Reading through transcriptions of local wills from the 16th and 17th centuries, one sometimes finds specific mention of silver spoons among the bequests. For example, in 1549 Thomas Carr of Stackhouse left four spoons (with the instruction to his son, Adam, not to melt them!) and in 1589 Agnes Haworth of Pyethorne left two silver spoons to William, her son, along with “my great ark in the nether chamber and one brass mortar, to remain as my heirlooms”. These bequests open a window onto a time when a silver spoon had a quite different significance from today.
Eating implements, until the end of the 17th century, consisted of a knife and a spoon only: the fork, despite being in use in some Continental countries and not unknown in Britain, was not yet in general use. Furthermore, one’s knife and spoon were personal possessions, in the sense that one carried them and used them when dining at other houses, as they were not supplied at table by the host. It follows that the material from which one’s spoon was made would be an indicator of one’s social and financial status.
Most of the population made do with wooden spoons and those able to afford metal ones used pewter, latten (brass) or, rarely, silver. Pewter, the cheapest of these three, was an alloy of tin and lead (nowadays tin, antimony and copper) and there is record of them costing 10d per half gross in 1580. Latten was more expensive and the spoons were ‘whited’, that is coated with tin, to prevent them reacting with food. Silver was by far the most precious metal, the alloy used being 92.5% silver to 7.5% copper as it is to this day: we know it as Sterling Silver. The spoons would sometimes be hallmarked, or at the least have their maker’s insignia stamped on them. So when Elizabeth Preston of Stackhouse in 1608 included in her bequests one silver spoon to each of her three sons, she was not only leaving a memento of herself but also an item which would emphasise the status which her family enjoyed. For similar reasons, silver spoons were given also as christening presents, especially ‘apostle’ spoons with the child’s patron saint at the top of the handle.
During the Middle Ages silver spoons had been found in rich households only, an example being the vicar of Giggleswick, William Stalmyn, who in 1412 had left five of them. A century later, we read that in 1524 Geoffrey Procter of Nether Bordley in Craven was able to leave “XII silver spones, my best salte with a cover of parcell gilt (i.e.partially-gilded), goblet of silver with a cover parcell gilt, little macer without a cover, best houp of gold ...” and so on, revealing that in this very substantial family, domestic silverware was in use as well. Likewise, in 1593 the extremely wealthy Sir Richard Sherburn of Mitton’s will includes fascinating objects such as “a nest of silver boules with a cover to theim all guylte” along with twelve silver spoons.
By the late 16th century, however, other classes were aspiring to silver spoons too. William Harrison, in his “Description of England” published in 1577, recorded ‘the exchange of wooden spoons into silver or tin’ by yeomen farmers as a sign of prosperity. And the spoon is indeed often the only item of silver to be mentioned in a local will.
The spoons themselves were mostly between 6.5" and 7.5" in length, with a fig-shaped bowl, a slim, straight stem (‘stele’) and a variety of terminals. Those simply cut off at the end were known as slip-top spoons, others had elaborate, cast knobs (‘knops’) at the end and many had a figure such as a lion, an apostle or even a Buddha-like symbol. Where space allowed, such as on a flat or ‘seal’ top or on the nimbus disc of an apostle, the owners’ initials and sometimes a date would be pricked out in dots - a primitive form of engraving. So-called Puritan spoons made during the mid-C17 Commonwealth period had elliptical bowls and flattened, plain stems and were the first departure from established design for many years.
This single size of spoon fulfilled all eating requirements until, during the latter half of the 17th Century, things began to change. The catalyst was undoubtedly the restoration of the monarchy - the return from French exile of King Charles II and the Court in 1660. Influenced by Continental ways, two smaller sizes of spoon were introduced - the dessert spoon and teaspoon - as well as the table fork. It was not long before specific uses were catered for by the making of snuff-spoons, spice-box spoons, mustard spoons and basting spoons, to name but a few. French-influenced designs also appeared, the first being the trefid, with a three-lobed, flattened handle. At the same time, this was the beginning of the end for the age-old custom of carrying one’s cutlery about, as hosts began to lay their tables with knives, forks and spoons for their guests to use, thus showing off their own good taste and prosperity.
Such was the demand for domestic silver following the Restoration, as noble families tried to replace that which had been confiscated or destroyed during the Cromwellian era, that silversmiths were short of the raw material and many resorted to clipping pieces from the coins of the day, which were also sterling silver. This caused such a problem that the authorities had to raise the required standard of purity to 95.84%, known as Britannia silver, from 1697 to 1719.
Shortly before this time, the 1695 probate inventory of Richard Preston of Settle was listing “silver plaite spoons, 2 tumblers and other plaite £1/10/0”. ‘ Plate’ was the general term for domestic objects in precious metal - gold and silver: the process of silver-plating base-metal articles was still many years away from its invention. The term may have derived from the Spanish ‘plata’ (silver) or the French ‘en plate’ (made from a single sheet of metal).
Anyone wishing to buy new silver spoons nowadays can do so readily and might have to pay £400 - £500 for a set of six plain dessert spoons. Back in 1613, Richard Armitstead of Lawkland’s inventory listed 5 silver and 20 pewter spoons at 58s4d - just less than £3.00. Nearly all of this worth would be in the silver ones and, if one allows for the passage of 400 years, it does seem that silver was an expensive commodity.
Nowadays, a single 17th C spoon in good condition and bearing legible hallmarks would change hands for several hundred pounds, and quite a lot more for an especially-collectable one. When looking at one of these simple but charming objects, one cannot help but wonder in whose pockets it was carried and at whose tables it was used!
AcknowledgementThe wills have been taken from the collection deposited with the North Craven Historical Research Group by Reg Postlethwaite. Transcriptions are available at the NCHRG, Procter House, Settle.
References to Wills
A silver spoon (with permission by Christie, Manson and Woods, Ltd.)