pied de biche

Culinary History (Part 30): Spoons

Before 1649, when Charles I was executed and the Puritans established the short-lived Commonwealth, English spoons had ficulate (fig-shaped) bowls, widening towards the end that goes in the mouth (unlike our spoons today).  The stems were chunky and 6-sided.

A ficulate spoon.

The fanciest part of the spoon was the knop at the end.  Over the last few centuries, silversmiths had created beautiful, elaborate sculptures for the end of the handle.  Some knops were flat-ended abstract shapes, like a stamp or seal.  Some finials (ornament at the end of an object) were acorns, diamonds, grapes, owls, naked women, sitting lions, or Christ and his apostles.

Of course, the Puritans hated them.  Excessive decoration – especially religious decoration – was disapproved of, and “Puritan spoons” began to be used in during the 1630’s, replacing the pre-Commonwealth ficulate spoons for the 11-year Commonwealth period. These spoons were plain, with a shallow, egg-shaped bowl, narrowing slightly at the end, like our spoons today.  The flat stem had no decoration, and there was no decorative knop at the end.

These spoons were just plain, dense lumps of silver.  One of the reasons they were made so heavy may have been because there were frequent calls for civilians to give up their silver, to pay for the town’s defence.  But if their silver was their cutlery, they they could claim it was essential so it wouldn’t be confiscated.

A Puritan spoon.

In 1660, the Commonwealth ended, and Charles II took the throne, and the trifid spoon took over.  (It is also called the trefid, trefoil, split-end, or pied-de-biche spoon.)  It replaced the Puritan spoon also immediately, for political reasons – no-one wanted to be seen eating with a Roundhead spoon.

Most modern spoons are based on the trifid, which was an entirely new design – the first ones are from 1660, and Charles II brought them with him when he returned from his court-in-exile in mainland Europe. By 1680, they had spread throughout all of England, and they were the dominant spoon type for 40yrs.

The ficulate and Puritan spoons had been shallow, but the trifid spoon had a deep oval shape.  The handle was flat, like the Puritan spoon, but it widened towards the end into a cleft shape – the word “trifid” actually means “three-cleft”.  This design was French, and in fact was similar to the fleur-de-lys.

On the other side, the spoon’s handle continued onto the base of the bowl itself, finishing in a dart-shaped grove which is sometimes called a rat tail.

Trifid spoon.

Trifid spoon, showing the rat tail on the bottom.

The way the spoon was held also changed over the decades.  The ficulate spoon was easier to hold with the stem under your thumb at a right angle, because of the knop.  The trifid spoon, on the other hand, could be held in the “polite English way”, with the stem in the palm of your hand, parallel to your thumb.

Humans are not the only animals who use spoons – in the 1960’s, Jane Goodall noticed chimpanzees making spoons from blades of grass, to make it easier to eat termites.

Ancient peoples used shells tied to sticks as early spoons – this is reflected in the word cochlearium, a small Roman spoon with a tapered handle.  The Romans used these spoons for eating eggs, or scooping out shellfish.

The word comes from cochlea, meaning “snail-shell”. Cochlearium also referred to a place where snails were bred for consumption; and also a liquid measure of one spoonful (also cochlear & cochleare).

Two silver cochlearia from the Hoxne Hoard (300′s/400′s AD).

For pottage-type dishes, they used a pear-shaped spoon called a ligula.


Different types of spoons were developed for eating different things. The Georgians in the 1700’s ate roasted bone marrow, and created special silver spoons & scoops to eat it with.  Some were double-ended (one end for small bones, the other for large bones): you would hold the piece of bone in a napkin, and use the cutlery to scoop out the pieces of marrow.

Georgian marrow spoons & scoops.

Double-ended marrow scoop.

The Edwardians (1901-10) loved eating soft-boiled egg, and they used spoons made from mother-of-pearl or bone, because egg yolk stains silver.  Hanoverian mustard spoons [date??] show how important this condiment was in the English diet.

The teaspoon began as one of these specialist spoons.  In the second ½ of the 1600’s, the English started adding milk to their tea, and the teaspoon was used for stirring the tea, milk and sugar together. It was separate from the main dinnerware, and the rich used it.  Out of all the tea utensils, only the teaspoon has become universal.

It took a while, though.  In 1741, the French Duc d'Orléans had 44 silver-gilt coffee spoons, but no teaspoons.  In fact, the French use the smaller coffee spoon as a measurement more often the teaspoon: this measurement is a cuiller à café, abbreviation cc.  But everywhere else, the teaspoon is more important.  From the 1800’s onwards, the teaspoon was a basic piece of cutlery in America, even though they tended to drink coffee rather than tea.

There are two main reasons for the teaspoon’s importance.  First, its main function is actually for sugar, which is used by coffee-drinkers as well.  Secondly, it is the perfect size for a small, easy-to-use spoon – it is smaller than the 1700’s tablespoon and dessertspoon, but bigger than the French coffee spoon.  It is easier to use than the fiddly Georgian salt shovel.  American teaspoons are larger than English ones, but they are still the right size to go in your mouth. Also, the teaspoon can be used for many different purposes – measuring, tasting, stirring, eating small things.

There are two basic spoon functions for eating – as a sort of cup, to drink liquids from the edge; or as a shovel, for solid food.  The kafgeer is a large flat Afghan spoon, used for serving rice, and it is of the shovel type.  The Middle East has many shovel-spoons and spatulas for serving rice, and they do a far better job of it than our round, oval spoons.

Old European spoons show differences in shape for different uses.  The convent on the island of Iona has medieval-era silver spoons with a leaf-shaped bowl: a shovel-type spoon, but smaller than the Middle-Eastern rice-serving spoons.  They would have been used to eat porridge, but no use for soup.  Medieval spoon-makers made large round spoons for soup, with bowls to big to fit in your mouth, but perfect for sipping from.

Replica of the leaf-shaped Iona spoon.

The spoons we have today are a compromise between the two types, which means they aren’t perfect for either.