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Author Topic:   The socialization of spoons
Scott Martin
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iconnumber posted 03-10-2006 06:21 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Scott Martin     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
[01-2404]

In a another thread, swarter posted this. I felt he was correct about this being a good topic for discussion.....

quote:
    "I'd like to understand, for instance, why it is that there are so relatively many spoons and so few of any other flatware pieces from that period."

Now there is a question that has not come up very often in these forums. I suspect the answer lies partly in the English heritage of many of the colonists and their descendants. Forks and knives were in use on the Continent long before they were introduced into England, where people were still eating with their fingers. Spoons have a long tradition - longer than other utensils - probably because they hold liquids better than bare hands. Aside from the practical uses they also had significance as gifts, souvenirs, and remembrances.

When forks and knives did gain popularity, they were commonly made of harder materials than silver - iron or steel, with handles of wood, bone, or ivory. In England, they were later often close plated (silver on iron or steel, in a manner not unlike Sheffield plate), and knive blades were often set in close plated hollow handles. These types had hard use, were not particularly valued, and did not survive in such great numbers as silver spoons, which were often not used in daily service. Silver forks, when silver services were used, wore down or broke their tines, and did not last as long as the spoons.

The fact that there were fewer silver forks in the Colonies (and the Early Republic) than in England, relative to the number of spoons, may also reflect the economic condition of the classes -- It seems everybody aspired to own some silver, either for status or safekeeping of whatever wealth they had (marked and engraved silver could be traced when stolen, whereas money could not) but relatively few could afford more than a few spoons.

I expect that this little pontification on the social history of flatware will spark considerable discussion from people more knowledgeable of the subject, and perhaps not a little controversy (it is called "seeding the forum"), but the quick and short answer is that there are more spoons because there were more spoons, for whatever reason.


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tmockait

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iconnumber posted 03-10-2006 10:56 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for tmockait     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I have noticed this same proponderance of spoons to other pieces in continental antique shops, flea markets, and antique fares. The surviving utensils from Pompeii in the Chicago exhibit are also spoons.

Tom

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FWG

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iconnumber posted 03-10-2006 12:57 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for FWG     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I'll keep this short, as I'm about to return to Puerto Rico for a couple of weeks, but in the English colonial world, prior to the mid-19th century, there's an easy answer -- although I've seldom seen it raised. I first learned how meaningful this could be and how it reached across class lines while doing historical archaeology in Virginia.

I quote from my unpublished book manuscript, still in progress:

quote:
The American colonies declared their independence from the British in 1776, ending the taxation that had drained wealth from the colonies back to England. But many American traditions came from Britain, including one that played a celebrated part in the Independence movement: tea-drinking. In the mid- to late-1700s Britain was swept by the tea craze, and style-conscious colonists followed suit. The Boston Tea Party, a rebellion against the tax on tea, demonstrates the importance of tea-drinking in the colonies. Formal meal service remained confined to the upper classes, but many more aspired to serving tea, and many who ate with wood and pewter utensils had a few finer teacups and teaspoons for the purpose. Pewter spoons might suffice for eating, but tea demanded a more delicate, and finer, utensil for stirring in the sugar and cream. Fine English ceramics (creamware and pearlware) were also developed specifically for formal services, and Chinese porcelain cups were imported along with the tea to put in them. Archaeological sites in the U.S. from the period 1750-1850 commonly have fragments of both Chinese and English teawares.

Because tea was a rare and expensive commodity in the 1700s, it was served in very small cups, and had correspondingly small spoons; early teaspoons are more like modern demitasse spoons in size. The popularity of serving tea is the main reason that teaspoons are the most common piece of coin silver found today—they always were much more common. They were also relatively inexpensive, because they were small. One could also have spoons made in different weights, depending on how much silver you could afford. Even a large teaspoon generally was less than a silver dollar in weight, and the smaller, lighter ones could be made from less than half that amount of silver. Coin silver teaspoons are often very thin and light because so many people who could barely afford them wanted to be able to serve tea with them. It didn't matter much that they were easily bent, since they were not intended for hard use. But wealthier people still had heavier spoons, demonstrating their wealth in social functions.


The other observations about the frequency of spoons relative to other implements are also true, of course, but I think this point is crucial in the US and some other areas.

