Fish and Visitors: The Fish Slice

CLUNY by GORHAM
Cluny by Gorham

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.

DOLPHIN by GEORG JENSEN
Dolphin by Georg Jensen

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

DOLPHIN by GEORG JENSEN
Dolphin by Georg Jensen

Pie and Cake Servers, The Tasty Truth

Cake and Pie Servers History in Recent Past: Read this article to find out about the origins and fucntionality of this vital utensil.

 
Fish Slice
Fish Slice
Pastry Server
Pastry Server
Pie/Cake Server
Pie/Cake Server
Cake Server
Cake Server

You slice into the fresh chocolate cake, seeing the shine of the silver server glimmering in the low light after dinner,  slicing with the motion your grandmother did with the same server.  You think to yourself how many times she had used this utensil before she gave it to you, forgetting the fact just an hour ago you found out you were having in-laws over for dinner.

Gathering for meals has been a time honored practice that dates back before cakes!  In fact the development of tools such as the cake server and the fish slicer were only developed a relatively short time ago.   Beginning as a rough device made from various metals, this perfected piece has been used for many items besides cakes, in fact it is probably the only utensil you cannot do without.

The use of various metal fish, pudding and cake slices (iron, pewter, silver) is well documented as far back as the 16th century. The English cake-like puddings, both savory and sweet, were abundant and, in fact, dinner time was just as often called “pudding time.” These early puddings, which could be meatless, or which could contain meat, fish or fowl, were the earliest foods to be served with flat-blade slices.  Also, a distinction was made between these servers and general cutlery — They were servers for cooked foods, with nothing near the same sharpness of knives.  It should also be noted that stuffing was also commonly called puddings.

 The fish slice and the cake slice seem to have a common ancestor, or set of ancestors, in the trowel-shaped implements that served puddings. During most of the 18th century, both were of similar form, but the fish slice developed a wide, offset scimitar blade, while the cake slice remained more trowel-like. As the 19th century progressed, the trowel, sometimes flat, sometimes “dished,” became standard. By the late 19th century, American silver manufacturers were offering pie knives, pastry servers and cake slices, all of similar but slightly different form, within the same pattern.

In 1909 Tiffany & Co. was offering a “strawberry shortcake server” in addition to pie knives, pastry servers and cake servers. Straight cake slices were also introduced, with either a flat edge or with saw teeth. This explosion in the number and diversity of all kinds of silver servers, and the increased role of the dining rituals that spawned them, is directly related to the expansion of the US economy from the end of the Civil War until the 1920’s.

The Cake Server is flat and is designed for cutting and laying a piece on its side while removing it from the cake. The Pie and Cake Server has a 1-inch bend that allows for a scooping motion into a pie pan as well as a smooth removal of a slice from a cake as displayed below.

Cake Server Side View Cake Server Side View
Pie/Cake Server Side View Pie/Cake Server Side View

 

 

 

Though simple, without this fine piece, there would be many cake and pie slices being cleaned up from the floor!

 

Quotes to Consider:

An article in Scribner’s, circa 1874, describes a “…cake knife which has a fine saw to its splendid blade, to divide the frosting without fracture.”

The book Savory Suppers, Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America, by Susan Williams, addresses the proliferation and use of new servers, place setting pieces and etiquette books in social and religious terms: “The publication and instant popular interest in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 only fueled such speculative discussions of the critical importance of manners…”

 SOURCE: Joseph P. Brady Beverly Bremer Silver Shop Historian

Asparagus Servers, their Origin and Use

Sterling Influences: Early Spring Stalks

Asparagus, in earlier centuries going by such names as “sparrow grass” and “sparagrass,” was cultivated by the Romans as early as 200 BCE.  Though consumption waned during the Middle Ages, it was revived during the reign of Louis XIV.  Thomas Jefferson sowed asparagus seeds at Monticello, and noted in his writings the vegetable’s first appearance each spring.  Mary Jefferson Randolph’s directions for cooking the dish were quite detailed, from scraping the stalks and correctly tying the bundles, to timing the cooking so as to bring out their “…true flavour and colour,” noting that “a minute or two more boiling destroys both.”1  The appearance of this harbinger of spring was cause for much celebration, and specialized servers were designed to enhance the experience.

 

"Yoked" asparagus tongs, London, circa 1846 (# 24437)
"Yoked" asparagus tongs, London, circa 1846 (# 24437)

The earliest asparagus servers date from the mid 18th century, and were scissor-like tongs with narrow corrugated arms.  As the 18th century gave way to the 19th, asparagus servers widened, taking the form of bow-back tongs with a collar or yoke – a form more commonly seen on the market today.

 

 

Individual asparagus tongs, London, circa 1909 (# 64809)
Individual asparagus tongs, London, circa 1909 (# 64809)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hinged asparagus tongs fitted with a spring appeared in England, on the European Continent and in the United states by the mid 19th century, and by the late 19th century American silversmiths were making a very practical fork-shaped asparagus server.  These asparagus forks usually, but not always, had blunt tines, to prevent tearing of the delicate stalks, as well as a shovel-like curve. 

 

Asparagus fork, St. Cloud by Gorham (# 70570)
Asparagus fork, St. Cloud by Gorham (# 70570)

 

Specialty silver trays were eventually made for the serving of asparagus:  These were rectangular or oblong in form, with a pierced liner which kept the stalks from sitting in liquid.  And although it is quite correct to eat asparagus with the fingers, individual asparagus tongs were introduced in the 19th century, by silversmiths catering to either the self-conscious or to those Victorians wanting to demonstrate Man’s superiority over all other creatures.

Asparagus Tray, Gorham Mfg. Co., Providence, Rhode Island, circa 1915
Asparagus Tray, Gorham Mfg. Co., Providence, Rhode Island, circa 1915 (# 61472)

Hot or chilled, served plain, marinated, or with a rich hollondaise sauce, asparagus has been celebrated for centuries.

 

— Joseph P. Brady, Silver Historian, 2009

 1   Dining at Monticello, edited by Damon Lee Fowler, p 61