Chasselas Grapes
Thompson Seedless Grapes

Thompson Seedless Grapes

To demonstrate wealth in movies about ancient times, characters are often shown reclining and being fed grapes. But truthfully in Roman times, grapes were eaten as they are today – – pulled one by one from the stem, with bare hands.

How It All Began

Our ancient ancestors considered grapes, along with wine that was made from the grapes, essential for proper digestion and good health. Grapes were a prominent feature in ancient Greek and Roman mythology as shown in paintings on pottery vessels. Frescoes painted 5,000 years ago in Egyptian tombs show the harvest of vineyards and the process of winemaking. Archaeologists are providing evidence that grapes have been enjoyed by humans for pretty much the whole of human existence.

Table grapes, on the other hand, are a new delicacy. French King Francois I (1494-1547), who reigned 1515-1547 and had a fondness for eating Chasselas grapes as dessert, is credited with the source of their rise to popularity.

Chasselas Grapes

According to Jancis Robinson, the Chasselas Grapevine was planted for the French king at Fontainebleau outside Paris in the mid-18th century. Today it is widely planted around the world and has a long intriguing history. Some authorities suggest Middle Eastern or Egyptian origins, while others suggest that its origins are in Switzerland where it is known as Fendant and appears in monastic records well before the 16th century.

Today the grape known as Chasselas Doré or Golden Chasselas is France’s most common table grape. Although wine is produced from the grape, it is low quality wine in most cases.

Famous Table Grapes in California

An immigrant born in England in 1839, moving to the United States in 1863, William Thompson purchased a group of cuttings from a nursery in New York in 1878 and planted them in Marysville, California. However it was Thompson’s neighbor John Onstott of Yuba City (location of a California Historical Landmark) who realized the commercial potential of the cultivar and sent the Thompson Seedless to growers throughout the state; most going to the San Joaquin Valley. 

They remain the most planted grape in California today, along with being the most versatile and popular table grape, accounting for 95 percent of the raisins produced in the state. The berries are seedless, medium-sized, ellipsoidal in shape and greenish white to golden in color. There are over 10,000 hectares (approximately 25,000 acres) of Thompson Seedless grown for table grapes in California. Its rise in popularity in California was largely due to its seedless character, thin skin and crisp texture.

Don’t Touch That!

In the 19th century, aristocrats did not want to touch food with their bare hands as it was considered a practice looked down upon according to strict Victorian etiquette. So what did they do; they invented silverware to perform the tasks. The first pair of grape scissors were created, made of Sheffield silver or silver plated steel, during the mid-19th century in England.  Their sole purpose – simply to not dirty the hands of the eater. 

These special tools were used to cut away small clusters of grapes from large, formal Victorian dining table centerpieces. The fruit for dessert was usually arranged down the center of the table, amidst the flowers.

The grape shears became a fixture at the Victorian dinner table. These tools were associated with formal dining customs.

The Tool Description

Grape shears/scissors are an instrument specifically designed for cutting grape stalks and are smaller and designed especially for that purpose.  From my readings I believe they were invented in the 19th century, and the earliest examples were from the Regency period, although very few have survived. These early examples are extraordinarily rare.  

The invention of grape shears led to an art form. Artisans and goldsmiths soon began specializing in the production of these scissors and in most cases the handles were decorated with scenes of country life, entwined grapes, vines, harvest scenes and farmers transforming grapes into wine.

Grape shears from the late Georgian period were more like scissors, with equally long blades and handles.  These were often created of gold-gilt.  Later though, grape shears were usually made of sterling silver, as with most high-quality dinnerware, to avoid tarnishing and to stand the test of time.

Most of the later shears, designed after the 1850s, also had a flange added to one of the blades so that the chosen bunch of grapes could be passed easily to a serving plate before being severed. The decoration varied from the classical grapevine foliage to very plain Art Deco versions. 

In general, the handles are much longer than the blades, so that you can insert the blades deeply into a cluster of grapes. Most of the scissor ends have blunt tips, consequently that they won’t puncture the fruit. The grape shears would sometimes be found as part of a set with a grape stand. 

The decoration on the shears varied widely, at first the shears often displayed a grape and vine motif, however many grape shears were part of a much larger dining set, so they would be embellished with the same pattern that was on the other cutlery.

Wine History Project Collection Items

We are fortunate to have obtained three pairs of grape shears or scissors in the Wine History Project’s Collection.

