ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver
article # 123
by David McKinley  
(click on photos to enlarge image)


Towards the end of the 17th century when the English habit of tea drinking moved from the commercial background of the Coffee House to the social background of the home, several items of what is now known as tea equipage were introduced into the silversmithsí repertoire. Largeworkers produced the tea kettle with its stand and spirit burner for producing hot water at the table and Smallworkers began producing teaspoons, tea tongs (sugar tongs) and mysterious little spoons described in The London Gazette of 1697 as "long or strainer tea-spoons with narrow pointed handles"

These strainer spoons are almost exclusively English, they are not common in Scotland, Ireland or on the continent of Europe, although a few were made in America. Their production in England was almost entirely confined to London workshops and this production continued until about the seventeen seventies. They were referred to as tea strainers in the Plate Offences Act of 1738 and in other documentary references throughout the 18th century but how exactly they were used has remained a mystery.

In the 19th century they were renamed Ďmote spoonsí or Ďmote skimmersí and this name has stuck. It was believed then that they were used to skim off the tea leaf debris which inevitably floats to the top of the tea when it has been poured into the cup or tea bowl but experiment has shown that this is unlikely. Bearing in mind that the dictionary definition of the word Ďmoteí is Ďsmall speckí it must be noted that the perforations in these spoons are sufficiently large that all but fairly large floating debris passes through them.

There is a school of thought that these spoons were early caddy spoons and this idea is based on the fact that the caddy spoon came into use at almost exactly the time when the mote spoon ceased to be produced.
However there is no similarity whatsoever between the two spoons so that it is difficult to see how, suddenly, the one could have metamorphosed into the other. Furthermore the strainer spoon appears to pre-date the tea caddy which anyway, in its original form, had a narrow neck that would not allow the entry of a spoon and was itself equipped with a pull off cap which, pictorial representations of the time show, was used to measure out the tea into the pot. It must be added here that the original name of the spoon implies straining not sifting as would be the case if the spoon were used in connection with a dry commodity.

There is usually only one of these spoons in any set of tea equipage and this suggests that it was for the use of the hostess and not for her guests. It is known that the tea Ďceremonyí was a protracted affair (Samuel Johnson is reputed to have drunk twenty five cups at a sitting) and this would have necessitated the making of more than one brew. Hence the tea kettle and spirit burner. This in turn would have necessitated some sort of strainer to remove the spent tealeaves from the pot after the first brew and the ideal tool for this purpose would be the strainer teaspoon with its long handle the spike at the end of which would have been used to remove clogged tealeaves from the base of the teapot spout.
Of all the suggestions so far put forward for the use of this mysterious little spoon this appears to be the most plausible but the debate is by no means at an end.
However what of the spoon itself?

The earliest known examples are made in two parts and are somewhat prosaic in concept leading to the suggestion that they were probably experimental when first produced. The bowl is of roughly teaspoon size and has simple holes drilled through it. The handle is formed from a length of silver wire extruded at one end to form a rat tail which is soldered onto the back of the bowl (Fig I). These early examples are not hallmarked and are usually struck only with the makerís mark on the back of the bowl. Some also have armorials and these too are engraved on the back of the bowl. They have been dated to circa 1690 but only because those made after 1697, some of which can be found struck with the lionís head erased, are much more imaginative in design.
Early tea strainer spoon by Abraham Harache c1690
Fig I: Early tea strainer spoon by Abraham Harache c1690
By the time Queen Anne came to the throne in 1702 these spoons had become much more decorative and, like other spoons, were being made in one piece. There was considerable confusion at this time over whether or not small spoons had to be hallmarked and this matter was not clarified until The Plate Offences Act 1738 (12 Geo II c.26) came into force on 14th June 1739. The result is that strainer spoons of the early part of the 18th century can be found with either the makerís mark alone or with a makerís mark and an assay mark. The earliest still only have the makerís mark and this is struck on the back of the bowl. Spoons which are also struck with the lionís head erased or the lion passant guardant are marked on the stem and as there is so little space in which to accommodate these marks they are often very difficult to read. Some are not marked at all!

Although some makers continued to do their own piercing it seems that specialist piercers were beginning to ply their trade at about this time so that strainer spoons can be found made by different makers but with identical piercing. Figs II and III.
strainer spoon by William Lutwick struck with his mark and the lionís head erased
Fig II strainer spoon by William Lutwick struck with his mark and the lionís head erased
Strainer spoon of circa 1715 by Ambrose Stevenson (possibly)
Fig III Strainer spoon of circa 1715 by Ambrose Stevenson (possibly)
Because of the confusion over the need for these spoons to be assayed and the resultant absence of hallmarks on many of them it is difficult to date them with any degree of certainty. However as it is generally accepted that the rat tail had disappeared by about 1730 any spoon with a rat tail and the same sort of piercing as can be seen during the period of the Britannia standard but stamped with the sterling lion on its stem can fairly reasonably be dated to the period 1720 to 1730 (Fig IV) whereas a spoon with this sort of piercing but without the rat tail must be dated to the early 1730s.The shell heel decoration had also been introduced by about this date (Fig V).
Fig IV strainer spoon of about 1720/30
Fig IV strainer spoon of about 1720/30
unmarked strainer spoon of the early 1730s
Fig V unmarked strainer spoon of the early 1730s
Since crosslets, which became the fairly standard form of piercing for the rest of the life of this spoon, had been introduced by about 1735 this can be a useful guide to date when taken together with a makerís mark (Fig VI).
tea strainer spoon struck with the mark of Francis Harache
Fig VI tea strainer spoon struck with the mark of Francis Harache, which he entered in 1738,
and the sterling lion in a rectangular outline. (i.e. the outline used before July 1739)
Following the introduction of the Plate Offences Act 1738 these spoons were much more routinely hallmarked, with the lion passant guardant only, and between July 1739 and May 1755 the outline to this mark is so distinctive (indented) that an approximate date can easily be given.

Whereas the outline to the sterling lion before July 1739 had been roughly rectangular its outline after 1755 was rectangular with an ogee base so that even allowing for the congested area in which it is struck on the stem of a strainer spoon it should be possible to determine which side of that period a particular mark comes.

The first date on which a date letter was used on small spoons was 1st November 1781 when the new experimental double mark punch was first tried. This consisted of the date letter in a heater shield with curved base and canted top corners followed by the sterling lion in an oval cartouche. To the best of this authorís knowledge there are no mote spoons marked in this way so that it is fairly safe to say that this delicate little spoon went out of fashion sometime during the 1770s.

Identifying the maker of a mote spoon is much more problematic especially with the early ones on which the makerís mark, if there is one at all, is often reduced to nothing more than a slit. However from the foregoing it will be seen that, even though the marking of what we now call mote spoons throughout most of their lifespan was somewhat unsatisfactory, it is possible to arrive fairly reasonably at approximate dates for them and in many cases they can be attributed to a maker. As to their use it is possible that we will never know for sure what this was.
David McKinley
- 2010 -
David McKinley devotes much of his time to researching the history of silversmithing in England with particular reference to hallmarking at the London office. He writes for both The Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain and The Silver Society.