We may sometimes hesitate about which fork to use, but most of us don’t worry about our choice of spoon. That wasn’t always the case, however. In 1649, using the wrong spoon could get you killed, if the right person happened to notice.
Diners in the English court of King Charles I used spoons of a “ficulate” shape, which roughly means that it looked like a fig on a stick. These spoons had a thick hexagonal handle with a big decorative sculpture called a “knop” at the end. Knops could be quite elaborate with diamonds and other jewels or detailed sculptured depictions of everything from naked women to Christ and the Apostles. (I really tried to find a picture of one of these but had no luck, so I’m having to take this one on faith, so to speak.)
All this excess came to an abrupt end in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell and his “Roundheads” came to power, beheading the king and instituting the reign of the Puritans. Just as they chopped the heads off the statues of saints in all the cathedrals, the Puritans chopped the decorative ends off of spoons. (In other words, they lopped the knops.)
Then they designed new spoons with oval shaped bowls and flat stems. Like other aspects of Puritan culture which spurned worldly excess, the Puritan spoons were plain and functional. Of course, it is said that one of the functions they provided was as a means to hide wealth. The Puritans in power “encouraged” the wealthy to give their silver to the cause of defense. While local authorities might confiscate your silver coins, they would be more likely to let you keep your eating utensils. Puritan spoons are very heavy with silver, so historians speculate that some people converted their wealth into “essential” flatware.
Just as it was dangerous to be seen eating with a Royalist spoon during the years of the Puritan Cromwellian reign, it was an equally bad idea to be caught with a Puritan spoon once the monarchy was restored in 1660. Spoons changed again – this time to the “trifid” shape, which is a shape still popular today. The bowl is deeper than a Puritan spoon and the flat handle swells to a widen three-part shape at the end. This type of spoon was easy to be held in “polite” fashion with the handle resting against the hand instead of tucked inside the fist like spoons of older styles.
Of course, these aren’t the only changes in spoon ware over the years. While some cultures do not use forks, all use human cultures use spoons, and even chimpanzees have been observed using hollow grass as a spoon to scoop up termites. So the variety of spoons is nearly endless. But they all serve one of two functions: as a shovel (for foods like rice), or cup (for liquids like soup) or both.
The modern teaspoon does a decent (but not great) job at both scooping soup and shoveling rice. But other spoons are far more specialized. Marrow spoons were popular in the 1700s for scooping the fatty marrow out of beef bones. Specialty spoons really increased in the late 1800s. There were soup spoons for thick soups and others for thin bouillon. Tiffany’s even marketed a special silver spoon for serving the latest fad food — potato chips.
Most of us don’t have any of those. But one specialty spoon we all have is the teaspoon. It was originally a spoon for the rich and it had only one purpose – to stir milk and sugar into tea. While other accoutrements of the tea service like sugar tongs and tea strainers have faded into obscurity, the teaspoon is every drawer. The teaspoon turned from a specialized tool of the rich into the universal scoop of choice for everyone. In fact, the one-time specialty spoon is now so popular that you may not find one in every silverware drawer – they’re all either lying dirty in the sink or carried off with bowls of cereal and lost under the sofa.
So back in 1649, your spoon may have made a statement about your political views. Today your choice of spoon may simply reflect whatever’s left clean in the drawer. And if that means you’re eating yogurt with a grapefruit spoon, it says that our society hasn’t stopped using specialty spoons – we just use them the wrong way.
Next up – weapons in the dining room…
Much of the information in this article came from Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson (Basic Books, 2012).