Of Knife-Cases and Knife-Boxes

Despite their name, by the turn of the nineteenth century, these cases and boxes often held more than just knives. Those which had been made in the early Georgian period were free and unfettered, so they could be easily moved about. Those which were made later in the period were just as often anchored to the sideboard, which had become a ubiquitous piece of furniture in Regency dining rooms. All of these boxes and cases which were made to be used in the public rooms of a house, usually the dining room, were quite elegant. However, there were also more utilitarian knife boxes which never left the kitchen and were quite unremarkable in design and construction.

Some secrets of knife-boxes into the Regency . . .

First and foremost, it must be understood that the plethora of cutlery which might grace a dining table for a grand meal reached its apex just as the Regency came to a close. Until the last decades of the seventeenth century, dinner guests brought their own cutlery when invited to a meal, most often just a knife, though a few of the most sophisticated might also bring a fork. It would never occur to a host in the early decades of the seventeenth century to provide his guests with eating utensils. Yet, by 1820, the majority of hosts who held regular dinner parties would have owned a selection of table silver which could easily include well over a thousand separate pieces.

It is believed that King Charles II inaugurated the custom for matching sets of cutlery when he presented his French mistress, Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, with a matching set of a dozen each of knives and forks, all made of gold with gold handles. Though few outside the royal family could afford gold cutlery, many among the aristocracy began to have knives and forks made of silver for use at their dinner tables. Before the turn of the eighteenth century, the custom of bringing one’s own eating utensils to a meal had died out, at least among the upper classes.

But how was one to protect all those small, portable, and very valuable pieces of silver table ware? Though one could expect that one’s dinner guests were not likely to lift the silver, there was the ever-present issue of servants who might seek to better their lot by nicking a piece or two while serving at table. One fairly effective means of theft prevention was that it became standard practice to wash all used table ware between courses in the dining room, under the watchful eyes of the master and/or the butler. Most dining rooms had some kind of cistern or sink set up for the purpose during meals. But there were still those even longer periods when the silver table ware must be stored between meals. How was it to be protected then?

The most obvious method, of course, was to lock them away in boxes or cases, as had been done with other items made of silver and other precious metals for centuries. But cutlery was not just any silver object. The sharp blades of the knives and the tines of the forks might cause damage, or be damaged themselves, if they were not stored properly. A few knife boxes had been made in England even before Charles II was restored to the throne of England. These were simple boxes, typically made of wood and lined with velvet or chamois, usually red. The exterior of the boxes might be covered with leather or shagreen, while others were japanned and gilded. These early seventeenth century knife boxes were made in very simple shapes and nearly all of them were made to hold only knives, since forks were only just becoming fashionable at that time.

Initially, these boxes were much more complex on the inside than they were on the outside. In an effort to quickly reveal a missing knife, the boxes were made so that each knife stood upright, with their handles topmost. Thus, the master of the house or the butler, could see in an instant if any knives were missing before the case was locked and carried away to the butler’s pantry until they would be needed again. In the early knife boxes, compartments or partitions were created for each knife which extended from the rim of the box to the bottom and each was carefully and fully lined with velvet or chamois. These compartments were also crafted so that each row was slightly higher than the one in front of it. This tiered compartment design made it even easier to see at a glance if any knives in a set were not in the box. The lids were also fashioned to accommodate the tiered compartments and though some of the very early boxes had flat tops on the exterior, it was not long before the exterior of the top sloped to reflect the tiered compartments inside the box. This had the effect of reducing the amont of wood needed, which thereby reduced both the weight and the cost of the box. Thus the knife box achieved the slanted-top profile which would become familiar through the eighteenth century and right through the Regency.

By the first decades of the eighteenth century, though they were still typically called "knife boxes," these specialty cases were made in pairs, initially one for knives and one for forks. (Spoons were not yet considered fashionable enough to be a regular part of a cutlery place setting made in silver and thus requiring storage under lock and key.) The forks were placed in their box in an upright position, similar to knives, but in the case of forks, with the tines topmost, the handles placed into the small narrow compartments in the base of the boxes. At this time, all knife boxes were custom-made, so the customer would order knife boxes to hold the number of silver knives and forks they owned. A dozen of each was a common number in those early days. Since nearly all knife boxes were made of wood, despite the interior and exterior decoration they might ultimately receive, they were made by cabinet-makers, those craftsman with the most sophisticated skills in fine woodworking.

The earliest knife boxes were either completely square or might have a simple, shallow bow front. But as the eighteenth century progressed and the sinuous lines of the Rococo style spread across Europe, knife boxes began to appear with deep, elaborately bowed fronts with serpentine curves. The early knife boxes had been made with walnut, or deal, if they were covered with leather or shagreen. Then, into the middle decades of the eighteenth century, most fine knife boxes were made of mahogany. Some were made of solid mahogany, with the highly polished surface and fine graining providing the bulk of the exterior decoration, typically accented with a brass lock escutcheon. As cabinet-making skills advanced and better tools and techniques were introduced, the design and ornamentation of knife boxes became increasingly ornate and elegant. Richly grained veneers were applied, as was stringing, a type of veneer which alternates strips of wood in light and dark colors. Other inlays, of fine woods, ivory, mother-of-pearl or brass might also be applied to enhance the exterior of these later eighteenth-century knife boxes.

