The History of Teaspoons

The teaspoon - nearly 500 years in the making

The teaspoon – nearly 500 years in the making

You may be wondering why I’m writing about a teaspoon.  It’s really quite simple (and only slightly eccentric).  As I was measuring out exactly one Tablespoon of my Coffee Mate sugar free creamer this morning, I had the random thought “I wonder why they call this a Tablespoon”.  I know we use spoons at tables, but we have “Fork” and “Knife” with a silent K, so where in the world did we determine Tablespoons and Teaspoons?  Salad Fork is kind of a “duh” , as is a Steak Knife.  I decided to research it a bit and write about the Tablespoon, and then realized its little brother, the teaspoon, should also be represented.  So here it is, the history of the Teaspoon.

It all starts with tea, which has been around since 2300 BC (discovered by Shan Nong, a Chinese Emperor according to legend).  From 2300 BC through 400 AD, tea was used primarily for medicinal benefits (that means it wasn’t used on those cold winter mornings when a blanket, a window and a cup of tea was the perfect morning).  Around 400 AD however, it all changed, and as many things do, it changed beginning with the upper class.  The upper class Chinese began presenting packages of tea to others, which was considered a highly esteemed gift, and drinking it at social events and in their homes.

Fast forward 1200 years (1600 AD) and now China had begun to trade tea with the Dutch and Portguguese, and by extension, Britain and Holland.  Tea was rare in the west (Britain) at this time, and typically it was the aristocracy who had the privilege of drinking the steaming beverage.  It was considered a status symbol, and was a catalyst in bringing maritime technology to Britain such as the Clipper, a ship designed to be faster than the other vessels at the time, and was used for, you guessed it, delivering tea from China to Britain and keeping it fresher by delivering it faster.

While the history of tea is fascinating (trust me, I could continue) this is where we break from its history to the creation of the teaspoon.  As tea was so rare and highly sought after, it was used sparingly, thus the creation of a “teacup”, which is typically smaller than coffee cups.  As this time, a teaspoon measured 1 fluid dram (or drachm),  1/4 of a tablespoon, or 1/8 of a fluid ounce.  During the next 150 years as tea gained in popularity and ease of acquisition, the teaspoon and teacups began to increase in size, until the 1700s when the sizes were  1 1/3 fluid dram, 1/3 of a tablespoon, or 1/6 of a fluid ounce (which we know and love today each time we use a teaspoon).

Now, let’s take this full circle.  The tea-spoon terminology started in the 1600-1700s, along with table-spoon, coffee-spoon, dessert-spoon and soup-spoon.  It was a fad of spoons that continues even today in the little collectible silver spoons that have various emblems on them.

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The History of the Tablespoon

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I’ll admit that even for me, this is a weird topic.  Who in the world cares about spoons?

I blame it on a combination of no caffeine and my proclivity for having random-thoughts at the least opportune moments.  It was early morning hours, and I watched my coffee burble gleefully in the Keurig, waiting patiently for the dark brew to finish.  Walking back to my desk, I set down the coffee and reached for my creamer, measuring exactly one Tablespoon (measuring is key, anyone trying to lose weight can tell you that).  Suddenly, a thought struck me as this plastic spoon tipped and dropped the powdery concoction into my cup.  Why is this a tablespoon?  There is no way I’d ever use this at a table!

Thus began the curiosity of “Why is a tablespoon, a tablespoon?” and further along, “why is a teaspoon called a teaspoon?”.  I knew it must have to do with history, but had not a clue as to what it’d actually started out as.

Spoons have been around as long as humans have been able to carve curves into wood, from neolithic era until modern day.

Tablespoons obviously “existed”, but were nameless until the 1700’s.   It was customary for Europeans to bring their own spoons to the table, so much to the extent that they’d carry spoons with them just like we now carry pens, wallets and other various “necessities”.  Once the spoon started being placed on the table, rather than being carried by the user, it began to be known as the Table-Spoon, and yes it came along with the Table-Fork, and the Table-Knife.

Eventually the rest of the spoon-family came along, including Tea, Coffee, Dessert and Soup spoons.  As the dessert spoon and soup spoon gained popularity in every-day use, the Table-spoon began to to be used more as a serving spoon, rather than as an eating spoon.  It wasn’t long until the tablespoon (no longer hyphenated) began being used for cooking, and gained popularity as a standard of measurement, 4 fluid drams (drachms), 15 ml, about 1/2 a US fluid ounce.

Thus was born the tablespoon as we know today, the larger size spoon no longer used for eating, sometimes used for serving (ever wonder why you get those huge spoons in your kitchen utensil set?  Call one a “tablespoon” instead of a “serving spoon” sometime and see what reaction you get).

It’s time to finish my coffee, and maybe serve myself up another cup.

Thanks for reading!