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 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.
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’.
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.
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?