Professor Hanington's Speaking of Science: The science of spoons
Professor Hanington’s Speaking of Science

Professor Hanington's Speaking of Science: The science of spoons

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In one episode of Downton Abbey the strict butler, Mr. Carson, was seen lecturing one of the servants about dining room ritual. As a steadfast supporter of the old ways, he quizzed footman-in-training Alfre on the different types of silver spoons one could find on a properly set table.

“Teaspoon, egg spoon, melon spoon, grapefruit spoon, jam spoon …” at this point the young man struggled, not remembering the “bouillon spoon,” a specialty utensil required because bouillon, unlike soup, is consumed from a smaller dish.

Turning to Mira, my expert in anything dealing with food, I asked if this “six spoon” number was true and she said there are a lot more than six. Not believing her I looked it up. She was correct. The science of spoons is quite interesting and starts a long time ago.

The idea of a food utensil consisting of a small shallow bowl connected to a handle seems to have originated 4,000 years back in ancient Egypt where craftsman carved such devices out of ivory, flint, slate or wood and embellished them with religious symbols according to the family preference. A thousand years later in China, during the Shang Dynasty, spoons were constructed of ox-bone, something they had handy, and used as ladles for soup.

As time went on and humans learned to work metal, spoons made of bronze and silver appeared.

Many examples of metal spoons, some exquisitely crafted, have been unearthed in Pompeii that shows how Romans, up until their last day in 79 AD, set their table.

During medieval times things improved very little and spoons were fabricated from latten, an alloy formed from copper and zinc and much like brass but easily worked into strips. Spoons were also made from pewter. Unfortunately, because pewter contains lead that can leach out when used, it probably caused many poisonings that were unaccountable for.

One early spoon still in use today is the British Coronation Spoon from 1100 and is employed in a tradition that many say dates back to the Old Testament.

First recorded in 1349 as preserved among St Edward’s Regalia in Westminster Abbey, the spoon is used in the most sacred part of the coronation ceremony. Before crowning the future king or queen, the Archbishop pours holy oil into the spoon and anoints the sovereign’s head and breasts.

No mention if this was performed with the Queen Elizabeth in 1952 is available.

As time went on the spoon morphed into the shape we basically know today. By the early 1700s a typical spoon had an elliptical bowl and narrow handle turned up at the end made for easy hanging on a hook.

But the advent of the Industrial Revolution in 1800 doomed all hand-forging cutlery craftsmen.

The process was just not fast enough. Originally for a person to make a spoon they had to heat metal until red hot and use a hammer and anvil to beat this into the proper shape, making at best twenty spoons per day.

By the 1870s companies like Sears were selling thousands of spoons per week all pounded out by huge hydraulic presses at large manufacturing centers.

Automation had made its mark. Sheets of sterling silver or stainless steel were run through punches that formed a hundred blanks with each downward motion of the machine and these were fed to banks of rollers that formed in turn the bowl and handle. Next came two dies that applied the pattern to the blank.

Extended flash around the edges was removed using a machine called a linisher.

The term “silverware” refers to the use of Sterling silver or silver plate over base metal and has become synonymous with cutlery to this very day.

It is said that people normally buy sets of spoons at two points in their life: once entering adulthood and again when they have enough money for finer cutlery, or about one time every thirty years.

If we consider only the population of the United States for a moment, this would calculate out to sales of a hundred million spoons a year, assuming a set of ten per person.

China lists over 268 manufacturers of metal spoons on Global Sources.

So how many different spoons are there? Online sources say 29 and include common types not listed by Mr. Carson such as the sugar spoon for a sugar bowl, a slotted spoon for draining, measuring spoons of different sizes, baby spoons for soft pallets, souvenir spoons for tourists, and of course the risotto spoon with big center hole found in many Italian kitchens around the world.

Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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