Collectables: when spoons meant ‘status’

PUBLISHED: 10:45 09 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:45 09 February 2018

A 17th-century cast-top spoon - value around £1,500.

A 17th-century cast-top spoon - value around £1,500.


Spoons are commonplace these days. But in the past they could be a real sign of social status, as Mike Hicks reveals.

Today, we can’t imagine life without a knife, a fork and spoon but this hasn’t always been the case. We didn’t get a fork on the table until around about 1700 and then it would have been very wealthy people that had them. No, before that, we had to make do with a knife and a spoon.

If you had a spoon, you were really something - you knew you had made it. Your spoon was something you kept with you, pretty well at times; this was your most important piece of eating equipment. Spoons in the 15th and 16th centuries were almost a sign of rank of your position in society.

During the late 16th century spoons makers started up everywhere. Highly skilled people, who worked in silver, made these very special spoons of a rather attractive but dumpy shape in small workshops all over the country, at a time when there were very many small regional assay offices in towns and cities throughout the land.

Today, these spoons, especially the small regional varieties that were assayed in the tiny provincial offices, are highly collectable and can fetch vast sums of money.

We are fortunate here in Norfolk that the late Colin Tictum had the foresight to start collecting these early spoons years ago, and that his collection is kept within the city, but not on public view, for reference and research.

Early spoons were often given as gifts, although it has to be said, very expensive gifts.

Spoons were ordered to be made as bequests in wills. The cost of a spoon was about 10s for a silver spoon, and 20s for a gilt spoon. Ten shillings was about two to three months’ wages for a working man or small farmer.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, silver spoons were often given to celebrate anniversaries, such as birthdays, marriages etc, and the phase ‘born with a silver spoon’ is said to come from this period. Any baby who received a silver spoon as a baptismal present was an extremely fortunate one as these spoons were as expensive to purchase then as they are today.

At this time, silver spoons were rarely bought in sets and were usually purchased singly.

If you wished to purchase a spoon, you went to your local goldsmith and selected the type you wished to give. If it was to celebrate a birthday, it was likely that you would choose to purchase an ‘apostle spoon’.

Some goldsmiths became specialist spoon-makers, as is thought to have been the case with Richard Shipdham of Norwich, and Robert Dale of Woodbridge, though spoons were items of stock found in all inventories of goldsmiths’ shops, and from these we can gauge that they weighed approximately one ounce and were valued in the inventories at the weight of the metal – 5s an ounce for gilt metal and 4s 8d for white silver.

With Norwich Corporation, the inventory of civic plate made in 1544 shows only one spoon; much other early plate does not survive. From time to time, old items were exchanged for more up-to-date tableware.

When you were invited to dine, it was unlikely that your host would provide cutlery and guests would be required to take their own. This would probably be limited to your spoon and knife.

Your spoon would be carried about your person, possibly in a spoon pocket or purse; a gentleman might tuck it into the brim of this hat for safe keeping.

The fact that early spoons still exist is testament to the skill of the craftsmen who made them and to the value attached to them, frequently appearing as bequests in wills. Unlike today’s cutlery, they have individuality and style that has stood the test of time and it is not surprising that they are highly prized and sought-after by collectors.

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