Give It a Rest! The Knife Rests of Yesterday & Today

Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist

Now well into autumn, we are beginning to think about our traditional fall holiday feasts and the gathering of friends and family around our tables. For many of us, setting a beautiful table with treasured linens, serving pieces, and dishes is as important as preparing a delectable meal. Do you have tableware you only bring out for special occasions?  

Historically, around the world, everyday table setting was much more complicated than most of us know from our 20th and 21st century lives, especially for the very wealthy.  Imagine Downton Abbey’s stern butler, Mr. Carson, surveying the table with a critical eye looking for the slightest object out of place. A Victorian Christmas dinner table might require one place setting with a daunting four spoons, five knives and seven forks – and that’s just the cutlery! There could also be five glasses, several plates and bowls, and a personal salt cellar and butter plate. There would be multiple courses (of course!) and a rigorous protocol for the service and consumption of each. For example, fish was not to be cut with a steel knife but with one made of silver, as it was thought fish too delicate to be cut with steel. The fish knife might have been made in the shape of a fish so one could quickly identify it in a complex place setting. Soup had its own set of strict rules, and spoons specific to the type of soup served. Then, there was that whole conundrum about forks and knives – left hand or right hand? Tines pointed up or down? Not even Letitia Baldrige, Jaqueline Kennedy’s White House Chief of Staff and American maven of etiquette, was able to solve this mystery! Aside from the vagaries of cutlery handling and soup-sipping, what did not vary was the emphasis on decorum and civility. It was required that hosts make the utmost effort toward their guests’ comfort, and that guests behaved in such a way as to not unduly burden their hosts.

One element of the elegant, fully appointed table that made it easier to minimize the hosts’ burden by sparing the table linens the drips and smears of messy cutlery was the knife rest. The maids charged with keeping the household linens snowy bright must have been particularly grateful for this labor-saving table amenity!  So, what exactly is this genius device? A knife rest is a small platform made to rest a used knife upon; one is found at each place setting and at the head of the table for the carving utensils. And, of course, rules applied to the use of this clever device, too: one trained in the strict decorum of table setting would never dream of placing an unused knife upon the rest as a knife rest was only meant to hold a used knife!

The Victorians were not the first to employ the knife rest though they certainly made it popular. In fact, use of knife rests goes back to the 1700s. From their earliest use to modern times, knife rests have been made of a wide array of materials including wood, ceramic, bone, ivory, metal, plastic, Bakelite, and glass. When cut glass was the de rigueur medium of the fashionable table, of course, knife rests were included in the embellishment. Cut glass companies featured knife rests in the most popular patterns in their catalogues along with ice cream trays, epergnes, goblets, and compotes. While a cut glass pitcher might have set one back five dollars in 1909, a cut glass knife rest could be had for about one dollar from the Gordon and Morrison Wholesale Jewelry Company, Chicago, Illinois. Of course, you probably needed to buy at least twelve of them!

Image from Cut Glass Price Guide To 1500 Pieces by Alpha Ehrhardt, Heart of America Press, 1977.

By now I bet you’re wondering why this post is so focused on antiquated table etiquette! Here’s the scoop – the Fort Wayne Museum of Art just received a fantastic gift of hundreds of fascinating knife rests. Knife Rests of Yesterday & Today came to us from Beverly L. Ales, 40-year collector and expert, who chose the Museum to be the stewards of her wonderful collection and its impeccably detailed documentation and reference library. Now, I’m told there are 600 knife rests in this collection (along with chopstick rests and individual open salt cellars) but I have just begun to catalogue them — it’s going to take a minute to get them all into the database! I have already found some favorites, though, as I’ve begun this project. Each, as you will see, is a tiny work of art!

This cut crystal knife rest is elegant with its deep and intricate flower and vine pattern.

The photo does not do justice to this dazzling Dorflinger cut crystal knife rest.

This one is ceramic and glazed in a luscious thick turquoise. It’s heavy yet so smooth and creamy. It is attributed to the Charles Cartlidge Company of Brooklyn, New York. There is a pair just like this in white at the Brooklyn Museum!

This delicate little fish made of Limoges porcelain is so pretty and lively with open mouth and lovely gilt decoration.

I’m intrigued by this interesting pottery knife rest from France and its sweet human face. I’ve looked up the artist, Anna Allard, who signed it, but have yet to find information on her.

This intricate sterling silver knife rest is signed Leonore Doskow, an American artisan who developed a jewelry company that she ran for 75 years.

These regal swans float so gracefully across the table. They are among dozens of other birds in the collection, including pheasants, ducks, chickens, and peacocks!

This Quimper faience pottery knife rest depicts a young Breton man taking a nap, his companion is a young lady. I wonder if they were gifts to a couple of newlyweds!

This pair of gentle cherubs must have been a cherished element of the tables they graced.

This large jack just makes me smile – so playful and modern, yet traditional. A small modern sculpture from a traditional table!

And these little guys tugging on a rope of sausages? What fun! Wouldn’t you love to hear the comments made about them from diners round their table?

Last, I wanted to share this super cool Bakelite knife rest – it doubles as a salt and pepper shaker!

I can understand how compelling collecting knife rests could be, and this collection of many years demonstrates that. They are ingenious, whimsical, elegant, cute, and beautifully created – little sculptures for the table that not only function but delight! Thank you, Beverly L. Ales, for this gift we will enjoy for many years to come!

A display of a selection of Knife Rests of Yesterday & Today is being planned for this winter at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

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