The first pair…

Grape Shear 1
Grape Shear 2
Grape Shear

Style  Art Deco
Place England
Period 1930s
Materials and Techniques Sterling Silver
Condition Good
Dimensions 6.5 inches (16 cm) long

The second pair…

This is a pair of Victorian-style silver grape scissors, with an attractive handle design of symmetrical scrolls and loops. The set is very finely engraved (on the front side only) with a foliage pattern, very intricate, in a tribute to a typical Victorian fashion. The blades are the traditional grape scissor design, with one blade thicker with right angle to accommodate the other blade. The more usual two wide flat faced blades with a 90-degree angle on one blade, sometimes called grape shears. This set is long and elegant, with a beaded border, and engraved leaf decoration on the back and front. The handles are oval rings, and the original steel hinge pin has an attractive circular silver cap with a floral design. 

Many times, the hallmarks are clear and include a maker’s mark on both arms. The definition of a maker’s mark: the personal mark of a goldsmith or silversmith, struck on the completed pieces. Sometimes these are referred to as “trademarks”. They often provide the only evidence of the original identifying mark of the creator/designer. In this artifact, M&N is for Miettinen Nurmi Company, established in 1945, the company became Turun Hopea in the late 1960’s.

Victorian-Style Grape Scissors
Victorian-Style Grape Scissors
Victorian-Style Grape Scissors
Victorian-Style Grape Scissors
Victorian-Style Grape Scissors

Style  Victorian
Place Finland
Period mid-1900s
Materials and Techniques Sterling Silver
Condition Excellent
Dimensions 7 inches (18 cm) long

The third pair…

Grape shears
Grape shears
Grape shears
Grape shears
Grape shears

Style  Victorian
Place France 
Period late 1800s
Materials and Techniques Silver
Condition Excellent
Dimensions 6 to 7 inches (15 to 18 cm) long

When Etiquette Became Important

Grape shears represent an era when abiding by the rules of etiquette and table manners dictated your standing in society.  Our artifacts from the Wine History Project’s Collection symbolize polite society and are a charming piece of our civilizations’ recent history.

The dining etiquette of the period encouraged the development of specific utensils for eating and serving foods such as grapes. Dining etiquette was an important part of the Victorian code of polite society (Victorian Era: 1820-1914). 

Grape shears/scissors were commonly used during the dessert course of a formal dinner.  Only after the grape stalks had been cut with the grape shears into single portions was it permissible to use your hands to eat the individual grapes. These are now mostly obscure pieces of tableware but are reminiscent of the age in which they were required for formal dining, when manners and behavioral conventions were so strict that it was considered rude to pick apart grapes with your hands 

The custom of grape shears or scissors at the dinner table continued throughout the early 20th century until WWI. And even today, during formal dinner parties, people will use these tools to impress their dinner guests.

The Manners and Tone of Good Society

There was even a book, called The Manners and Tone of Good Society or Solecisms to be Avoided, first published in 1879. It is unknown if the anonymous author was British, American, European and was just referred to as “A member of the aristocracy”. The author instructed the reader on how to navigate through the array of new cutlery and serve ware that had come to fruition during the Victorian age.  Touching food with your fingers, apart from some fruits and bread, was frowned upon.  

The author highlighted the strict rules including:

  • Cut grapes off stems one by one
  • Catch the grapes with your hands
  • Avoid risk of staining clothes
  • Eat the grapes
  • Keep one’s left hand up to mouth to quickly spit out the seed
  • “When eating grapes, the half-closed hand should be placed to the lips and the stones and skins adroitly allowed to fall into the fingers and quickly placed on the side of the plate, the back of the hand concealing the maneuver from view.”

Additional trivia information about other serve ware items that were popular with the Victorians included such items as asparagus tongs and marrow spoons.

The Manners and Tone of Good Society

This is first edition, 1879
Published by Frederick Warne & Co., London.

The Manners and Tone of Good Society

This is second edition, 1881
Published by Frederick Warne & Co., London.

The Manners and Tone of Good Society

In Conclusion

According to the NGRA (National Grape Research Alliance) the major player in the United States is the state of California who produces most of the country’s grape products: table grapes, raisins, and wine.

A 2002 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization stated that 29,291 square miles of the world is dedicated to grape growing. According to this report:

World grape production:

  • Two percent for dried fruit
  • 71 percent for wine
  • 27 percent for fresh fruit

Annually that translates to:

  • 800,000 tons of raisins
  • 7.2 trillion gallons of wine
  • 72 million tons of grapes produced

In fact, the average American consumes about eight pounds of fresh grapes each year. 

Snip me a grape…