There’s one thing that you really need to know about the teaspoon: it is a precision instrument, meticulously calibrated to help ensure an excellent cup of tea. It has moved through many roles in its history: functional, social and ornamental. You wouldn’t expect many design variations on what it basically a long stem with a small bowl at the end, but there’s a surprisingly wide range, from apostle spoons to medusa snakes, trefids, silver kings, leopards, Hildesheimer Rose and crested fiddlebacks.
Spoons originated in very ancient times, of course. They were almost all scoops made of bamboo and materials that did not affect the taste of potages. The early Chinese ones were long-handled and mainly for digging deep into jars of medicines, herbs and, later, tea. Their emergence as tableware seems to have come from the courts of Egypt and Rome, where they were shaped for tasting. The luxury fare of Roman aristocrats included larks’ tongues, hummingbird eggs and a chicken stuffed inside a duck inside a goose inside a pig inside a cow, roasted of course not microwaved. There were spoons for sipping, sampling, digging in and cooling.
They took on a social status. Rich-born Roman infants were gifted with an ornate and very expensive spoon – silver – and, yes, that is exactly where the phrase ‘born with a silver spoon” seems to have originated. The Metropolitan Museum has a beautiful dual fork and spoon dating from the 3rd century, of rococcoesque whirls and whatsits. Treasure hoards from Roman camps in Britain include simpler but very elegant silver spoons.
Spoons are first recorded in England nearly a thousand years later in a list of King Edward II’s travelling wardrobe. They were very much a status item in pre-tea times. Apostle spoons were baptism gifts from the wealthy. These remained popular as the spoon transmorphed into the teaspoon. The tip of the spoon was a crafted image of one of the twelve apostles, with the 13th apostle – Christ – making up the set. The coronation of the King of England was always marked by anointment from a ceremonial spoon.
None of these bore any special elements of size. That came with tea. The first mention of the term was in an ad in 1686. It described “three small gilt teaspoons” that had been stolen by a 15-year old escaped black slave and offered a large reward. This points to the growing value of silver spoons; they were easy to grab and hide, portable and valuable.
They were a primary target of opportunity for Victorian era burglars. A court record in 1840 lists the thefts of Edward Abbey, sentenced to four years of hard labor: some gold and silver and three teaspoons. Dickens has several instances that show how the spoons were luxury items: when Scrooge dies, in Christmas Carol, his housekeeper strips the sheets from his bed and his night clothes, along with his teaspoons and sugar tongs, to sell to a fence. Fagin in Oliver Twist is sent to prison for two years, for theft of the equivalent of $120 or so – and a silver teaspoon.
Teaspoon theft has been an area of UK and even Australian academic research, with a famous longitudinal study showing that the rate of informal appropriation by employees was around 50%, a figure that amounts to 360 per 100 teaspoon years, whatever that means. Queen Elizabeth II was notoriously miffed when a downpour at her palace garden party allowed guests to take shelter in her royal rent, from which they emerged with a number of Victorian and Georgian teaspoons. (She went regally and publicly ballistic about the Guardsmen nicking the palace cashews left in dishes for her to nibble as she wafted the palace corridors.)
Teaspoons displayed wealth and attracted many outstanding silversmiths, in Britain and the US from the 1700s through to the 1930s. Inns did not provide spoons and well-heeled travelers brought their own. The lower classes adopted machine-stamped ones made of copper, pewter and a brass alloy. The spoons were mainly used as mini-paddles, to stir the sugar and milk that marked the British preference, veering on addiction.
Standardization of size was driven by the price of tea. Until the mid-1800s, a single pound cost several weeks of a workers’ average pay. Tea cups were smaller than coffee cups for that reason, and spoon sizes similarly varied with tea cost and the ups and downs of taxation, which was as high as 114%. Sellers and servers needed a scoop that dispensed an exact amount that ranged from a scoopful to a beady-eyed moiety. Apothecaries had informally moved to a common measure and that, together with the standardization encouraged by machine production, gave us the specification that has been formalized by weights and measures units, trade associations, consumer protection agencies and international agreements.
Defined precisely, it is 1 1/3 fluid drams (the apothecary unit) or 4.92892159375 milliliters. Defined usefully, it is 5 milliliters. When the instructions for making a particular tea state “1 teaspoon” that’s what it is.
The standardization made the teaspoon the base of more general culinary measures. A tablespoon is officially 3 teaspoons. When a list of ingredients on a food package shows Z teaspoons of sugar, salt, etc., that is Z x 5 ml. Whole leaf tea is traditionally sold on the international markets in 100 milligrams, 125 mg and 1 kilo units. Most tea samples come in packets of 10 g. A reliable rule of thumb is that 10 g equals four teaspoons equals four cups.
The teaspoon has lost its status as silverware and even its role. Tea requires less and less stirring as tea lovers cut back on milk and sugar and tea drinkers dunk bags. The saucer has similarly disappeared from most kitchen cabinets. It was used to provide a stand for a hot cup and to avoid scalding the fingers, and in working class Britain and Russia to pour a small amount of tea to cool fast. The spoon of course perched on the saucer. As so often with tea and pomp, silly social conventions emerged, one of which was to leave the spoon in the cup even when raising it to drink, with the pinky finger carefully placed. The French Prince de Broglie, who hated “this sort of warm water”, reported in 1782 the upper class convention of not embarrassing the hostess by refusing a topup; guests signaled their “no thanks” by placing the spoon across the top of the cup.
Today, spoons are just spoons. The teaspoon that is a spoon of tea is now more generally referred to as a measurement spoon. It’s worth buying one for making loose leaf tea. The 5 ml, 2.5 mg precision makes it simple and reliable to get the amount right.
Any modern article about a historical artifact needs a “relevant” comparison. So here are a few:
Digital: A teaspoon can hold 1.8 zettabytes of data, which amounts to all the information recorded in human history. (The publisher of that gee whiz calculation does not indicate how it was arrived at, but “wow” – a spoonful of data is 1,800,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes!)
Science: If you were able to scoop it up, a teaspoon of the material that makes up neutron stars would weigh 14 million tons.
Spiritual and existential: A teaspoon provides a vehicle for choosing the exact volume of a dry and inert second flush Margaret’s Hope black tea from its well-sealed storage container to transfer to a heating vessel that produces a life-enhancing pleasure. The miracle is that it will do the same for a Pi Lo Chun green and Buddha’s Palm oolong – or any Artisan tea of quality.
You may no longer need a teaspoon for stirring your tea. But it really is worth buying one that is calibrated to 10 ml. Typically, they are silver-plated brass or stainless metal. They cost under $10 and come in one- and two-cup size.