Essential Tea-Table Extras: The History of Dainty Accoutrements

Pair of silver muffineers decorated with cherubs.

Afternoon tea has always been a “finger” meal that requires none of the large cutlery laid ready on the lunch or dinner table. Everything is small and neat, as readers of Mrs. Colin Campbell’s Etiquette of Good Society were reminded in 1893: “The cups and saucers are smaller than those used at other meals, and are more dainty and refined in character . . . The other accompaniments also are on a smaller scale—the spoons, sugar basin, cream jug are distinctly small.” And so, tea knives for spreading scones with clotted cream and jam, along with pastry forks for breaking off small, bite-size pieces from large slices of cake, must also be small. Because traditionally tea plates are only a dainty 6 or 7 inches in diameter, dessert and dinner knives are much too large, look cumbersome and ungainly, and tumble easily from the edge of the plate onto the spotless tablecloth. Traditional tea knives are, therefore, a neat 6 or 6½ inches in length and have handles in shimmering mother-of-pearl, bone, silver, or, as became the fashion in the 1930s and ’40s, bakelite of brightly colored tones that matched the tea wares.



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