You get one new thing and bam—you’ve triggered an avalanche of new needs.
- Play Pokémon GO? Gotta have a portable charger for when that elusive Dragonite actually hits your screen.
- Found that perfect sofa? Guaranteed—any chair/coffee table/end table/lamp you already own won’t be quite right.
- Having a baby? Just try to stop the flood of stuff that will enter your home for the next two decades!
So it was when tea hit Europe several centuries ago. People immediately needed all sorts of things they didn’t know they were going to need!
Introducing Tea: A Marketer’s Delight!
Tea instigated a plethora of requirements. Lockable tea caddies to store the pricey product and caddy spoons for measuring it out. Teapots and teacups and tea saucers. New words were necessary (“chinaware,” “porcelain”). Sugar in your tea? Call that spoon the “teaspoon”! And to display all these acquisitions: china cabinets! Not to mention tea carts, spoon holders, tea tables, and on and on.
Let’s Start with the Not-so-lowly Teaspoon
Although spoons have been used since the Paleolithic, the earliest ones were undoubtedly made of natural materials such as pieces of wood or shells—as suggested by our English spoon from Old English spon (from chip, as of wood) or the French cuillère (from Latin coclear, with the same root as cochlea, meaning snail, spiral).
First-century Romans designed two spoon types that they eventually brought northward into Britain. The custom stuck, and subsequent upper classes used precious metals to fashion spoons. For those who could afford it, a silver spoon was given to babies at their baptism (hence “born with a silver spoon”). By the 14th century, however, pewter spoons were commonplace, available more broadly.
The obvious usefulness of the spoon resulted in quite a variety of types, described by their composition, such as wooden or silver, or by their intended use, as in dessert, salt, sugar—or tea!
The spoon that was designated for stirring tea (sugar was added with the sugar spoon) made its first (known) appearance in print in the London Gazette in 1686—”three small gilt Tea Spoons.”
Which Became a Unit of Measure
By 1731, a teaspoonful was used as a measurement: “not above a Tea Spoonful of Water” (Phil. Trans.). Robert Griffith’s 1859 A Universal Formulary gives the teaspoon as one fluidrachm, the dessert spoon as two fluidrachms, and a tablespoon as half a fluid ounce. (A fluidrachm or fluidram equals 1/8 of a fluid ounce in the imperial measure of the apothecary system.)
However, Griffith asserts that “the teaspoon is rated too low; they [these estimates] apply very well to the teaspoon formerly used, but not to the much larger kind now in general use, which approaches the dessertspoon in capacity.”
And indeed, both the size of the teacup and the size of that teaspoon for stirring the tea had increased—concomitant with falling tea prices. By the 1730s, a teaspoon was 1/3 of a tablespoon.
While Still Remaining an Item of Status
Although the price of tea had come down, “tea” and its accouterments were still a way to signal your social position. Early Victorians put their teaspoons in a spoon holder or a spooner—oftentimes similar to a coverless sugar bowl—displaying both their spoons and their status. In the later 1800s, silver commemorative and souvenir spoons became a fad, another indicator of rank.
Social norms were paramount. In his Manual of Social and Business Forms of 1888, Thomas Hill advises that tea be “gently sipped from the spoon or cup, taking cup and spoon in hand . . . when drinking,” and he thoughtfully illustrates proper hand and finger position. In fact, he cautions that “the spoon should never be removed from the cup when the guest is satisfied with its contents” because a spoon that is placed next to a cup that still contains tea means there is a problem!
Today’s Oh-so-lowly Teaspoon
Nowadays, spoons—teaspoons or otherwise—are utilitarian drudges. We carelessly set them anywhere on the saucer or plate or table, ascribing no meaning to their placement. The capacity of a “teaspoon” in a flatware set in the U.S. varies wildly, requiring the use of measuring teaspoons for cooking and baking. And a teaspoon is used only incidentally for actually stirring tea.
In our home, a teaspoon is never used for its original purpose—drinking tea, as we do, without sugar or milk! However, we find our tea measuring spoon to be indispensable! It easily measures out bulky tea, and although it is not called a caddy spoon, it fulfills that same purpose—and does indeed serve as a true TEA spoon.