It is still possible to find spoons that date from as early as the 1500s. As Ronald Pearsall explains in “A Connoisseur's Guide to Antique Silver,” this is because spoons were the first widely used specialist eating utensil. As late as the 1600s, you would bring your own spoon to a feast and break up your food with your hands or a general-purpose knife, while forks did not gain popularity until late in the 17th century. You can identify antique spoons by looking at their style and construction.
Look to see how the spoon is made. Until the 1700s, the stem and the bowl were fashioned separately and then soldered together, says Stephen Helliwell in his book “Small Silver Tableware.” From the 1700s onwards, spoons were stamped and shaped from a single piece of metal. Therefore a spoon made in two pieces in likely to be very early indeed.
Inspect the proportions of the spoon. Until the late 17th century, says Helliwell, bowls tended to be large in proportion to the stems, which were slender and delicate up to this point.
Examine the spoon for decoration. Apart from apostle spoons, with finials in the shape of saints, most spoons made before 1800 will look attractively plain to the modern eye. Helliwell explains that during the 19th century, decoration became more elaborate, more extensive and more heavily embossed, extending even to the bowl in the case of fruit spoons. During the 20th century, practical plainness became the norm again. Heavy decoration therefore suggests a 19th century date, although Helliwell also points out that some earlier spoons were restyled during this period.
Look for marks such as “EP” or “A1” on the back of the stem. These marks indicate silver plate. This process of applying a thin layer of silver to a base metal body was first widely employed in the 1820s, so a silver-plated spoon will be no earlier than this date. Most surviving spoons dating from before this time would have been made of solid silver, although the poor might use crude spoons of less durable materials such as wood or horn.
Check for words such as “stainless steel.” This material was first widely employed for cutlery after World War II, so a spoon bearing these words on its stem in unlikely to date from no earlier than the 1950s.
- "The Connoisseur's Guide to Antique Silver"; Ronald Pearsall
- "Small Silver Tableware"; Stephen Helliwell
Based in the United Kingdom, Graham Rix has been writing on the arts, antiquing and other enthusiasms since 1987. He has been published in “The Observer” and “Cosmopolitan.” Rix holds a Master of Arts degree in English from Magdalen College, Oxford.