However, as their exteriors became more elaborate, their interiors were significantly simplified. Sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century, some clever maker got the idea that those full-length compartments lined with velvet or chamois were not necessary to protect the cutlery stored in these boxes. Instead, a panel of wood which just fit the opening of the lower part of the knife box was pierced with a series of openings, the shape of each specially cut for a specific type of cutlery. However, this panel was placed in the knife box on a slant, thus retaining the tiered storage of the earliest boxes. Each knife, fork, and now, even spoons, were suspended in one of the openings in a knife box. Some people had three knife boxes made, one for knives, one for forks and one, typically shorter, for spoons. Others choose to stay with a pair of boxes, but the opening cut in the panel inside the box were made to accommodate multiple types of cutlery. In such cases, each box might hold half the knives, forks and spoons the family owned. Typically, in these new, more "all-purpose" boxes, the spoons would be placed in the front, then the forks, and finally, the knives at the back, where their longer blades were best accommodated.

Another radical change occurred, just as these more ornate and elaborate knife boxes were being made. With the advent of rooms with a specific purpose in a home, those rooms began to acquire specific furniture to serve the main purpose of the room. Thus, the dining room acquired not only a permanent table and set of chairs, the sideboard also became an important feature of most dining rooms. Since knife boxes were much more attractive, they were no longer relegated to the butler’s pantry when not in use. Knife boxes found a permanent home on the sideboard. In fact, many sideboards were specifically designed to have knife boxes placed upon them so that the cutlery needed for meals was always readily at hand. Nevertheless, most knife boxes made during the eighteenth century were still made with a lock to ensure their contents did not stray. In most cases, the master or mistress and the butler held the keys.

As the eighteenth century neared its end, the Neo-Classical style replaced the Rococo in popularity. That new fashion had a direct effect on the design and construction of knife boxes. The squarish boxes with a serpentine bow-front and a slanted lid gave way to a radically new form. Knife boxes were made in the form of classical urns, though in most cases, they were still made of wood and were richly decorated. However, instead of mahogany, satinwood was the preferred material for making urn-shaped knife boxes. A panel with openings for various types of silver tableware still formed the top of the lower half of the inside of the urn. A number of these early urns had hinged lids. And sideboards at the time had a rail along the back which was intended to support these lids when the knife box was open. In some cases, the lid of the urn was so large it was also used to hold small salvers and other items during a meal, while supported by the rail at the back of the sideboard. By the early nineteenth century, instead of the hinges, some of these urn-shaped boxes had a central support, usually cylindrical in shape, which ran the full height of the urn. This support typically had an extension which enabled the lid to be raised high enough to give easy access to the tableware it contained. Many of these central cylinders were equipped with a small spring which held the knife box lid open as long as needed. The spring catch would be released to lower the knife box lid back into the closed position. Some of these urn-shaped knife boxes were made with locks, while others were not. Those without locks were usually the type that opened on the cylinder support.

Even before the eighteenth century came to an end, it was becoming popular to build a pair, or even three, knife boxes into the top of the more upscale dining room sideboards. The most popular of these built-in knife boxes was the urn-shaped box, which perfectly complemented the Neo-Classical design of many of these late sideboards. In fact, this type of sideboard was still very popular in the early nineteenth century, including the Regency. However, sideboards which included built-in knife boxes were quite expensive, so there were still quite a number of more modest Regency households in which separate knife boxes were simply placed symmetrically at the corners of a less complex style of sideboard.

Though the early knife boxes were made by cabinet-makers, as the form became more complex and with more ornate decoration, they were more often made by those who specialized in the intricate work of making cases. Because the making of knife boxes was in such high demand, here were a number of these case-makers who included an image of a knife box on their trade cards. One of the best known of these case-makers was John Lane, who had premises at Number 44, St. Martin’s-Le-Grand. Lane was a skilled maker of knife boxes, in addition to dressing and writing cases, as well as ladies’ work boxes. Thomas Sheraton, the English furniture designer working in the early nineteenth century, regularly recommended Lane to his best clients. Lane is believed to have been supplying cases and boxes from his location in St. Martin’s-Le-Grand right though the Regency. There were undoubtedly other case and box makers working in Regency England, in London, as well as in the other larger cities around the country.

Concurrently with the making and use of all these elegant and sophisticated knife boxes, very plain and simple utilitarian knife boxes were also being made and used. Some were used in the homes of the lower classes, while others were used in the same households which had fine knife boxes prominently displayed on their dining room sideboards. These very humdrum knife boxes usually hung on the wall of the kitchen and in them, the cook stored their best knives. Kept in these hanging knife boxes, the knife blades were less likely to be damaged as well as reducing the risk that anyone might be inadvertently cut by reaching into a drawer which contained a sharp knife. Such knife boxes could be found on the walls of the most upscale London kitchen to the cozy kitchen of a country farmhouse.

