Knives for the Tea Table

By Roberta Parker • Photography by Sarah Arrington

Spoons and forks are a given in any tea-table setting. Knives are thought of less often, but their use can add unique charm as well as serve a practical function. And there are such wonderful varieties. You may choose a flat, hollow, or solid handle. It can be ivory, silver plated, sterling, china, or mother-of-pearl. The blade may be stainless steel, silver plated, or sterling, sometimes beautifully engraved. And the size may vary by as much as an inch or two between patterns.

Knives were the first pieces of flatware used at the table. These pointed personal “weapons” served to cut meat and sometimes became the source of many a dinner-party-gone-wrong. In 1669, King Louis XIV of France banned pointed knives at the table in an effort to curtail the violence. Thus, the blunt-ended table knife was born.

Dinner, Grille/Viande & Luncheon Knives 

Basic dinner-knife sizes can vary from 8 inches to more than 10, depending on pattern and manufacturer. The smaller size fits well on the tea table, with the larger knives saved for more formal dinners. The grille or viande style was popular through the 1950s. This knife design has a shorter blade and a longer handle and is usually the size of a luncheon knife, approximately 8½ inches, which makes it attractive on the tea table. Most luncheon knives have hollow handles, but many of the old, plated patterns were also made with solid handles.

Fruit & Orange Knives 

Fruit knives, popular during the Victorian era, are still made in most modern silver patterns. They are small with pointed blades, have either hollow or solid handles, and are 6 to 7 inches long. Fruit knives originally were made to use with a fruit fork to peel and segment a piece of fruit at the table. Orange knives are slightly larger, 7 to 8 inches, and have a straight blade with a blunt end. Both of these smaller knives make a very nice dessert service.

Butter Knives

These charming little knives, also known as butter spreaders, are wonderful for spreading anything from hummus to honey butter. The most common form has the traditional flat handle with a paddle-style blade, either plated or sterling. But you will also find butter spreaders that have hollow handles and modern-style, stainless-steel blades (C4). Many of the flat-handled patterns have beautiful embellishment on the blades. 

Dessert/Tea, Breakfast & Youth Knives

Dessert knives are often referred to as “dessert/tea knives” and are 7 to 8 inches long. Breakfast knives can vary in length from 7 to 8½ inches. These knives are commonly made for larger sets, when people desire special flatware for each occasion that food is served. Tea and breakfast knives are usually slightly smaller than luncheon knives, and the three can be used interchangeably. The 6- to 8-inch youth knife may be part of a three-piece set of knife, fork, and spoon, and serves as a transition piece between infant ware and full-size pieces. The smaller plates and food portions of the tea service make these three smaller knives especially appropriate for the tea table.

Fish Knives

The individual fish knife is approximately 8 inches long with a wide blade and a pointed end. It is useful for removing bones from fish. The wide blade also makes this knife perfect for spreads or for use with a cheese plate.

Steak Knives 

Although we may not usually think of steak being served at tea, some individual steak knives are so pretty, they could be used when any sharp knife is needed for slicing small breads or cakes. And if you are serving a later, heartier, English-style high tea, you may want a steak knife for petite slices of tenderloin or mini lamb chops. These can be found in most modern silver patterns and even in some vintage patterns with replacement blades. The blades are usually straight, pointed, stainless steel, and 8 to 9 inches long. 

Bird Knives

Originally paired with a bird fork, bird knives were used for cutting up the small birds so popular on Victorian menus. These utensils have the traditional carving-knife shape and are approximately 8½ inches long. The sharp edge of a bird knife can slice easily through the crusty bread used for bruschetta or crostini and can neatly cut those delicious, but sometimes slightly messy, little open-face sandwiches we eat with a fork.

EDITOR’S NOTE: provided the knives pictured and is an excellent source for unusual, antique, or vintage flatware.

Roberta Parker, a retired college-bookstore manager, became interested in silver when her father-in-law gave her six coin-silver spoons. Her articles on antique silver have been published in Silver Magazine.

From TeaTime July/August 2012


  1. I am so happy I found your publication. As someone new to these items though, it is very difficult for me to picture which knife in the illustration is being described in the article. I found this frustrating in the actual, physical, publication as well. I would love to see images next to the article descriptions or some form of labeling near the image.

    Very informative article 🙂 Great details & history


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