Weighty Matters?

By David Whitbread

I have recently been trying to improve my record keeping and, for example, note the length and weight of every spoon rather than, as often in the past, lazily just indicating tea spoon, table spoon or whatever. Although the traditionalist in me would prefer to use inches and ounces, my scales measure in grams, so centimetres and grams it is to avoid the added chore of doing conversions. However, having gone metric, I thought it might also be an idea to have my computer do a simple sum and record the ratio of the weight to the length for each spoon as an indicator of whether it was slight, substantial or just a normal weight for its size. It proved to be an interesting exercise, if for obvious reasons not a complete answer to describing the gauge of a spoon. First, you cannot take some set ratio as the norm for all spoons. A small 10cm long teaspoon might weigh 10 grams, a weight/length ratio of 1:1. A matching tablespoon twice as long at 20cm is likely to weigh six times as much at 60 grams, a ratio of 3:1, because it will be wider and thicker as well as longer, so different guideline ratios apply for each size of spoon. Next, there is a large range of weights for any given size of spoon. The heaviest teaspoons or tablespoons, for example, are at least twice the weight of the lightest with the rest spread around all weights between. You need to think of a range of ratios rather than a single ratio as the norm for any given size, and it is quite difficult to establish cut-off points for the slight or the substantial other than at the extreme margins.

The ratio is anyhow not an exact tool. Wear will have reduced the original weight and thus the ratio of any old spoon. And the small variations in weight and length in a matching set of hand made spoons can easily lead to a difference of 0.1g or so between the ratios for each individual spoon. You might think from all this that I am writing to report that I have wasted my time on an abortive exercise, but I have actually found it has some uses so forgive me if I bore you with a few charts to demonstrate what I mean, even if at the risk of be labouring the obvious.

Chart 1                                Chart 2
Chart 1 just shows the length (horizontal axis) and weight (vertical axis) in centimetres and grams of a sample of 18th century Hanoverian spoons ranging from miniatures to a single basting spoon. My attempts to collect without undue expense have probably biased the sample towards lighter spoons but it still gives an idea of the range of weights for each size of spoon. The sample covers both of the silver standards and most pattern variations (e.g. rat tail, fancy back etc), but it excludes picture front teaspoons because I felt the heavier stems on many of them to accommodate the decoration made them sufficiently different to justify separate treatment.

Chart 2 records the same spoons by the ratio of weight to length. The horizontal axis again gives the length of the spoons in centimetres and the vertical now gives their weight in grams divided by length to produce the ratio. It is easiest to single out some of the heavier spoons for comment since they do not get lost in the detail of the charts. You will see, for example that the 115 gram basting spoon in the top right hand corner of Chart 1 is now revealed in Chart 2 as not particularly heavy for its size with a weight to length ratio of not much above 3. (Judging by my examples in other patterns, the increase in the ratio of weight to length flattens out for spoons above about 20cm. I do not have any large serving spoon where it is greater than around 4:1 because the proportions change and stems become relatively slimmer. This is to be expected since one would end up with some impossibly heavy spoons if the weight continued to increase by ever greater increments than the length, though there will certainly be some heavier spoons than the examples I happen to own.)

To continue, the tablespoon of just under 20 centimetres and approaching 70 grams in weight in the top centre of Charts 1 and 2 is shown to be quite substantial with the highest ratio of 3.5:1. The rather longer (22.7cm) spoon of much the same weight turns out to have a ratio of 3:1, which for its length brings it nearer to a normal rather than a heavy spoon. However, the main point of Chart 2 is to demonstrate how the ratio increases with the length of the spoon. Miniatures, teaspoons, the few dessert spoons and the tablespoons all cluster around progressively higher ratios.

The same exercise on a smaller sample of Trefid and Dognose spoons from tea to table size (Chart 3) shows a similar scatter of ratios. I have too few spoons earlier than these to justify producing another chart for them, but the weights and ratios of Puritan spoons seem to fit the same pattern. With still earlier forms it might seem odd to try and compare a variety of spoons with very different finials but my handful of examples would suggest the spoons tend to be a bit heavier, length for length, than the later spoons covered by these charts, and a slip top particularly so, its thicker stem that broadens to the top more than compensating for the lack of finial.

Chart 3
Moving in the other direction, I have yet to do the exercise on Old English or other, later patterns. I would expect plain Old English spoons to show much the same scatter of lengths, weights and ratios as the Hanoverian. I suspect that, as one gets towards 19th century spoons there will be more heavy examples with higher ratios. And whether or not it is worth refining the exercise to see how things might vary between London and the provinces or, for example, to show differences between makers, I do not think I have the energy or a large enough collection to attempt this at present.

Now you might ask, if you have persevered this far, why such a preoccupation with the weight/length ratio when you know whether a spoon is heavy or not just from its weight? Well, it can help in assessing a spoon you cannot see or handle (for example in the postal auction). It is easier to compare the gauge of, say, two tablespoons of differing length and weight if one has in mind that the 'normal' ratio would be somewhere between 2.5 and 3. Doing the sums quickly might reveal that a heavier but longer spoon is in fact the less substantial of the two. A grasp of how the ratio changes with length can also help in assessing spoons of non-standard length. Unsurprisingly, the relatively heavy spoon with a high ratio for its length is more likely to show other signs of quality in its making, design and proportions.

Even with the spoons in front of me the use of the ratio has helped me to re-assess a few of my own and realise that they are actually more, or less, substantial than I had thought. Though it might seem like fiddling with a detail too far, I find the ratio provides another tool, minor but simple and painless enough to use, that is of some use in assessing and describing spoons so I shall continue to note it in my records.


.14. & .15.
The Finial, April/May 2003

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