By David Whitbread

David McKinley presents an interesting theory about tablespoons (Finial, Aug/Sep 2003, pp 16-17). I certainly agree that they must have been used for serving as well as for soup, but I am less clear that one can identify two distinct standard sizes of tablespoon through most of the 18th century (unless I have managed mainly to collect the exceptions that prove the rule). A fair proportion of my Hanoverian tablespoons seem to fall somewhere between the two sizes he illustrates. And it may just be a quirk of my collection but, unlike David's, it is well into the second half of the 18th century before it has any tablespoons of 8.5" or longer. So I hope David will forgive me if I muddy the waters on the basis of my small and possibly unrepresentative collection, to question whether 18th century spoon sizes were quite as tidily organised as he suggests. The standardisation of tablespoons may have taken a while to evolve.

I illustrate four Hanoverian tablespoons to show what I mean. The shorter two (from 1716 at 7.5" and from 1714 at 7.75") fall in the size range David suggests for 'eating' rather than for serving. The other two (from 1717 at 8" and 1708 at 8.25") straddle the gap between this and the 8.5" that David suggests for the 'serving' tablespoon. My larger Hanoverian tablespoons up to the 1780's and the overlap with Old English all fall into this intermediate size range of between 8" and 8.25". I have not measured their bowl capacities but I would assume they too are intermediate, varying mainly with the length of the spoon.

Certainly the number of dishes served at an 18th century dinner or the number of attendants waiting on the diners in the more affluent households must have created a need for sets of serving spoons as well as spoons for eating with, as demonstrated by the case David quotes. The still larger spoons such as basting spoons seem too big to have been general serving spoons and do not survive in sufficient quantity for me to think they started off in sets of the necessary number, so tablespoons must have been used for serving. Maybe this intermediate size range provided the useful compromise of a spoon that could be dual purpose, used for serving or eating. Or perhaps more modest households settled for more modest serving tablespoons and I have simply failed to collect the larger and more aristocratic examples. But even if my collection is not representative, it does at least seem to show that there was not a clear-cut gap between two sizes of tablespoon in the first part of the 18th century.

For what it is worth my Trefid and Dognose tablespoons range between much the same lengths as my Hanoverian examples, so there do not seem to have been any marked changes in size as the patterns evolved. Though I cannot agree that there were just two distinct sizes of tablespoon at this period, it does seem likely that the larger spoons would have been used for serving and the smaller for eating with. A look at Onslow pattern tablespoons of the 18th century may help clarify what were the normal sizes for serving spoons, since the pattern was pretty much restricted to flatware meant for serving. I do not have any example as small as 8", let alone the 7.75" that would make it the equivalent of David's smaller 'eating' tablespoon, and I would think that this size is pretty rare in the pattern. My second illustration shows a couple of Onslow tablespoons (1770 and 1772) that are 8.75" long, more or less fitting in with David's standardised serving spoon. Alongside two spoons that are 8.25" long - another 1772 Onslow and a 1781 Hanoverian with a fluted bowl, which makes it more suitable for serving than eating with. The latter two are the same length as the longest spoon in the first illustration, falling between David's two categories.

Since I have an 8" long spoon of 1761 which I am confident was used for eating as it came with the companion pieces in its place setting, I am inclined to conclude that tablespoons of up to about 8" were probably mainly intended for this purpose, whilst those from about 8.25" upwards were probably mainly used as serving spoons. However my evidence does not seem to demonstrate a single standard size for each purpose, or prove conclusively that tablespoons of all sizes were not used for either purpose.

I do not have enough examples in Old English or later patterns to risk the same sort of analysis, but it is only in these later patterns that that I have larger tablespoons measuring between 8.5" and 9" (and none in the 8" to 8.25'" range of my Hanoverian spoons). So this larger size of serving tablespoon may well have become more standard by the later 18th century, on the basis David suggests.

I do not collect Victorian or later spoons (nothing against them, but you have to draw a line somewhere). However David's article prompted me also to look at the later flatware that we have in use at home. Our soup spoons from the 1930's are 7.75" long, as would seem logical for the replacements of the earlier smaller size of tablespoon, while the serving tablespoons are 8.5" like the serving spoons David identifies. (Incidentally additional soup spoons in the same pattern but from 1965 had shrunk to dessert spoon size.) A late Victorian service of dessert flatware also has 8.5" tablespoons for serving. All very consistent so far, but a separate 1871 flatware service has 8.5" tablespoons for each place setting, so at that date some folk were presumably eating their soup with the larger size of tablespoon, unless the service once contained very early soup spoons which were subsequently discarded as non-U.

The sample of two services is of course too small to conclude that by the late 19th century all tablespoons were of the 8.5" size, whether intended for serving or eating with. But it makes me realise that familiarity with flatware services from the relevant period (rather than just the individual spoons I collect), is probably necessary if one wants to be clearer about how tablespoons of varying sizes were used. I may lack that familiarity and thus not have shed much light on the matter, but I am grateful to David for getting me thinking on the topic. I suspect that he is basically right and I have done no more than suggest that standardisation took some time to develop fully.


.12. / .13.
The Finial, December/January/February 2003/04

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