article # 137
by Dorothea Burstyn
(click on photos to enlarge image)


The majority of toasting forks were made of iron, brass or simple wire, this study only concerns itself with the use, styles and history of the silver toasting fork. It has been suggested that the silver toasting fork was intended to be used in the dining room "to give employment to amateur cooks"(note 1) or was handled "by those who preferred to do their own toasting before the dining room or sitting room fire"(note 2). These quotes seem to suggest that the choice of material - silver - was determined by the location in which this implement was to be used. In contrast, modern thought categorizes the silver toasting fork as kitchenware (note 3). The incentive to choose silver for so many medical and kitchenware utensils must be found in the hygienic properties of silver. Besides until the mid-nineteenth century (and possibly even later), people who could afford silver toasting forks had servants who did all the food preparation.
American kitchen toasting forks, made from wire
American kitchen toasting forks, made from wire
Apart from the examples of toasting forks in my own collection, which triggered my interest in the first place, I wanted to make a survey of existing toasting forks. Looking through auction house catalogues brought a few results, but a search through the published catalogues of American museums proved futile. The biggest collection of toasting forks (eleven pieces) is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. If one wanted to enter into any meaningful discussion of style and its evolution, a visit seemed imperative (note 4). Most of the V & A collection, which spans from 1669 to 1889, was assembled with an eye for quality and the unusual by Dr. Louis Clarke, a member of the Society of Antiquarians and curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum (note 5).The earliest example in the V & A, dated 1669, as well as a Charles II silver-mounted toasting fork (note 6) feature elongated two-pronged forks with a backward hook, devised so that slices of bread and cheese or meat could be toasted together.
Two Charles II silver-mounted toasting forks, ca. 1670
Two Charles II silver-mounted toasting forks, ca. 1670,
Photo courtesy of Christie's South Kensington, London, September 2001
Another Charles II fork has four prongs, more suitable for toasting teacakes or apples. Both of these Charles II examples are marked with DL, a trefoil above and a mullet below, the mark of a maker who might have specialized in these implements, as he is also recorded in Jackson, revised, to have made a "long toasting fork," 1672-73 (note 7). Both examples have tapered handles with central silver ferrules, the terminals furnished with reeded ball finials and suspension rings.

Detail of Charles II silver toasting fork
Detail of Charles II silver toasting fork
George III silver toaster, Exeter 1816, apparently no master mark
Another toasting fork, dating to about 1680 (note 8) and marked with the maker's mark of F.G over a star in a shaped shield, features the same arrangement of tapered handle, central ferrule and ball shaped terminal with suspension ring, but is equipped with a C-shaped, two-pronged fork with a pivoted stirrup-shaped toast-holder. This fork combines the toasting fork and a related utensil, the toaster. The toaster has an arrangement of tapered back hooks forming a basket-shaped device or rack in which a sandwich can be inserted. A charming example is in the V & A, dating to ca. 1690 and marked with the maker's mark of Ro crowned. The toast holder consists of two hooks, the ends of which are formed as eagles' heads (note 9).

The toaster with variations of basket and hook arrangements is an enduring style. Examples found in 1709 (note 10) and Exeter, 1816 are on record. Another more sophisticated specimen was made by Thomas Whipham, London, 1749, the wirework basket being attached to a short shaft via a hinge (note 11). T. Phipps and E. Robinson of London made a variety of toasting forks and toasters (note 12). The pièce de resistance is an example dating to 1797: ingenious, yet simple, the triple-hooked toast holder and a three-pronged fork are both hinged to a tapering socket, the two hinges being arranged in a way to allow either the toast holder or the fork to be used. If the basket is used, the fork can be folded parallel to the handle, a space in the hinge of the basket holding it in place (note 13).

