Story of the Spoon

Pin It
sterling silver, tredfid spoon, trefid, andrew fogelberg

Andrew Fogelberg, London, 1791. Here it is in all it’s glory.

Of all the various types of cutlery (aka flatware) that cross my desk, the humble spoon holds the most interest for me.  Until relatively recent times, knives were multi-tasking pieces used for much more than ‘just’ eating. Forks are a newcomer to the dinner table.  The spoon has been our consistent dinner companion.

A long, long time ago, in a place far away

Spoons have been with us since pre-history.  They have been made of bone, wood, pottery, and precious metals and used for every day eating as well as rituals.

We have archaeological evidence that Neolithic peoples used them. Certainly the Ancient Egyptians and other Mediterranean civilizations did. Here is a great link to a Minoan pottery spoon in the British Museum’s collection.  It dates from 2900BC-2300BC and is completely recognizable as a spoon.

Bronze spoons were made in pre-Roman Britain, although these spoons are unlikely to be every day items, more likely for ritual purposes.

Roman manners

Roman contact with Britain began in 55BC with Julius Caesar’s first landing on the southern coast.  It wasn’t until 43AD that Rome established a permanent hold in Britain. It is interesting that silver spoons seem to have come to Britain with the Romans, rather than have been native products, as silver mines abound in the south-western part of England.  There was much wealth to be had in silver and tin as well as other natural resources, otherwise why would the Romans have bothered with an island beyond the edge of civilization?  It certainly wasn’t the weather that appealed to them.

Regardless, by the first century ad, spoons were the common table utensil and by this time there were different types of spoons. The ‘cochlear’ for eating eggs and shellfish, and the ‘ligula’ for grains and cereals.

spoon

A Roman cochlear spoon, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ligula Spoon

Roman silver ligula spoon…this one dates from the 4th century.

The Dark Ages were not a high point for dining

The gradual contraction and eventual demise of the Roman Empire, led to the era of chaos and upheaval we call the Dark ages.  Developing specialist forms of cutlery doesn’t seem to have been a high priority at this time.

Pomp and power in the Middle Ages

The most famous spoon from the middle ages is the English Coronation spoon.  Part of the Crown jewels, it dates from  c. 1150-1200 and is the earliest known spoon made in England.  Although if you take a look at it, other spoons must have pre-dated such an extraordinary piece of work! It seems a little far-fetched to think the coronation spoon was the product of beginners luck.

Italy strikes back

It was not until the 1400’s and the advent of the Renaissance in Italy, that cutlery comes to the fore again, although the focus was on blades and handles for knives and the development of the fork. Forks didn’t make it to Britain until the 1620’s, and the earliest known English-made fork was made in 1632.

Returning to our friend, the spoon, Apostle spoons were a staple of 15th century.  They are easily recognized by the clear, three dimensional depiction of the twelve apostles and the Master. Seal top and slip top spoons were the next great spoon development.

In the 1660’s the trefid (or trifid) spoon, named for the notched ends on the handle, had a 40 year flare of popularity.  It is considered the first flatware ‘pattern’.

The trefid was superseded by the various forms of the dog nose spoon, which in turn yielded to the Hanoverian rat-tail.

Proliferation of the spoon

The rise of industrialization combined with a growing middle class with money to spend eventually led to the great flowering of the spoon which hit its peak in the Victorian era.  The simple teaspoon, table spoon, and serving spoon exploded into a bewildering taxonomy of new sub-species.  Four o’clock spoons, five o’clock spoons, melon spoons, grapefruit spoon, berry spoons, casserole spoons, ice cream spoons, bouillon spoons, cream soup spoons, gumbo spoons and a whole host of others briefly flourished, and now frequently rest in obscurity in your attic or basement.

PS

But really, despite all the changing styles that affect the handle, a spoon is a spoon. Isn’t it amazing to think that all these millennia later we are still using essentially the same design?

Pin It

17 thoughts on “Story of the Spoon

  1. bevNo Gravatar

    What an interesting piece! Thanks! I was particularly pleased to learn of the evolution of the Trefid pattern into the dog nose and then rat-tail handle ends. I have long been a fan of dog nose handles and to learn of their history was fascinating.
    These little bits of history will be dinner table conversation at our house!

  2. Jackie BernardiNo Gravatar

    Nan,

    This may be my favorite post yet. I feel the need for another afternoon spent with your silver, books, and knowledge–the historical relevance is fascinating.

  3. Suzanne SokolovNo Gravatar

    Nan, what wonderful fun facts about such a common object. It’s fascinating to tie historic/cultural sensibilities to accepted practices (love the additional info on the Bronze Spoons). I’ve observed that within our own world, there is a distinct difference in the usage of eating utensils, even the spoon. Great post.

  4. ElizabethNo Gravatar

    So what is the difference between a regular teaspoon, 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock? Is it just the size, and back in the day would it have been noticed that you served afternoon tea at 3 with the 5 o’clock teaspoon rather than the proper one?

    Having said that, my silver set has three different sizes of soup spoons, in addition to the teaspoons and tablespoons. They are used as, the soup spoon, the spaghetti twirling spoon and the hot fudge sunday spoon.

    1. SilverMagpiesNo Gravatar Post author

      Hello Elizabeth –

      Sorry for the slow reply! Yes, the answer is they are all just a tiny bit different in size. I’m not sure how many people would have really known if you’d used the ‘wrong’ size but evidently the silver folks played on some etiquette fears in the market. At least I’ve never seen a 4:30 spoon! 🙂

      All joking aside, there are some patterns that take things to the extreme. Versailles by Gorham has…brace for it…108 pieces per place setting and 135 serving pieces! Victorian manners run amok.

      Interestingly because there ARE so many individually defined pieces – sardine forks, four o’clock spoons, lettuce forks – it reinforces peoples reluctance to get out the silver and use it. A spoon is just a spoon, really use it for whatever you like. You might be interested to read this old post – http://www.silvermagpies.com/2010/11/18/what-if-you-dont-serve-sardines/

      Nan

  5. Elizabeth HubbellNo Gravatar

    Thanks for clarifying 4 o’clock & 5 o’clock spoons! I have two five o’clock spoons (I think) one in Louis XV and one in a climbing rose pattern from Gorham that I can’t identify. I love that their smaller size and lighter weight keep them from falling off of saucers as regular teaspoons do.

    Thanks for such an informative post!

Comments are closed.