Oh, hello there! This is my first try at writing for The Medium. For this article (which will be printed in several installments), I researched the histories of some everyday things, picked the most interesting, and summed up all the best parts. I hope you enjoy the first three: Handshaking, Blackjack, and Cutlery.
You may have noticed that handshaking is going out of style, but you probably didn’t guess how old it is. In fact, the artwork on two funeral ornaments from the 5th and 4th centuries BC clearly shows people giving each other the old limp fish, including one of a husband and wife.
So how did it get to us? In the late 1500s, explorer and statesman Sir Walter Raleigh went to see the New World, and passed through Spain on his way back. He must have been pranked into an Indian Sunburn once or twice while there, because when he got back to England he thought it would be just lovely if he showed all the courtiers the stylish new way of saying hello. It quickly spread as a way of showing a peaceful, open-handed, and well-meaning greeting, and before long had trickled down from the upper classes to just about everyone (though it still carries an air of being somewhat “formal”, especially among the young).
Recently, the popularization of germophobia and anti-bacterial handsoaps is beginning to wear away the custom—although, as a 1922 Guide to Etiquette informs us, “At theatres, if a lady and a gentleman shake hands, they may both keep their gloves on.”
Have you ever heard of Don Quixote? Yeah, you have. (Have you ever read it? Of course not.) The same guy who wrote it used to write short stories before his big break, and one of them, published in 1602, is about a gambler who counts cards at a game called “ventiuna”, which is Italian for “twenty-one”. He describes the rules for us and it’s exactly the same as the modern-day game. (Except that you play without 8s, 9s, or 10s, so if I were playing it I might not bust 100% of the time like I do now!)
When it finally made its way to the U.S., nobody thought it was cool, so the casinos offered special promotions to get people in. For example, if you won with an Ace of Spades and a black Jack, you got a ten-to-one payout. And that, of course, is where it got the name we know it by today.
In the 14th century, the Catholic writer Giblin said about cutlery, “God…provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic tools for them when eating.” This idea may not seem quite so sensible now, but how did we get our eating utensils?
Perhaps because it’s essential to the proper enjoyment of Campbell’s soups, the spoon was invented first: the Egyptians had wood spoons, and the Romans had silver (and then got poisoned and died). And knives weren’t too far behind. We don’t know the whole story, but it seems that in northern Europe, smiths used the bits of metal they couldn’t make tools out of and sold them to the rich (who will buy anything) as “the polite way to eat”. By the 10th century, the spoon and knife could be found in many households in Europe.
But the fork took the longest. First mentioned in Ancient Greece and in the Bible, the fork was probably used to poke at ritual sacrifices without getting your hands dirty. However, it disappeared into Byzantium until the 11th century, when the Italians decided they could show off their wealth by borrowing these hot new items and taking them to dinner parties in fancy boxes. However, for both some unusual religious reasons and—no kidding—the idea that the Italians’ way of eating wasn’t nearly manly enough, the fork only made its way to France and Germany 200 years later and had finally become widely accepted by the early 1700s.
Besides minor aesthetic changes, the tools stayed more or less the same—until of course the 20th century rolled around and the Americans decided that the world needed the spork. Now who’s manly?