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tmockait

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iconnumber posted 03-10-2006 03:09 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for tmockait     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
FWG,

Very intresting.

One point on the famous tea party. The tea being shipped into Boston was actually cheaper even with the new tax than the tea had been previously. Under mercantile law, East India Tea had to be transhipped through London. In order to cut costs and make the new tea tax more acceptable, Parliament allowed the East India ships to sail directly to the Colonies. Even with the new tax they were selling cheaper tea.

So why the "tea party?" Tea smugglers (not a few of whom were also patriots)had done a lively business under the old system, but the new arrangement made the legal tea cheaper than their contraband. Hence their patriotic furor.

Tom

[This message has been edited by tmockait (edited 03-10-2006).]

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FWG

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iconnumber posted 03-11-2006 09:28 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for FWG     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Quite right, Tom -- perhaps I oversimplified in the text. The point about tea drinking as a social engagement remains, of course....

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Ulysses Dietz
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iconnumber posted 03-11-2006 10:11 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Ulysses Dietz     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote

Really, you should all get in to see "Style, Status, Sterling: The Triumph of Silver in America," at THe Newark Museum before it closes (March 31). We do spoons.

Spoons are a useful form that date to antiquity, while forks seem to appear first in the late Middle Ages in, if I recall, Italy. Romans and Greeks used spoons and their fingers. Recall that knives were weapons and perceived as such right into the Renaissance. Thus using knives at table was "iffy" in a social setting. (One reason Chinese and Japanese food is always served in bitesize portions is the fact that one would never appear with a knife at dinner in these cultures.) Spoons and knives were the ONLY table utensils until the skewer, used in cooking meat, got bifurcated and became a forked skewer.Get it? The best essay on the evolution of the fork is in "The Evolution of Useful Things," by Henry Petroski (published 1994, now in paperback). Forks spread from the aristocracy in Italy to the French aristocracy, and then to the British. While there are colonial American silver forks, they are scarce as the proverbial hens' teeth. For the most part even elegant colonials used spoons, knives and fingers. Silver spoons became the currency of the upwardly mobile in the late 18th century. Before the Revolution, silver was scarce enough in general that only the elite would have had silver spoons (and this goes with tea drinking nicely, because it too was an elite behavior imitated by colonists hoping to look like aristocrats). In the 1790s and especially in the 1800s-10s, sheet silver and US independence made spoon production a boom industry (and the parallel rise in tea drinking among more ordinary folks). Thus sets of teaspoons, those marvelous thin fragile spoons we see so many of, became the first step in gentility of hundreds of thousands of Americans--people who for the first time thought that maybe they, too, should own some silver. It was the first step in the great silver explosion of the 19th century. Jabez Gorham started out as a spoon maker, after all.

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FWG

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iconnumber posted 03-11-2006 10:28 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for FWG     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
For me, I wish I could get to Newark to see it. Unfortunately, even though it's only a 4-hour drive, I've been so busy with work that I haven't been able to -- and likely won't when I get back, as I have a (non-silver) exhibit to create and mount in just four weeks!

Have you considered turning it into a web exhibit when it comes down, with all the text, and objects represented by photos? It sounds like something that would be worth such treatment. Over the next year or so I need to develop several such web exhibits (again, non-silver), but haven't done any yet.

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tmockait

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iconnumber posted 03-11-2006 03:08 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for tmockait     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
FWG,

I was just sharing an interesting story. You did not oversimplify. Explaining the tea party would have dedetracted from the silver discussion in your narrative. Your book sounds interesting, when will it be out and under what title?

Tom

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FWG

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iconnumber posted 03-11-2006 04:54 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for FWG     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
It's a little book on Ithaca silversmiths; the extract above is from the introduction. I have a few more details to track down, but I'm hoping to get it out this year. Current plan is self-publication, using a local printer, but I'm open to suggestions if anyone has a press for such projects that they'd recommend.

