Wooden Plates our Forefathers Used


GOLD and silver; earthenware, pewter and china, have, in different times and under different circumstances been used for plates. Our own forefathers relied on wood. From the earliest times to days well within living memory the wooden platter, the bowl, the drinking vessel, the spoon and even the knife and fork lay on the rude trestle table for daily meals.

Many countrymen recall the wooden implements of childhood mem­ory, and the writer himself remembers the flattened wood porridge plate and the coarse surfaced bowl of the wooden spoon.

Until early Tudor times the wooden platter was almost universal. Then, and for long before (indeed, too, for long afterwards) the common table was found in every home, the humblest stable boy “sup­ping with his titled lord.” His only dish might be a square wooden platter such as (A) in the illus­tration, whilst for anything approach­ing an implement such as a knife or fork the fingers and teeth were suffi­ciently dexterous for the purpose. Later, as ideas of re­finement crept in, superior wooden vessels were found at the head of the table, whilst cruder ones were provided for retainers at the lower end.

Dogs (many of them) did much of the cleaning up. When wooden knives, forks and spoons, rather more difficult to fashion, came into general use it was the custom of visitors to bring their own with them.

The gradual development of the plate is interesting, although its various forms cannot be traced with absolute accuracy. Naturally they vary in different countries. Quite obviously, the earliest plate was a mere platter – a roughly squared board (as A), perhaps about 8 ins. To 10 ins., with its upper surface smoothed for reasonably comfortable use. The first innovation was a shallow circular sinking in the board as at (B), the depression preventing the overflow of gravy. The addition of a smaller sinking at one corner for salt came later.

Larger flat trenchers from which the food was handed round the table took a rectangular form and might be 18 ins. by 12 ins. or more. These would have rounded corners, whilst, after dishing came to be introduced, they frequently took an oval or square-oval form. A deeper cavity at one end to take the gravy has in pewter and earthenware dishes, continued to the present day.

The dishing, or hollowing, of platters gradually brought in the circular form, of which (C) is the earliest. At first the centre of the plate was kept flat as at E, 1), but hollows such as those at (C),

(D) and (E, 2) became more frequent. The section at (F) is a later development. These circular plates might be from 6½ in. to 9 in. in diameter, but often for special purposes exceeded this size. Note that at (D) there is practically no rim. At (C) the rim is hardly more than a bead, whilst at (E) and (F) the rims are much wider. As craftsmen gained skill in turning, the bowls of these plates became deeper and better suited to their purpose; delicately moulded rims ap­peared, and, as the under surfaces were worked to a pleasing and useful section, the plate became lighter to handle. Sycamore was the most generally favoured wood for dishes in which cooked food was to be placed. For bread and uncooked fruit, beech plates were more common.

— From The Woodworker magazine, edited by Charles H. Hayward

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19 Responses to Wooden Plates our Forefathers Used

  1. Do you know the year of this article?


  2. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    A great old article about the evolution of the eating plate. Something I find myself surprisingly interested in.


  3. Lee B says:

    What might the qualities of sycamore be that made it preferable for cooked food?


  4. ralmcc7yahoo.com says:

    Did they coat the plate with anything ?


  5. Robin Wood says:

    Oh dear oh dear I really thought we had gone beyond touting these old outdated stories. Nothing in this article is backed by any objective evidence. These sort of articles were commonly written in the 1930’s to 1960’s by treen collectors who did not take the time to look at the archaeological record. “Quite obviously, the earliest plate was a mere platter – a roughly squared board” Quite obviously? why not look at the facts? there are many vessels surviving from archaeological digs dating from the last 3000 years and they tell a very different story. It would only be “obvious” to make a plate from a sawn board to someone who’s primary experience of timber was sawn boards rather than round wood and who sat on a chair at a table. All these things become commonplace in the 18th century. For anyone that is interested in the real story based on clear evidence I would suggest my 2004 book The Wooden Bowl pub Stobart Davies.


    • inflammabletom says:

      Robin’s book is well worth a look!


    • Quercus Robur says:

      I agree, it has the distinct flavour of that pseudo-fantasy-archeology, echoes from the 19th century. Fun reading but not serious. I wonder though where are the clay/pottery vessels in the real american history, though. Is it really rare, like wooden vessels are in the Mediterranean area?


  6. Dave Fisher says:

    Unless I am mistaken, and maybe Robin can correct or verify this, the “sycamore” that Hayward is referring to is not the same tree that we Americans call sycamore. Our American sycamore is Platanaceae Platanus http://dendro.cnre.vt.edu/dendrology/syllabus/factsheet.cfm?ID=36and what is called sycamore in the UK (and is known as a maple here) is Acer Pseudoplatanus http://www.eol.org/pages/583073/overview So, not in the same genus. I’d eat off of either, though!


