Spooniness: Mary Beaudry Serves Up Spoon’s History

by Lucia Austria

Dr. Mary Beaudry

Forged metal, seven inches, thin and slender, teardrop shaped bowl.
Wood, round bowl, letters “KP” carved into the handle.
Sterling Silver, embossed flowers, bowl with diamond shaped perforations.

Each of the three objects described above are as unique as the purposes they serve, yet all three are known by one name–spoon. On September 24th, department of Archaeology chair at BU, Mary Beaudry, presented the evolution and myriad uses and designs of the spoon in a lecture called, “There’s a Spoon for That! The Lives and Times of a Ubiquitous Utensil.” Beaudry’s lecture kicked off this academic year’s Pépin Lecture Series hosted by Metropolitan College’s office of Lifelong Learning.

What started as a graduate school assignment at Brown University, Mary Beaudry shared her vast knowledge and fondness of the seemingly quotidian spoon. Some of the oldest, spoon-like tools date back to the Paleolithic period made of animal tusk and bone. Since then, spoons have evolved into highly customized eating utensils, with spoons made for infinite uses like steeping tea, eating olives, or drinking absinthe.

Beyond the breadth of functions a spoon serves, Beaudry discussed its cultural representation as a personal artifact. Since medieval Europe, it was customary to engrave initials in one’s own spoon. Personal spoons were rarely shared with others and used throughout life. The gifting of “apostle spoons” to newly christened babies was a common Christian tradition during the English Tudor period. Mini representations of Jesus’ twelve apostles adorned the handles of these silver spoons. From this design, you can infer that each use of an apostle spoon reminded its owner that it is God that nourishes and sustains the human body. This integration of religious beliefs and utility within the design of a spoon supports an archaeological value of analyzing the mundane: achieving a broader understanding of the cultural ideals of past societies.

Wooden spoon found on board the 16th century carrack Mary Rose. Photo credit the Mary Rose Trust.

Finally, Beaudry took a brief, semiotic analysis of the word “spoon.” From the Anglo-Saxon word sponmeaning “sliver of wood,” the term signifies a number of different ideas today. Beaudry investigated the idea of “spooniness,” that which has spoon-like qualities. To be “spoony” is to act silly or foolishly. A person who “spoons” for another openly shows their love and affection. And of course, the act of “spooning” involves close, full-body contact, similar to two spoons nestled neatly together.

Mary Beaudry’s analysis of the ubiquitous spoon was an opportunity to engage in a fun, light-hearted discussion about culture and technology. Her research was not just about the spoon, but also of the individuals who used them, for a culture’s beliefs and ideals manifest in the objects they create.

Learn more about Dr. Mary Beaudry’s research here.

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