Exhibit of the Week: Folding silver spoon

Folding silver spoon in the Scarborough Collections.
Folding silver spoon in the Scarborough Collections.

There’s a pretty good chance that there’s one item that you’ve used virtually every single day of your life, and probably never thought twice about – a spoon.

It’s the ultimate everyday object – a utensil it would be hard to live without, and yet of the utmost simplicity of design: so much so that, in one form or another, it’s been used by mankind since Palaeolithic times, that period of human pre-history when we started to develop tools, anything up to two-and-a-half millions years ago.

And for the vast majority of that time, the spoon reigned supreme at the dinner table – it wasn’t until the 18th century that forks came into general use.

It’s likely that very early spoons were made of shell, wood, ivory, bone or horn, and flint or slate. As humanity advanced, they started to use ceramics and metals – most Greek and Roman spoons were made of bronze or silver.

In the Middle Ages, European civilisations began to adopt more and different metals, and brass, pewter and tinned iron spoons became more common – so, as has ever been thus, the wealthy wanted to display their riches by using precious metals, and spoons of gold and silver became symbols of affluence for royalty and other upper classes.

However, even the wealthiest were unlikely to be able to afford a full set of gold or silver spoons for visiting guests, so it became common to carry a personal spoon in one’s pocket (then known as a fitchet: a slit cut into an outer garment to allow access to items attached to a girdle underneath).

It was this practice that probably led to the development of the folding spoon, of which this week’s exhibit from the Scarborough Collections is a particularly beautiful example.

It was discovered in the early 1800s near St Mary’s Churchyard along with a collection of other silver items all dating from the 15th century, including a silver ring, seven decorative silver hooks (possibly shroud hooks) and a silver-gilt reliquary or container for a sacred relic. The items became known as the Scarborough Hoard, a hoard being a collection of valuable objects which has been hidden away, usually for the owner to retrieve later, sometimes for discovery by later generations.

The Scarborough Hoard was purchased by the town’s Philosophical Society, which had founded the Rotunda Museum and subsequently ran it for many years, in 1836. It cost the princely sum of £5 (the equivalent of around £515 today). The Hoard can still be seen in the Rotunda today, in the upper gallery.

The spoon is silver, although not hallmarked: in the early 1300s, Edward I had passed a law decreeing that all silver items for sale had to be of at least equal quality to the silver currency of the day, and established the practice of wardens from The Goldsmith’s Company visiting workshops to test their products. By 1478, there were just too many workshops for them to visit, and the Assay Office was established, to which gold – and silversmiths were required to take their wares for hallmarking. It seems likely, therefore, that our spoon dates from the first three-quarters of the 15th century.

It has a large bowl in the shape of a fig, a hexagonal stem and a diamond-shaped knop (or decorative knob) at the end of the handle. A sliding sheath would cover the hinge when closed; the hinge is decorated with a face, possibly that of a demon.

The folding silver spoon is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.