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Scott Martin
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iconnumber posted 03-12-2006 12:43 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Scott Martin     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
argentum1 posted 03-12-2006 12:31 PM in the New Members' Forum:
quote:
I cannot find the location where someone asked about when spoons/forks/knives first came about. There is a website giving a short history of when each form came about. Nothing definitive but here is the address The History of Silver Cutlery

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ahwt

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iconnumber posted 03-14-2006 04:21 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for ahwt     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote

The following has some interesting information about silver forks and other implements for dining. I recall reading somewhere that John Adams used knives and forks at a formal White House dinner and was severely censored for not conforming to the common person's behavior. I suspect that George Washington could and did use knives and forks routinely, but he, as Father of his Country, could do many things that normal folk could not. I can imagine that other politicians of that time must have been very jealous and envious of George Washington's standing with the American citizenry.

quote:
In dining, young nation reached fork in the road

By BILL DURYEA, Times Staff Writer
Published June 8, 2005
ANN ARBOR, Mich.

In 1800, less than 1 percent of U.S. households had a single silver spoon.

"How then did the American middle class become tyrannized by the tables they set," asked Darra Goldstein, a professor of Russian at Williams College and the founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. Goldstein was one of a handful of food experts who spoke in mid May at a symposium dedicating the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the University of Michigan.

In less than a century, Goldstein explained to the symposium crowd, American dining habits evolved from democratic and un-ostentatious to un-apologetically elitist. As they left behind the Colonial Era and embraced the Gilded Age, diners abandoned the simplicity of knife and spoon for ever-more elaborate presentations demanding dozens of pieces of silverware. It was a trend toward excess begun in the courts of Europe, but the young United States was incapable of resisting the allure of aristocratic living.

You might say the trouble started with the fork.

The fork, with just two prongs, was invented in the late 15th century for wealthy women to daintily nibble on sticky sweetmeats. For that reason, the fork was for a long time "associated with prissy women," Goldstein said. "Queen Elizabeth insisted on eating with her fingers."

Well into the mid 1800s, a knife and spoon sufficed for most meals. For some centuries before that, dagger like knives, good for stabbing and slicing, and fingers were all the most distinguished diners required.

John Adams, second president of the United States, brought home silver forks from France. "His enemies said he had abandoned the ways of democracy," Goldstein said.

At the time, the way Americans ate was as charged politically as their rhetoric. Furniture makers designed oval dining tables to promote a less-authoritarian seating plan. This was a deliberate critique of the European style of long rectangular tables at which one's social position was revealed by how close one was seated to the salt at the center of the table.

This "democratic interlude was short-lived," Goldstein said. Pretty soon wealthier Americans were commissioning rectangular tables. Electro-plating in the 1840s and the discovery of large silver deposits such as the Comstock Lode made tableware affordable to the middle class. In the 1860s the nation's silver companies began to produce their flatware.

Into the mid 1800s, families served themselves and their guests a la francaise, meaning all the dishes were laid on the table simultaneously. Then came the advent of dining a la russe, in which dishes were brought out one at a time. The most immediate effect of this was ever more complex place settings; each course had a specific utensil.

Hence the asparagus fork, the asparagus tongs, the horseradish spoon, the olive fork, the terrapin fork, the ice cream slice, the berry spoon, the buckwheat cake lifter and on and on. Some silverware patterns included 146 implements, 19 of them spoons. "This played into American insecurities," Goldstein said.

Etiquette manuals became a small industry as people struggled to stay abreast of the ever more intricate dining rituals. "There were pockets of resistance," Goldstein said. "President Grover Cleveland insisted on eating with a knife."

In 1925, Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, urged passage of a law forbidding silver companies from making more than 55 pieces in a pattern. But we still don't know how to serve asparagus.


I have never understood why we now have a President's Day instead of celebrating Washington's Birthday. Perhaps politicians are still envious.

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swarter
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iconnumber posted 03-15-2006 05:02 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for swarter     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Kathryn Buhler, in Mount Vernon Silver, notes that George Washington's 1757 first purchase of silver included "2 Setts best Silver handle Knives & Forks best London Blades" from England. The forks were three pronged with their tines and the knife blades set in silver pistol shaped handles. She comments: ". . . these were a considerable luxury here when many even well-to-do householders were content to have their knives and forks with bone and even wooden handles."

[This message has been edited by June Martin (edited 02-28-2009).]

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Scott Martin
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iconnumber posted 03-15-2006 05:13 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Scott Martin     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
witzhall posted 03-15-2006 03:08 PM in the New Members' Forum;
quote:
In the General Silver Forum topic "The Socialization of Spoons," ahwt muses:
    I have never understood why we now have a President's Day instead of celebrating Washington's Birthday. Perhaps politicians are still envious.

