded only by the more prosperous firms , such as the Batemans in London. Pierced examples in Sheffield plate, although not common, can be found today.
As far as slicing and serving at the table is concerned, however, a question arises: How much of the piercing was functionally necessary and how much was simply decoration? After the mid eighteenth century, was usually brought from the kitchen in a pot and transferred to a mazarine or onto a ceramic fish drainer. Indeed, Rabinovitch says that ” the need for a pierced server…becomes questionable.”
Bright-cutting, rather than saw-pierced, more commonly characterizes the decoration of America fish slice, but many elaborate pierced examples of coin silver can be found. Chasing of the blade became more common in the Art Nouveau period, and early twentieth century examples were usually left plain.
From the many examples of Georgian fish slices available for study it would seem that their handles evolved in somewhat loosely defined manner with the earliest known examples having flat silver handles in the “Hanoverian” style. From about the mid-1740s until the mid-1760s loaded hollow silver handles were popular, as were handles of wood, ivory, or bone. The return of the flat handle employed styles that most often mirrored contemporary flatware patterns and which were sometimes made as part of a larger service. Still, the other variations continued to be made. Elaborately chased hollow handles in the form of a fishware often made, and ivory handles were sometimes stained green, or turned and carved.
Joseph P. Brady Silver Historian