Cardinal Richelieu and the creation of the table knife

According to Today in Science (a website I use quite often to find some arbitrary scientific topic for my daily blog) today, 13 May, is the day in 1637 that the table knife was created by Cardinal Richelieu of France.

Whether it actually happened on this exact day I was unable to confirm, but various sources seem to agree that it was in fact Cardinal Richelieu (Armand Jean du Plessis) who was responsible for creating the now common table knife with its rounded end. And it happened in the 1630’s, at least.

Spreading made easy, thanks to the wide-bladed, blunt-ended table knife.  (© All Rights Reserved)
Spreading made easy, thanks to the wide-bladed, blunt-ended table knife.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The story goes that Cardinal Richelieu got irritated by the brutish behaviour of men at the dining tables of the time, stabbing their daggers (which doubled as table cutlery) into chunks of meat and other food, or into the table, for that matter, if they needed their hands free. And even worse was their despicable habit of using the sharp daggers to pick their teeth at the end of the meal. To put an end to this behaviour, he ordered his kitchen staff to file off the sharp points of all the house knifes. The idea caught on, and it wasn’t long before this new style of rounded table knife became a trendy dinner accessory in upperclass French households.

In 1669, King Louis XIV of France banned pointed knives – at the table and as weapons – to try put an end to the culture of violence of the time. This further cemented the position of the round-ended table knife as preferred form of cutlery.

Over time, the exact shape and form of the table knife changed, becoming slightly wider to make it easier to scoop food onto a fork, and to make it easier to spread butter or other spreads onto a slice of bread. (Anyone who’s ever tried spreading butter onto bread using a carving knife will know what a frustrating process it can be.)

So next time you butter a slice of fresh bread, or tuck into a soft and juicy stew, remember Cardinal Richelieu, and his clever cutlery innovation from almost 400 years ago.

Celebrating the invention of toilet paper

Here’s an amusing story – today is the birthday of toilet paper! On this day back in the year 580 AD, the Chinese invented toilet paper (well, at least according to they did). I doubt the accuracy of this fact, as various sources give widely differing historic accounts of this rather personal product. It is, however, too good a topic to let pass, so I will accept it as true for now.

To make things more interesting, I have also found a site claiming that today is the day back in 1871 when toilet paper was first sold on a roll in the US, and that today is, in fact, National Toilet Paper Day in the States.

So whichever way you look at it, toilet paper’s shadow looms large over this day.

Spotlight on toilet paper – basic commodity or luxury item?
(© All Rights Reserved)

Of course, when you start thinking about “the first use of toilet paper”, the second thought that enters your mind almost immediately, is “what did they use before?”. Well, whatever was available, it seems – grass, leaves, moss, corncobs, coconut shells (I cannot quite get my mind around that one!), snow, sheep’s wool… The Romans, fancy buggers that they were, used sponges and salt water.

It does seem to be a generally accepted fact that it was the Chinese who introduced the use of paper for cleaning up after ‘the act’. The earliest recorded reference to the use of toilet paper seems to come from the Chinese scholar Yan Zhitui, who wrote in 589 AD: “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” (According to Wikipedia.)

On a roll

Rolled and perforated toilet paper, similar to what we know today, only saw the light of day in the mid 19th century, with American Zeth Wheeler taking out a patent for it in 1871. It seems the commercial potential of purpose-made toilet paper was marred in the early days by the fact that people were too embarrassed to ask for it, or to be seen buying it, so Wheeler’s first company, the Rolled Wrapping Paper Company, failed to turn a profit. Things have obviously changed since then, with toilet paper today being a multi-billion dollar industry.

The future

It’s interesting to speculate about the future of bathroom hygiene.  Will toilet paper remain the product of choice in the Western world? A toilet known as the ‘Washlet’ (a toilet equipped with a bidet and air blower) is growing in popularity in Japan, while many countries in the Middle East and Asia prefer water cleaning. As we continue to exhaust the world’s natural resources, and manufacturing costs continue to rise, will a product as humble as the toilet roll become too much of a luxury item for many people to afford?

Interesting thought… Considering that the average American reportedly uses almost 60 squares of toilet paper a day, and the market for the product is booming in developing countries, it really is a huge volume of wood pulp that simply goes down the toilet – thousands upon thousands of trees are consumed daily by the toilet paper industry.

Over or under?

OK, time for a quick amusing fact:  In brand new research published in the US, a survey was done to find out whether Americans prefer their toilet paper to hang over or under the roll. The result? A staggering 75% of respondents preferred the paper hanging over the roll. Women appear to be even more adamant about this, as do people over the age of 60. Nevada turned out to be the ‘over-hanging’ capital of the US, with almost 100% preferring the over-the-roll option. For more have-to-know information, you can read more on the survey results here.

So how do you roll?