George III silver toaster,
Exeter 1816, apparently
no master mark
From the 1790s on ingenuity was the name of the game. A successful silversmith, Sir Edward Thomason, reminisces in his Memoirs During Half a Century about his inventions: "In 1809 I invented the sliding toasting fork, some with one, two, or three slides, within a handsome japanned handle, common now in all the shops. I also invented one that by the action of drawing the slide, the same movement raised a shield from off the prongs, and upon shutting up again of the slides this action moved the shield over the prongs. I also invented a third kind, which was that the three prongs collapsed together, which, on the shutting up of the slides of the fork, drew the same into the mouth of a snake, the head of a silver snake being attached to one end of the outer slide or handle. The above were made in silver, gilt, plated, and brass; and large quantities were sold even by me; but, as I did not protect this invention by patent, thousands were made and sold by other manufacturers" (note 14). An example of his wonderful toasting fork with collapsible prongs, made of various metals with a black japanned handle and a gold-plated snake head, is in the collection of the Birmingham Assay Office. Patented or not, the sliding - or better telescopic - toasting fork was made much earlier than 1809 by other makers, as there is an example marked with maker's mark TID, dating to London, 1804, in my collection and yet another one, made by the same maker, 1807, in the former Albert collection (note 15).
Toasting fork by E. Thomason
Toasting fork by E. Thomason.
Photo courtesy of
Birmingham Assay Office
Telescopic toasting fork, London 1804, master TID, with shagreen handle
Telescopic toasting fork, London 1804, master TID, with shagreen handle
A slender four-part extending toasting fork is hallmarked for London 1809 and made by George Collins.
Telescopic toasting fork from Weeks Museum, London 1809, by George Collins, fully extended
Telescopic toasting fork from Weeks Museum, London 1809, by George Collins, fully extended.
Photo courtesy "The Finial" - Daniel Bexfield Antiques, London Mayfair.
Detail of telescopic toasting fork, from Weeks Museum, closed
Detail of telescopic toasting fork, from Weeks Museum, closed
It is inscribed around the outer collar with B[ough]t at Week's R[oyal Mechanical] Museum, Tichbourne Stt, 1138. Curiously a parasol with a telescopic handle and an inscription identical to the one on the toasting fork (except for the number 1013) surfaced in the estate of a prominent English dealer. It turns out the handles on both, the toasting fork and parasol, are identical in length and were made by the same maker, but the parasol handle was assayed in 1802. As Mr. Weeks started his commercial life as an umbrella manufacturer, the question arises whether both items started out as parasols or toasting forks (note 16).
Anglo-Indian toasting fork
Telescopic toasting forks, supposedly invented for traveling, are relatively short and measure closed from 9 to 12 inches. They may have sterling, Sheffield plate or japanned handles. The majority of toasting forks are equipped with wooden handles. Ebony or hard fruitwoods are most commonly chosen, measuring 36 to 39 ½ inches; black buckhorn is seen on Anglo-Indian toasting forks (note 17). I came across two all silver toasting forks, both having handles very similar to Warwick cruet stands. One is in the V & A (M.1674-1944) and is thought to be a fake or a concoction of parts put together from various sources. In any case, due to silver being an excellent conductor, an all-silver toasting fork without heat-spacers seems a very impractical instrument.

Anglo-Indian toasting fork
Given the great variety of types, styles and patterns of American flatware, it is surprising that not more American silver toasting forks surfaced in the survey. Up to now I found only two examples, one made by Gorham in 1889.
Special order toasting fork, Gorham 1889
Special order toasting fork, Gorham 1889
Detail of the Gorham toasting form, note the swivel mechanism
Detail of the Gorham toasting form, note the swivel mechanism
The costing record (note 18) calls it "1357 Toast Fork" and indicates that it was a special order made December 4, 1889 for the Providence, Rhode Island, retail jeweler Tilden & Thurber. The three-pronged fork is attached via a swivel to an extension rod that slides in and out of the wooden handle and is controlled by a silver screw on top of the socket. It measures 22 inches closed and can be extended to a length of 36 inches. The handle is fruitwood with a lovely acorn finial. The central ferrule is divided into two parts by a beaded band, the lower section being engraved with M.P.B.H. Nov. 16th, 1889. That the inscription features four initials (presumably his and hers), plus the fact that the fork is engraved with a date earlier than it was actually produced, makes one suspect that it was given as a wedding present as it was an accepted custom to give wedding presents up to one year after the joyous event. The other American toasting fork was seen on Ebay; it is also made by Gorham, dating to the 1890s, featuring an ivory handle, two elaborately shaped wires form flat grips to hold the toast.
