Cultural Evolution of the Fork



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After I wrote the blog, the Inertia of Culture, a reader pointed me to this excellent post by Chad Ward:

The Uncommon History of the Common Fork

This cultural history of the fork provides more details about its initial adoption as an eating utensil in the Middle East and Byzantium in the 7th century, its first appearance in Western Europe (in Venice in the 11th century), and its spread to France during the 16th century and England a century later. What I did not know was that the fork became widely adopted in the US only in the 19th century. So it took 12 centuries to spread from the Byzantine Empire to America! That’s a lot of inertia.

Also, although the fork appears to be a very simple implement, it had to go through several tweaks, or improvements, before it became a truly convenient implement. First, the number of tines increased from the initial two to four, so that the food wouldn’t slip between the prongs (as happened to the first French adopters, the courtiers in the sixteenth century). Second, a slight curve was added to the tines, to enable scooping up food with the fork.

Finally, Chad Ward explains how the “American shuffle” evolved (the American habit of first cutting up the food with a knife, then putting the knife down, and switching the fork to the right hand for actual eating). Indeed, I remember at least two occasions when I was asked by Americans whether I was left-handed, because I was eating with a fork in my left hand and knife in my right hand (using the American Shuffle in Europe immediately marks you as a lowlife).

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Pete Richerson

Henry Petroski has a number of examples like the dinner fork in his book The Evolution of Useful Things.

Peter Turchin

Thanks, Pete.

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