These work-a-day knife boxes varied widely in design and quality of workmanship. Some were opened by a panel in a groove at the front of the hanging box which could be raised to allow the cook to select the knife needed. Others had an open top into which the cook would reach, hoping that all the knives in the box had their handles up. In still others, the front cover could be lowered on a hinge to reveal the contents of the box. All of these kitchen knife boxes were made of sturdy woods, seldom adorned, though a few have been found with a simple painted motif, perhaps an effort to add a bit of design to a plain room. By the nineteenth century, some of these knife boxes were lined with charcoal grit which could be used to polish and or sharpen the blades of the knives they contained. Others might contain a small stick or board covered with charcoal grit which could be used to whet a knife blade before use.

Dear Regency Authors, knife boxes were nearly ubiquitous in Regency England. Might one, or a pair of them serve some purpose in an upcoming story? The heroine might be very impressed by the hero, when the two are stranded in a small farmhouse due to inclement weather, when he sees the knife box on the wall, chooses a likely knife, expertly whets the blade on the board covered with charcoal grit, before preparing a tasty and warming stew for them. Or, perhaps the heroine first encounters the hero at the shop of a prominent case-maker, perhaps even John Lane himself? The hero is there to place an order for a new set of knife boxes, while the heroine has come to collect the workbox or writing case which has just been repaired for her. In another instance, a catty guest might hurt the feelings of a hostess whose family has limited means by casting aspersions on the old-fashioned knife boxes displayed on the family’s sideboard while letting everyone know her knife-boxes are urn-shaped and built of a piece with her very expensive sideboard. Then there are all the possibilities of that secret place inside many knife boxes. Beneath the panel with openings cut to support the cutlery stored in the knife box is just open space. What secret might that space conceal? Perhaps a crucial document necessary to the happiness of one of the characters has been hidden there? Or, mayhap some small but precious item, maybe a ring or a precious gem, was dropped through one of the openings to hide it from a potential thief? How else might a knife-box or two add some interesting twists to Regency romance yet to be written?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era. Ā  An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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7 Responses to Of Knife-Cases and Knife-Boxes

  1. Nothing leaps yet to mind, but as always a fascinating and scholarly article which will doubtless wander into my mind at some point when I need it….

  2. Anna M.Thane says:

    Very interesting and rich in detail. Thank you for this great post.

    The urn-shaped things must have been quite popular in the dining room, as there were also some hot water urnes. These had a tap for the water.

    A knife-box in the dining room would provide the drunken villain with a sharp, silvery weapon to threat hero or heroine. Or would there be a brawl (when the gentlemen had too much port) and the urne-shaped knife-box itself is thrown around, knocking the hero unconscious, so that his heroine-to-be can nurse him back to health?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are welcome. I did not touch on the hot-water urns in this post since I covered it in my post on the sideboard. But you are quite right, there were some sideboards with built-in urns in which one was a knife box and one was a lead-lined cistern for the clean water needed during a meal. Imagine what Regency servants would think of dishwashers? šŸ˜‰

      Interesting plot bunny, but I suspect no one would invite someone to dinner who might be likely to descend into violence. If this is taking place in the home after the villain has forced himself in, he might find it a problem to open one of those knife boxes if he was too drunk. He would need a key for the locked ones, and even the urn-shaped boxes with a spring catch system would be a challenge to manage for someone who was foxed. Perhaps the villain’s henchman is inebriated, so the villain has to try to open the box himself?

      Conking the hero on the head a with a loose knife box would certainly be plausible, but the villain would have to be very strong. Filled with cutlery, those boxes are remarkably heavy. Though there is no doubt a blow with such a heavy object would almost certainly render the hero unconscious. He would need lots of TLC from the heroine! šŸ™‚

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. LEILANI RUSSELL says:

    We have two of these boxes at our museum here in Onancock, VA and wanted to know what they were and their history. Your article was very helpful!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you so much for letting me know. As a former museum curator myself, I know how hard it is to keep up with the research on all of the objects in any collection. I am glad to know my article was of some help to you.

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. James Howard says:

    Persons currently selling old sheffield plate often offer ‘knife trays”, which appear to be shallow trays, perhaps 12″X6″X2″, of the simplest form. I have never seen an ornate one, so they must have been quite utilitarian. Any information on their use?
    Thanks for your most interesting web site.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I know, knife trays were also often called bread trays, and were typically used to serve bread, though a butter knife might also have been placed in the tray. Most of them seem to have been made prior to the mid-nineteenth century, which may be why they have more restrained and simple decoration. They had pretty much gone out of style by the time the Victorians developed a taste for way over-the-top decoration. That is probably why extant knife trays have elegant rather than ostentatious decoration.

      Thank you for your kind words regarding my blog. I am glad to know you found it interesting.

      Regards,

      Kat

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