Silver toaster by Gorham, ca. 1890
             Silver toaster by Gorham, ca. 1890
As described earlier, two- and four-pronged forks were made, but the most enduring form over the centuries by far is the three-pronged type.
Toasting fork and bread fork ny T. Bradbury & Sons, Sheffield 1918 and 1894
Toasting fork and bread fork ny T. Bradbury & Sons, Sheffield 1918 and 1894
And when a new serving implement for bread was introduced in the 1880s, it was the three pronged style that prevailed.
Two bread forks, Sheffield 1898 and London 1897
Two bread forks, Sheffield 1898 and London 1897
It is interesting to note that James Dixon & Sons made an electroplated nickel silver combined bread and toasting fork: the short version to be used for bread, the utensil is equipped with a separate extension rod which transforms it to a toasting fork (note 19). We know from old records that toasting forks existed as early as the 1550s in noble English households (note 20). Astounding is that - probably English-made - silver toasting forks were to be found in America as early as the mid-17th century (note 21). Toasting forks were part of the equipment affluent students took to university; Lloyd Evans received one as a present from his mother in 1669 (note 22) and John Courtenay donated his toaster, made 1706, to his alma mater (note 23). Given that dinner was served quite late at the universities, a cheese toast or a roasted apple might have been welcome treats in between meals. As mentioned before, telescopic toasting forks were popular on travels. Recounting her early travels to the continent, Lady Caroline Capel called her toasting fork a treasure which made many a bit of sour bread more digestable (note 24).
The legendary collector, tastemaker and bon vivant William Beckford owned three toasting forks that he took with him on his various travels (note 25). An epitome of sheer luxury and elegance is his unique gold toasting fork. Bought shortly before his journey to Portugal, it is dated 1793, measures 38 3/4 inches in length and features exquisite floral chasing on the baluster stem and three fluted prongs (Fig. 15 and Fig. 16). The elongated ebony handle is capped in gold and furnished with a gold ring. As usual the combination of impeccable provenance, beauty of design, precious material and extreme rarity is rewarded in the marketplace; this piece was sold at Sotheby’s in April 1998 for the remarkable sum of $134,500 (note 26).
William Beckford?s gold toasting fork, London 1793
William Beckford’s gold toasting fork, London 1793.
Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s New York, April 1998
Detail of the Beckford gold toasting fork
Detail of the Beckford gold toasting fork
1 - Charles Oman, "English Silver Toasting forks," Antique Collector, vol. 34, February 1963, p. 24.
2 - Geoffrey Wills, Silver for Pleasure and Investment: A Guide to 18th Century English Silver ( New York: Arco Publishing, 1969), p. 152.
3 - Robin Butler, The Albert Collection: 500 years of British and European Silver (London: Broadway Publishing, 2004), p. 162.
4 - I am indebted to Dr. Tessa Murdoch for sending copies of the original entries from the registers in the V & A and to Ann Eatwell for spending so much time showing me these toasting forks in the various storage areas – even in the bomb proof cellar - of the museum.
5 - Nine out of eleven toasting forks in the collection are from Dr. Louis Clarke. He donated regularly to the V & A from 1911 on, mainly metalwork objects, but also textiles, woodwork and ceramics. The toasting forks came to the museum as the bequest of Dr. Clarke in 1961 (E-mail from James Sutton, V & A Museum Archives, 2 November 2005.)
6 - Lots 243 and 244 in Selected Silver and Plate, Christie’s, South Kensington, 25 September 2001.
7 - Jackson's Silver & Gold Marks of England, Scotland & Ireland, third ed., Ian Pickford, ed. (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club, 1989), p. 131.
8 - V & A, M.21-1961.
9 - V & A, M.22-1961.
10 - Old Cambridge Plate, An Illustrated Catalogue of the Loan Collection of Plate, Exhibited in the Fitzwilliam Museum, May 1895, Cambridge, Deighton Bell & Co and Macmillan & Bowes for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 1896, page 63.