As I've wondered myself what became of my childhood holidays, I did a little investigating on the Urban Legends reference page (http://www.snopes.com/holidays/presidents/presidents.asp) and learned that Presidents' Day is in fact "a name without a holiday," as one writer put it. Legally, the holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February is still called Washington's birthday.

I'm as puzzled as ahwt. In searching for a possible answer, I concluded that the dilemma may spring from that found in the breasts of many Americans: the conflict between our genetic training as royalists/elitists and our learned trait as small D-democrats/egalitarians - similar, I'm guessing, to a dilemma surrounding the subject of our common interest: silver. Those pieces that we seem to value most highly were made not for the Everyman in a democratic society but for the elite and monied citizen. This is probably true in other countries, as well, though I can't speak to that. I'd be interested in what others have to say. To my way of thinking I'm not a bad person for valuing The Best or The Original (as in holidays) more highly than an equalized, democratized, machine-made copy.

I guess I have too much time on my hands . . .


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outwest

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iconnumber posted 03-16-2006 12:17 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for outwest     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
There are two days for presidents day holidays, not one: Lincoln and Washington. They are usually a week apart, but some celebrate them on a Friday and a Monday of the same week.

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ahwt

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iconnumber posted 03-25-2006 11:16 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for ahwt     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Swarter's comment about George Washington's silver is very interesting and I think these knives, forks and spoons are a good example of the kind of goods that Washington was accustomed to acquiring. Joseph J. Ellis in his book "His Excellency - George Washington" comments extensively on the many purchases that George Washington made through Cary & Company of London. Washington consigned the sale of his tobacco crops to Cary & Co. and it was this consignment or mercantile system that provided him easy access to London's shops. He could simply write Cary and order anything he desired and Cary would advance him the money. In the early 1760s Washington spent on average the equivalent of $400,000 to $600,000 per year with Cary & Co for the purchase of London goods. Washington discovered that in the long run that this system did not provide value to him as he came to the conclusion that too often he did not receive adequate payment for his tobacco crops and too often was overcharged for the goods from London. In his mind the system was designed to keep him in debt to Cary & Co. His reaction was to develop an independence from Cary & Co. by changing over the cash crop on his land from tobacco to wheat and developing his own distribution system to sell this wheat and limiting tobacco to lands from the Curtis family.

Ellis points out that there is no direct evidence that Cary & Co. either underpaid Washington for the sale of the tobacco or overcharged for the goods Washington purchased. Rather it may be that this was the beginning of Washington's "rebellion against the slavish seductions of the British Empire." I suspect it was it was this same feeling that led Bostonians to rebel against the tax on tea and that it had little to do with the actual cost of the tea.

Thanks to witzhall for discovering that President's Day has not legally replaced George Washington's birthday and to Outwest for noting the celebration of Lincoln's birthday in many areas.


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swarter
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iconnumber posted 03-26-2006 04:50 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for swarter     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
There is additional discussion of George Washington's silver in an earlier thread (Geroge Washington) by ahwt.

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witzhall

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iconnumber posted 04-24-2006 03:48 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for witzhall     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Additional commentary on the development of forks appears in the latest Smithsonian magazine: May 2006, p. 34, in which the author suggests that forks were considered a European affectation until knives had become blunted and the Victorians and Americans began looking at every example as "the thing to do"!

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Dale

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iconnumber posted 04-26-2006 12:23 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dale     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
In Illinois, Presidents Day is about Lincoln, not Washington. In Missouri, there is a Jefferson day sometime in late spring. The reasons for President's day do vary.

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middletom

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iconnumber posted 04-26-2006 04:24 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for middletom     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
In an article I read a couple years ago in the magazine "Silver", it was stated that Americans did not start becoming comfortable with the idea of silver forks until the 1830s. Forks, before then, were apparently of steel with either silver, bone or antler handles. Paul Rvere imported his from England. Elmer Senior, who founded ONC was referred toa as a "spoonman" in the incorporation papers, though that was in the early twentieth century and by then silver forks were a standard part of flatware production. I don't know if making a gfork was beyond the capabilities of most Colonial silversmiths, or if such a piece was just too exotic to be in demand.

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