Specialized steak knives emerged in America following World War II. Prior to World War I, all table knives were sharp, but required frequent upkeep – sharpening and polishing. With the decline in domestic workers (household servants), this upkeep became less feasible. Stainless steel became widespread following WWI, which did not require polishing, but did require sharpening due to manufacturing limits. Following WWII, serrated stainless steel steak knives were introduced which required neither polishing nor frequent sharpening, and proved an instant hit. In the 1950s heat treatment of stainless steel was introduced, allowing knives to remain sufficiently sharp without needing serrations, but by this point serrated steak knives had become well-established and continued to be used.
By way of further history, in medieval Europe, a portable sharp knife and hands were the only eating utensils, and portable sharp knives continue to be used to this day in rural Europe, as in the Laguiole knife in France. By contrast, in most of Asia and Africa (including East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa), knives have long only been used in the kitchen (meat either being cut into pieces or cooked so that it could be pulled apart with the hands), with only hands, spoons, or chopsticks used at the table – sharp knives are distinctively European.
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