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, 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
theMiddle-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.