Mess Furniture

by Robert A. Braun
1999, Robert A. Braun/ Phalanx Studios
All Rights Reserved

The Revised U. S. Army Regulations stated in Paragraph #122 that the "* mess furniture of the soldier" included "one knife, fork and spoon to each man*" How does an authentically minded reenactor go about ensuring that one's knife, fork, and/or spoon conforms to styles of the period?

The mess furniture knives used by our Civil War martial ancestors were often identical to many common styles used at antebellum civilian tables. The blades were primarily made of steel and generally ranged anywhere from 4 7/8 to 6 inches in length, about 7/8 to one inch wide. The blade bore a straight, "spatula" shape, sharpened on one edge and rounded at the end opposite the handle. The wide, slightly curved steel blades seen at the start of the century had become straight and slightly narrower by the 1860's. The shape and width of the blade is significant: the practice of eating with one's knife was a strong American tradition a generation before the Civil War. Europeans introduced the custom to the New World, but Americans persisted in conveying food to their mouths with knives long after Europeans took to using forks. "Feeding yourself with your right hand, armed with a steel blade," was a prevalent American custom according to Emily Farrar's detailed Young Lady's Friend in 1837. Although the practice of eating with one's knife was waning by the time of the Civil War, the table cutlery of the era still reflected past convention.

Two or three small-diameter metal pins were often used to attach the knife handles to the knife by inserting them through holes drilled in both the handle and the knife tang. The handles were made from a variety of materials including wood, bone, and metal. Examples of ebony, gutta percha, hard rubber, ivory, and so forth are known.

Knives (and forks) with handles inlaid with lead in a variety of geometric and floral designs are frequently found in antique shops, auctions and estate sales. A mini-debate has raged for some years over whether or not such inlaid flatware actually post-dates the Civil War, supported mainly by the apparent lack of identified utensils with acceptable Civil War provenance. Only one such specimen was found thus far, pictured as a four-tined fork in Lord's Collector's Encyclopedia..., Volume 1, page 154. Unfortunately, Dr. Lord did not establish a provenance for this piece in the text. Until more research is done, it is recommended that Civil War reenactors purchase mess furniture knives made directly from specimens with either a) established Civil War provenance or b) which exhibit the features, materials, and construction seen in the original specimens.

In America, forks evolved parallel to knives, but much slower. They were known before the American Revolution, but generally were available only to the well to do. Forks are a rare find in archaeological digs at colonial sites; knives and spoons being much more common. In the decades before the Civil War, Jack Larkin described the use of the fork in his The Reshaping of Everyday Life, p. 181: "Americans were peculiar in using their 'great lumbering, long, two-pronged forks,' not to convey food to the mouth as their English and French contemporaries did, but merely to keep their meat from slipping off the plate while cutting it." Antebellum writers like Emily Farrar conceded that Americans might want to consider imitating the French and English "*and put every mouthful into your mouth with a fork." Such conventions indeed were evolving in the United States, as evidenced by an incident involving a young army officer who had recently arrived at Fort Howard in the Michigan Territory (now Green Bay, Wisconsin.) The story goes that the officer was invited to dine at the table of the post surgeon, during which he proceeded to eat with a fork. One of the ladies in attendance was horrified at the practice, and cautioned the officer that he must eat with his knife, "lest he plunge the fork" through his cheeks! American use of the fork became more dexterous during the Federal period, so that by the time of the Civil War, eating with one's knife had become a relic of "primitive manners," at least in fashionable society. 

The fork in America apparently evolved from the two-tine varieties to three tines, and finally the familiar four tines of today. Surviving specimens identified to Civil War soldiers of both sides clearly indicates that soldiers used utensils bearing two, three, or four tines between 1861-1865. Despite this fact, re-enacting circles have persistently regarded three-tine forks as more "correct." Forks had handles similar to knives, and were frequently available as sets. Like the knives, inlaid fork handles are a source of moderate controversy.

Spoons and their use date back to at least 600 AD and came about as a result of Roman influence. The popular "fiddle" pattern seen on spoons from the Civil War era dated to patterns used on American tables since the 1780's. Two types of "fiddle" were known: a style that flared suddenly from the thinner handle, with obvious "shoulders", was an Old English pattern; the other flaring smoothly from the handle in an "oar" shape, and finished slightly longer and less wide than the other, is of Scottish derivation (with some French influence.) Spoons used by the general population in the 1860's were mostly made of die-stamped steel or tinned iron, along with fashionable nickel silver or sterling silver plating over a base metal, like copper. 

Captain John W. Deforest, Co. I, 12th Connecticut, indicated that perhaps spoons were not as necessary an item as Army Regulations described. He wrote in early 1863 that: "When mealtime comes I seize my tin cup, tin plate, knife and fork; I walk down to the cooking fire at the bottom of the company street; I seat myself on a log, or a pumpkin, and devour the richness of the land."

The antique market offers a variety of spoons of steel or tinned iron that will enhance you impression. There are also several reasonably good reproduction spoons available. Avoid pewter spoons, either reproduction or original, as much for reasons of safety (true pewter is an alloy made with lead) as for the fact that they were not generally issued to soldiers from state sources. The most common issue size appears to be what we would term a "tablespoon" today.

A few notes on variants and combination sets. Although most original or reproduction flatware are "separates" with knives and forks handled in wood or bone, there was flatware issued of plain steel without additional wood or bone pieces attached for handles. Many examples are extant in public and private collections, and one set is pictured in the Time-Life Civil War series volume Tenting Tonight, page 74. These steel flatware sets reflect war-time production of a basic item of issue after current stocks were depleted. Such sets were known and issued to the 124th and 151st New York Infantry regiments, and no doubt to many others as well. Regrettably, such sets are scarce today, and are not currently available as a reproduction. 

The variety of so-called "combination sets" sets that featured a folding or compact style of knife, fork, and/or spoon could constitute an article by themselves. Although generally not regarded as an "issue item", such sets were definitely available for purchase, or provided to soldiers through the generosity and goodwill of cutlery manufacturers of the period. They seemed to be immensely popular early in the war, and are less seen in period images and infrequently mentioned (if at all) in letters and diaries. Original sets are available in the relic market from time to time, and command high prices.

Two combination set have been successfully reproduced today. One such set, originally known as the "Richards Patent", was first patented on July 23, 1861 (there are conflicting sources regarding the patent year) by William H. Richards of Newton, Massachusetts. The Richards Patent was a combination steel fork-and-spoon and separate knife set that fit together by interlocking flanges. The late G. Gedney Godwin, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania introduced a very good reproduction of the Richards Patent more than a decade ago. When compared to original specimens, the reproduction is somewhat smaller. The metal gauge of steel is favorable, but the reproduction bears a modern maker's stamp. The stamp is easily filed or ground off, and the product improved by bending the spoon to a slightly sharper angle, as seen in the originals. 

The other type of reproduction combination set features a "jack-knife" style folding fork and spoon section, and a knife section of steel with plain wood handles. The sections attach by a "pin and slot" feature. The utensils may be separated into two pieces for the convenience of the user, or used as a single unit (although only one utensil can be used with ease.) This item compares favorably with original examples of this style of cutlery found in the Mazomanie Historical Society, Mazomanie, Wisconsin, and elsewhere in private collections.


This article was used with permission of the author and Phalanx Studios, Inc.