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Your Guide to Proper Silverware Placement

Planning a formal dinner party requires careful coordination, as any seasoned host knows. Choosing a menu, creating a tablescape, and selecting your guest list all contribute to the overall event - but what about your flatware? Selecting the proper placement for your silverware gives guests an elevated experience and demonstrates your knowledge of table etiquette and hosting. If you’re looking for an in-depth guide to the proper placement for everything from fish knives to grapefruit spoons, read on.

History of Silverware Placement

The desire to share food is innately human - archeological evidence dating back hundreds of thousands of years shows the importance of communal meals across every society. However, the utensils we use today, and their exact placements are much more modern. The spoon is the oldest eating utensil, first appearing as a simplistic shell attached to a stick.
Flora Danica Carving Fork and Knife by Royal Copenhagen. M.S. Rau. 20th century.
Flora Danica Carving Fork and Knife by Royal Copenhagen. M.S. Rau. 20th century.

Forks were brought into fashion by Catherine de Medici of Italy, during the 16th century. Before her marriage to King Henry II, France and many other countries had only used large forks, often with two fork tines, for serving dishes. The innovation of an individual fork for personal use took a few decades to catch on, but today, their presence at the table is nearly mandatory.
During the Victorian Era, flatware expanded beyond the basics into fantastical realms, with a specific utensil for every possible dish. From asparagus tongs to terrapin forks, wealthy hosts began to collect extensive flatware sets and built cabinets with custom-fitted inserts to store their collection. These custom cases served as beautiful displays and just as importantly made it obvious if even a single item was missing.

Today, many prefer to keep it simple for everyday occasions and bring out their expansive flatware only during the holidays. While the majority of flatware is sterling silver, you may also come across German silver or other alloys from time to time.


6 Steps for Proper Silverware Placement

  1. Start by identifying each type of utensil in your flatware service. If you are the lucky owner of a larger collection, you may be inundated with multiple styles of forks and unsure which is the correct match for your dish. Comparing the sizes of utensils can help you quickly differentiate between similar pieces. For example, a salad fork is always smaller than a fish fork, which is smaller than a dinner fork.
  2. Keep it simple. When placing flatware on the table, always ensure each piece will be used for one course and that no unnecessary flatware is added. For example, if you don’t plan to serve soup, there is no need to include a soup spoon. Guests will expect to use each utensil and adding extras can create confusion.
  3. Work from the outside in. Generally, the outermost pieces of flatware are the first used, working towards the center as you move through courses. Some additional pieces may be added above the dinner plate, like the butter knife or the dessert knife and other utensils. The innermost flatware should be placed an inch from the plate.
  4. Place forks to the left: The only exception to this rule is the dessert fork which goes above the dinner plate, and the snail or oyster fork which is placed to the right.
  5. Place knives to the right. Always ensure that the knife’s blade is turned inwards towards the plate, excluding the butter knife which should rest on the bread plate and face downwards.
  6. Don’t forget to add a napkin. Once your flatware is set, the napkin can be folded in a uniform design for your guests and placed either directly on the plate or to the left of the fork.

How to Set a Dining Table

C.J. Vander 994-Piece Silver Flatware Service. M.S. Rau. 1975-76.
C.J. Vander 994-Piece Silver Flatware Service. M.S. Rau. 1975-76.

Now that you’ve learned the history of silverware placement, you’re probably wondering how this information applies to your next gathering, whether it’s an important holiday or a fun night with friends. Choosing the correct silverware placement depends on the foods you’ll be serving, so make sure you’ve determined the number of courses and contents of each before you begin planning your tablescape.
Flora Danica Porcelain Dinner Service, 153 Pieces.M.S. Rau.
Flora Danica Porcelain Dinner Service, 153 Pieces. M.S. Rau.

Decorating your table can be as enjoyable as decorating with antiques, especially with antique flatware in stylish patterns. Selecting plates and serving dishes to match your flatware creates a cohesive look and can include anything from delicately-painted plates to ornate serving dishes. If you prefer porcelain to silver, this Flora Danica collection features rare art in the form of painted fish and fruits, the perfect complement to your flatware.

It is also important to consider how your meal will be served, whether it’s a casual family-style gathering or something more formal, especially in regard to the placement of the serving dishes on the table. While you don’t want your formal tablescape to feel overcrowded, a formal gathering will often require more flatware and will benefit from additional decorative elements like candles or a table runner.


Why is Silverware Placement Important?

Silverware placement may seem simple, but it’s an important way of conveying the mood and expectations of your event to guests, as well as the length of the event and level of formality. The placement of silverware is only one component of proper hosting etiquette but can truly make or break a formal event.

Tiffany & Co. Vine Dessert Service, 49 Pieces. M.S. Rau. 1880-1891.
Tiffany & Co. Vine Dessert Service, 49 Pieces. M.S. Rau. 1880-1891.
Tiffany & Co. Vine Dessert Service, 49 Pieces. M.S. Rau. 1880-1891.

Holiday table setting can pose additional challenges, especially if you’re entertaining a larger group or serving exciting new dishes to celebrate. If you’re planning to host a holiday gathering for the first time, make sure to plan the menu well in advance so you’ll have time to secure any additional flatware required, whether that’s simply adding place settings or a new utensil to suit a specific dish.


Whether you prefer collecting fine art or antiques, M.S. Rau offers exceptional finds across every category.


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