Since we are in the midst of corn season, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight a domestic gadget that helps us to handle those steaming, buttery cobs of golden goodness a little more daintily. I am, of course, referring to the corn skewer: one of those little kitchen tools that stradles the gap between cartoonish kitsch and useful utensil. According to almost every etiquette expert, from the late nineteenth century onward, it is perfectly acceptable to eat corn on the cob using your fingers. These experts do have tips for making the experience a tad more civilized, of course: cutting the cobs in half before serving them, providing linen napkins exclusively for the purpose of handling the hot cob (and dabbing the melted butter from your lips), or providing the diner with a small, sharp knife so that she may slice off the kernels from the cob if she so chooses.
The most excellent tool for eating corn on the cob, however, must certainly be the corn-on-the-cob skewer. This late Victorian-era invention first made its appearance on large European cruise ships and railroad dining cars where holding corn on the cob firmly was essential. These early skewers would usually be made of silver or steel, some with wooden handles. As the decades rolled on, the skewers found their way into American homes. By the 1920s numerous sets were made in sterling silver, sold in sets of eight throughout the U.K. and the U.S. These sets were usually reserved for the dining-room and formal entertaining. After the 1960s, however, they became more of a seasonal utensil used at the kitchen table or outdoors at picnics and backyard barbecues. As such, they were mass produced in durable plastics with stainless steel 'prongs' that could be inserted into the ends of the cobs.
Designs for the handles of the skewers are limitless and can be quite imaginative. The most frequently-used design mimics the appearance of an ear of corn. (The plastic versions are usually bright yellow.) Other designs range from the comical to the ridiculous: dinosaurs or golf balls or pistols or angel wings; some are minimalist-looking knobs made of wood or ceramic and others have ornately-carved or painted designs.
The sterling silver varieties can be quite collectible today. A complete set of eight from the 1940s or '50s can fetch anywhere between $125 and $200, depending on their condition and the manufacturer. The vintage novelty skewers from the '60s and '70s are less valuable but no less fun to collect.