The History of the Kitchen Knife
There wouldn’t be a kitchen in the world today which does not have a kitchen knife. We use it every day, and its use is so frequent that we sometimes take it for granted. Ever stopped to think what would you ever do without kitchen knives? Cooking a simple meal would be a horrendous task if it wasn’t for this simple, yet amazing tool.
Quality knives we see today are nothing like the ones that were used in ancient times. They have seen countless modifications and improvements and ultimately assumed the design, structure and shape that we see today. For all those who are curious as to where these quality knives originally came from, here’s an overview on the rich and colorful history of these marvelous cooking tools.
The oldest knife
Kitchen knives have been one of the oldest tools that Man has used and yet carries the same importance today as it held millions of years ago. The oldest known cutting tools date back to some 2.5 million years ago. “Oldowan knives” is the name given to them, although they looked nothing like the knives we have today. These were found in Gona and Omo Basins, the same place that’s called Ethiopia today.
It wouldn’t completely be fair to call these ancient tools quality knives since they were basically just stones that were broken down in such a way as to create sharp edges suitable for cutting. The looks of these cutting tools might be very different from the quality knives we use today, but the purpose was the same.
They used these preliminary varieties of kitchen knives to cut through their hunt, or tough plants, much like we do for cooking. How do we know this? That’s because archaeologists found protein remains on these ancient knives. The proteins could only come from the animals they butchered for sustenance.
Intervention of fire
The stone kitchen knives saw many upgrades before the major breakthrough in our culinary history came. This was with the discovery of fire around 1.6 million years ago. Now that Man had mastered the art of creating fire, it wasn’t late before they began to melt and forge metals. Now the quality knives for cooking could be created through forging metal into much more convenient and versatile shapes, rather than carving, snapping, or chipping as was done initially.
Double bladed knives were the most popular designs of kitchen knives back then. But not everyone had the honor of owning one. Yes, only the selected few superior members of the community would own these special tools as a symbol of great honor and repute. The wooden or stone handles of these quality knives were decorated with feathers, or animal skins.
The bronze age
Then came the bronze age and the kitchen knives that were in use initially saw even more improvements than before. This was during the 1500 BC. Metalworking was at its peak during this time to meet the needs of people. Bronze was the material of choice during this age and was leaving its impact on all the aspects of society, whether it was economics, or culture.
The use of bronze led to kitchen knives that weren't quite as durable for cooking use as the earlier carved stone varieties since they were prone to corrosion and susceptible to dulling. Even before these quality knives that were made from bronze started being used for cooking, they were popular for cutting hair. Barbers everywhere started using these quality knives for cutting hair for men that came to them.
On the plus side, these quality knives were much sharper and smaller in design. The convenient nature and effectiveness of these kitchen knives meant that they quickly gained popularity among the people.
The iron age
Next breakthrough came during the iron age; this was when iron replaced bronze as the material of choice. With the discovery of iron somewhere around 1000 BC, major breakthroughs came in many fields for humans. The cooking industry was one such area that benefited loads from the use of iron. This metal became popular in Central and Western Europe initially before leaving its mark across the globe.
Iron was initially discovered in its purest form which is meteoric iron. Man then started extracting it from its ore which is a combination of carbonates and oxides of iron.
So how were these iron kitchen knives better than the quality knives made from bronze? Why did people quickly start choosing iron knives over the bronze ones? That’s because these kitchen knives offered much greater durability for use in cooking purposes.
The kitchen knives forged with iron lasted much longer than the quality knives made from bronze. Not only this, but they were not as easily dulled as the bronze ones and maintained their sharpness for a very long time even when given much little maintenance.
Somewhere around 200 to 300 AD, the Romans had even developed a highly ingenious multi-tool. MacGyvericus was the name behind this masterpiece. The tool invented was much similar in looks and in use to the modern swiss army knife that’s so popular in the modern world. Other than a kitchen knife that was used for cooking, it also had a spike, pick, fork and a spatula. With all the useful gadgets in place, the tool covered all of the cutting and eating requirements of the common man at that time. However, it was made out of iron and silver, and a tool that only a wealthy traveler could afford.
Man did not stop here. Designs were improving continuously, as was the material with which these quality knives used for cooking and other purposes were forged. After iron, came steel. With the use of steel, Man now had the ability to create bigger shapes similar to kitchen knives. Swords, spears and other tools used for protection were also becoming popular during these times.
During the middle ages, cutlery and armor making were one of the most thriving businesses on the planet. The miners, blacksmiths, refiners were all pretty busy finding material, and forging them into tools that were gaining popularity in the society. These tools that resembled kitchen knives were then used by kings, conquerors, their men to take on their enemies. Other than that, the use of quality knives in the cooking industry was also on its rise.
During the 15th century, only the wealthiest families in the community had the luxury to afford a quality knife that was used for multiple purposes. It wasn’t just used in the kitchen for cooking purposes. It was also a weapon that they carried to keep themselves and their families protected from threats.
Since they carried it around as a token of honor and respect, they also used it for cutting and eating their meals when they were invited for dinner somewhere. Double bladed designs were more popular for this purpose since they could easily pierce through the meal, making it easier to eat. More than the ease of eating, they appreciated the impression the use of these knives created on the onlookers.
Other than that, the use of steel had made the kitchen knives much more durable and versatile. They now had much greater uses in the cooking industry. Quality knives made with steel could now be used for mincing, paring and boning as well, rather than for simply cutting through the ingredients.
Kitchen knives with blunt tools became popular during the reign on French king Louis XIV. It was because the king’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, hated using sharp knives on the dinner table for cutting food and for picking meat out of the teeth.
Eventually, he used his stature to convince the king not only to remove the use of sharp kitchen knives from the courtroom dinner tables but from the entire country in an attempt to reduce violence. With this ban came the popularity of single-bladed quality knives with blunt edges, across Europe, especially for the table use.
Forks had also started to come in use during the 19th century which was another reason for the elimination of sharp kitchen knives from the table since it was much easier to cut food and eat with quality knives with blunt edges and forks rather than with sharp ones.
By this time almost everyone started using quality knives in their kitchen since they were so much more affordable and accessible than the medieval knives.
The use of steel for making tools in the cooking industry was soon replaced by stainless steel. Stainless steel was quickly popular in many major industries, in addition to the cooking industry for obvious reasons. The ability to resist rusting meant that quality knives could be much more durable now even if they were put through much abuse.
Not only this, but the ease of manufacturing means that a whole bundle of different varieties could be made, each one specific for its own purpose. With the greater variety came greater ease and versatility for the users.
Stainless steel was the most popular material used in the making of kitchen knives since the start of the 20th century.
Inception of modern knives
Stainless steel knives developed during the 20th century are still in use in the modern culinary industry. However, the quality of stainless steel used back then is nowhere close to the phenomenal qualities that we see today.
Other materials are also growing in popularity alongside the use of steel. Besides steel knives, we can now also find ceramic and titanium knives in stores. Plastic knives are also popular, especially for travel use. Other materials are also used for making knives during the modern times.
Today, we have a whole array of designs to choose from when it comes to knives. We have come a long way since the inception of this unique tool millions of years ago. Here are some of the most common varieties that you’ll find today:
So the kitchen knife that we use today has a rich history. However, the idea isn’t new. In fact, it’s even older than fire! Knives have ever since been one of the most important tools that we are dependent on for survival. Choose a good kitchen knife and treasure it, because we just can’t do without it!