    • Robin Wood says:

      Correct Dave and our sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus was introduced to UK in the 16th century and not commonly used for treen until the 19th c. In the UK we call all the Platanus family plane trees, the most common in the UK being the hybrid London plane Platanus × acerifolia. All great timbers like you say.


    • Yup. Closed grain with little smell or taste. As I said.

      Some of us are aware of the species differences between the continents.


  7. Paul Londo says:

    The square plate (B) I’ve been making for several years for 18th century reenacting I make them out of 2×10 and 2×12 douglas fir, I made a chuck for my lathe so I could turn the plate inside but leave it square. I also re-ground a spade bit to make the depression for the salt.


  8. There is actually quite a great deal of information…”in this article backed by objective evidence…”

    I got kind of lost with some of the comments here…???

    Not really completely sure of the provenance for the original publications reference material fully…Nevertheless,t it seemed all in good order and historical chronology of how this species (Platanaceae Platanus) and others was, and is, employed here in North America?

    Appalachian cultures adapted many uses for this species following the way’s of First Nations cultures going back pre invasion by Columbus and other Europeans. These indigenous cultures employed this Sycamore for millenia for medicine, syrup, water craft, musical instruments, and many other means of daily use….even…wood utensils such as bowls, platters and such.

    This species (as well as Acer genus) are known for inhibiting bacterial growth (still a topic of study and understanding by several and a keen interest with professional Abattoirs.) The most expensive Butcher Blocks (mine included) are made from this species and have been for over 300 years hear in North America most likely starting with the French, but not certain.

    This species also make incredible Work Bench tops!!

    “… there are many vessels surviving from archaeological digs dating from the last 3000 years and they tell a very different story. It would only be “obvious” to make a plate from a sawn board to someone who’s primary experience of timber was sawn boards rather than round wood and who sat on a chair at a table. All these things become commonplace in the 18th century…”

    I am not certain of a single example dating back 3000 years of a Acer or Platanus species (even in the Smithsonian collections) since this both have little to know rot resistance. There are very acient Dug-out Canoe allegedly that have been located in rivers/swamps, as water can preserve it nicely, but no carbon dated material exists that I know of currently that is academically supported to suggest a 3000 age here in North America, though lithic artifacts go well past 10,000 years. Perhaps in Europe it is different?

    It is agreed that sawn boards indeed only came after Appalachia had been well populated by Europeans. Never the less, as the article suggest most clearly and accurately to me, the first where simple square platters and rudimentary planks for servicing and preparing food stuffs. The original indigenous eating utensils all are hand shaped with scrapers, riving, and burn out methods in most (not all) species of wood used for such things.


    • Robin Wood says:

      The article was written in 1940’s UK and the sycamore referred to is Acer pseudoplatanus as pointed out above by Dave Fisher. There are a great many vessels surviving in waterlogged environments from up to 3000 years ago in Europe. From the medieval period at some sites I have handled hundreds of bowls from a single excavation. When wood is waterlogged in anaerobic conditions it survives regardless of it’s “rot resistance”. As an example the oldest evidence of turned wooden bowls in the UK is from 600bc Oak Bank Crannog in Scotland though carved work goes back further eg examples at Must Farm or a fine carved poplar bowl with handle from excavation sat site of Heathrow T5 1100 BC


  9. Thank you for providing more information. …I understand better now Robin…So the article provenance was on you side of the pond, and directed at a UK reading audience in its first publication…

    As to wood preservation finds, I knew that peat bogs and other water sites have captured many early artifacts in wondrous preserved condition in Europe. We find some here but not to the extent Archaeologist seem to there in the U.K or the mainland of Europe. I made reference to the Dug-out, but I am aware of much more in the way of wood utensil, etc, that have been found here. I myself teach and use water preserving wood, as well as participate in rive and lake salvage for some pretty outstanding wood from time to time.

    I do agree that the article is perhaps very generic and/or parochial in presentation, yet I don’t really see any overtly inaccurate information in it. The original bowels in most indigenous (or orgin cultures) are fashioned with very similar techniques. Burn out, scraping and riving being the primary approach modality in there formation seems to be ubiquitous on a global scale for these cultures and timelines. So simple riven square plates (as the article seems to suggest) was the first plates, with more technically demanding methods of turning coming later. If not mistaken I do believe the oldest…turned items…are several thousand years old and originating in the Middle East, these artifacts coming from a recent conversation with an Archaeologist conducting his field studies in the U.K but attending Stout University. They seemed to have mastered turning stone as well much sooner than other cultures, with mainland Asian following close behind.


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