Ahh, spoons. Arguably the friendliest flatware. Knives are useful but scary; forks are good for spearing and not much else. But spoons? Scoop, ladle, chip, carve, taste, measure. Great in a pinch when forks are dirty, namesake of the comfiest cuddle position. Perfect for airplaning and choo-chooing food into a fussy mouth. Spoons are the BFF you never knew you needed.
Do we take this ingenious tool for granted? You bet. Could we live without them? No way. Literally, imagine trying to go a week without ever using a scooper-duper spoon.
If you’ve never thought about where and how spoons came to be, it’s going to consume you now. Thankfully you’re here — where we dive into the ridiculously interesting history of one of the most seemingly mundane things on earth. It’s ancient; it’s modern. It’s global; it’s intimate…it’s spoons!
Scoop, There It Is
The general consensus seems to be that people have been scooping stuff with spoon-like items since Paleolithic times. That’s an era of human prehistory that covers a really, really long period but marks the beginning of our use of stone tools, figuring out how to fish, making art, and engaging in spiritual and religious behaviors, like burying our dead.
Diets varied over such a large swathe of time, but it’s not hard to imagine an early human picking up a shell, slurping something out of it, and thinking, “Hey…” Or else in other parts of the world grabbing animal bone or horn and doing the same.
The Greek and Latin words for spoon are derived from the ancient cochlea, a spiral-shaped snail shell. You’re picturing it right now. It’s also a very clever name for the part of the human inner ear involved with hearing, another spiral-shaped situation.
The connection between shells, circles, and what we call the spoon today suggests that — at least in Southern Europe — folks were spooning. There’s also the Old English word spōn, Middle English spoon, spoune, and spone, Proto-West Germanic spānu, Proto-Germanic spēnuz, and Proto-Indo-European (s)peh, all of which refer to a shaving, length, or chip of wood. An implement intended for…scooping, perhaps?
So Much Time, So Many Spoons
Regardless of where and when they originated, spoons would eventually become a status symbol because we just can’t help ourselves. Neither could the Romans, who had two types of spoons in the 1st century. There was the ligula for soft foods and soups, with a pointed oval bowl and decorative handles. Then, you had the cochleare, a smaller, slender doohickey for eating eggs and delicate shellfish. Since Roman influence reached clear across the world, their spoons spread.
Where does the status symbol part come into play? Glad you asked. Like anything else we take for granted today, spoons were once much more valuable to the everyday person — especially depending on what it was made of. In the Middle Ages, common folk and elites alike used spoons, but the materials differed greatly.
Wood or bone spoons dominated medieval households unless you were royalty, in which case you likely dined on gold or silver spoons. Around the 11th century (at least in England), silver became common for those with status and prestige, while pewter made an honorable substitute for everyone else. Born with a silver spoon in your mouth, huh?
Making a silver spoon was a process that included hand-forging by someone knowledgeable in how to heat metal, creating thicker areas to balance out thinner ones, and methods of cooling to avoid brittleness.
That’s not to say the pewter scoopers were any less treasured. Medieval folks gave their precious pewter utensils as gifts or left them to loved ones in wills. They often had an identical look to their silver counterparts, complete with charming decorations of acorns, lions, the apostles, jesters, and more. You’d also keep your pewter spoons shined to high heaven so they could be mistaken for silver at a glance.
Do you have a favorite spoon you reach for over all others? Sometimes we can’t know why we put meaning and symbolism into seemingly mundane things, but we have a pretty good idea for spoons.
First, they help you literally survive by making it easier to eat food. On a basic level, that has to matter, right? But there’s more to it. Spoons are intimate, and hundreds of years ago, something you dipped into a communal pot of porridge, stew, or whatever. Take the archeological discovery of a 15th-century pottage dish from Southwark, which featured six pewter spoonies with acorn finials set around the rim.
Sharing a hot bowl of porridge (we have it on good authority double and triple-dipping was common practice) creates a special bond over eating out of individual bowls. Factor in that many spoons had motifs with meaning, like a lion to represent the family or a “Maiden Head” to conjure the Virgin Mary, and they start to take on intense significance.