11 - Pictured in Eric Lassen, Knives, Forks, Spoons (Copenhagen: Host & Son, 1960), entry no. 64.
12 - For example, a three-pronged toasting fork with a wooden handle, 1798, V & A, M.28-1961; and toaster with turned wooden handle and suspended rack-shaped toast holder, 1817, Lot 2, Important English and Continental Silver, Sotheby’s, New York, 21 October 1997.
13 - V & A, M.27-1961
14 - Many thanks to Phyllis Benedikz, librarian/curator of the Birmingham Assay Office, for sending a photo of the toasting fork and photocopies of Sir Edward Thomason’s Memoirs During Half a Century, Vol.1 (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans), 1814.
15 - Robin Butler, page 162; another telescopic toasting fork with lacquered grip, engraved with initials EE under a marquess’s coronet, hallmarked London, 1805, is in the V & A, M.29-1961; yet another one, made by Joseph Willmore, Birmingham, 1809, sold at Important English and Continental Silver, Sotheby’s, New York, 21 October 1997, Lot 2.
16 - Anthony Dove, "A Souvenir Purchased From a Georgian Museum," The Finial, October/November 2003, p. 9. A. Dove "Toasting fork from the Weeks Museum", The Finial, December 2002/January/February 2003, p.21.
17 - For a pair of toasting forks by Jonas Gregory, Madras, ca. 1830, see Wynyard R. T. Wilkinson, The Makers of Indian Colonial Silver: A Register of European Goldsmiths, Silversmiths, Jewellers, Watchmakers and Clockmakers in India and Their Marks, 1760-1860 (London: W. R. T. Wilkinson, 1987), p. 80.
18 - Samuel J. Hough report EIN 65-1216727: the fork consists of 3 ounces 8 pennyweights troy of sterling silver, valued at $4.08. The making of the fork took about twelve hours with an additional hour each for chasing and finishing. The net factory price was $16.50. The estimated price given to Tilden & Thurber had been $18.00.
19 - Trade Catalogue, James Dixon & Sons, Cornish Place, Sheffield, 1895, p, 30:"Bread and Toasting Fork, combined, in case, 17/0." I am grateful to Ann Eatwell for this reference.
20 - Charles Oman, page 25. Other toasting fork dating to mid 16th century are pictured in Michael Clayton, The Collector's Dictionary of the Silver and Gold of Great Britain and North America, second ed. (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club, 1985), p.430/431, further references to very early toasting forks are found in Film 92052 PCC 34 CAPELL, Heartland/Fields/1759 vol.3.87 – Internet and Geoffrey Wills, p. 152.
21 - Probate inventories of Captain Tyng and John Freake in Albert S. Roe and Robert F. Trent, "Robert Sanderson and the Founding of the Boston Silversmiths' Trade," New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982), pp. 481-482. Many thanks to Deborah Dependahl Waters for this information.
22 - Unmarked toasting fork in the V & A Museum collection, M.62-1954, engraved on the ball-cap with EVANUS LLOYD EX DONO MATRIS (Evan Lloyd's gift from his mother)
23 - Toaster, 1706, inscribed on the rack: EX DONO JOHANNIS COURTENAY FFILIJ (sic)/NATU MAXIMI JOHANNIS COURTENAY DE WEST MOLAND(sic) IN COMITATU DEVON/ARMIGERI (donated from John Courtenay, son of the great John Courtenay of West Morland in Devon/Armigeri), in the Queen’s (College)collection (Old Cambridge Plate, p. 63).
24 - The Capel Letters 1814-1817, Cape, 1956; quoted in G. Bernard Hughes, Small Antique Silverware (New York: Bramhall House, 1957), p. 111.
25 - William Beckford, 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent (exhibition catalogue), ed. Derek E. Ostergard (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press for The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, 2001), page 315.
26 - Lot 46, Important English and Continental Silver and Gold, Sotheby’s, New York, 22 April 1998.
Dorothea Burstyn is the Editor of the Silver Society of Canada Journal
and Administrator of SSC website
- 2010 -