Religious motifs on spoons abounded, from ancient ivory implements adorned with Isis or Athor and early Roman iron and silver spoons featuring Mercury to Celtic spoons with rough symbols of Christianity scratched into them. According to one source, these spoons were often discovered in pairs near rivers and streams and used for baptisms. The spoons would hold oils for anointing, often olive oil in the first spoon and expensive, sweet-smelling balsam oil (diluted with more olive oil) in the second.
The Last Supper
Then, there were Apostle Spoons. In the Christian faith, this set of thirteen spoons (often silver) includes a Master spoon with various representations of God and twelve subject spoons for the Apostles. For hundreds of years, sponsors (godparents) have given these as baptismal gifts. If you were richy-rich, you gave a full set. A little less so, and you gave a smaller number. Very poor, and you coughed up a single spoon if you could.
Apostle spoons are distinguished by their respective emblems: St. Peter with a key or fish; St. Andrew with a saltire cross; St. James Major with a pilgrim’s staff and gourd; St. John with a chalice; St. Philip with a long staff surmounted with a cross; St. James Minor with a fuller’s bat; St. Thomas with a spear; St. Bartholomew with a butcher’s knife; St. Matthew with a wallet or axe; St. Matthias with a halbert; St. Thaddeus, or Jude, with a carpenter’s square; St. Simon with a saw.
We have no record that Apostle Spoons were a thing before the 1500s. The oldest evidence we have comes from the will of Amy Brent — a surprisingly modern name — who bequeathed “XIII sylver spones of J’ hu and the XII Apostells” in 1516.
Dramatists like Shakespeare, Ben Jomson, Middleton, Beaumont, and Fletcher allude to Apostle Spoons at one point or another. Take Henry VIII, Act 5, Scene 3, where the King asks Cranmer to sponsor the infant Elizabeth. Lacking financial means, Cranmer hesitates. Henry banters him in these words: “Come, come, my lord, you’d spare your spoons.”
Are you intoxicated by the rush of love? So consumed by the other person you can hardly sleep, think, or eat? Check that last one off your list and kill two birds with one stone; love spoons have landed.
According to Cadwyn Welsh Love Spoons, a co-op in rural Wales specializing in old-world Welsh handicrafts, the custom of carving and gifting a love spoon originated in Wales hundreds of years ago.
Like today’s gents, these amorous Welshmen of yore furnished their young ladies with sweets and cakes. But that wasn’t enough, damn it. He needed to prove his affection and dedication whilst also showing off his incredible wood carving prowess and artistry. Honestly, it’s brilliant.
The young fella spent hours carving the spoon himself, hoping to create something intricate enough to woo his intended. It wasn’t always assured she’d receive the spoon — doing so would send a clear message that she was, for lack of a better term, down. If she was, her acceptance meant the two could move to phase two and start courting.
Apparently, this is where the term “spooning” originated, albeit through a few degrees of separation. The tradition likely influenced the spooning of the 1800s. This wasn’t the big spoon/little spoon cuddling we know today, but more a catch-all for any type of flirty or affectionate behavior between love interests. The leap to spooning = cuddling like two stacked spoons came soon after. Although it often referred to men doing the deed out of necessity. Take this excerpt from the “Sailor’s Word-Book,” 1867:
“SPOON-WAYS. In slave-ships, stowing the poor wretches so closely locked together, that it is difficult to move without treading upon them.“
The Dish Ran Away With the Spoon
Much like the Language of Flowers and other courtship rituals of the past, there was an entire conversation hidden in your love spoon. For example, an anchor might symbolize settled love, while interlocking chains were pretty self-explanatory. A wheel could signify a willingness to work for your partner; a shield would offer protection. Balls in a cage could refer to love held safe or show a number of children. Arwyn, you dog!
Continue down the rabbit hole:
California Academy of Sciences. SPOONS.
Online Etymology Dictionary. Spoon.
Lovespoons in Perspective. Herbert E.Roese, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 1988,
Welshlovespoons.co.uk. History & Tradition: Originally carved by young men and offered to girls they loved
BBC.com. Love spoons: How a spoon became the Welsh symbol for love.
Norwegianamerican.com. Wedding spoons link the past and present.