THERE are two main reasons why the traditional design of caddy spoons is based on a scallop shell. One is romantic; the other more logical. According to the Collectors Cafe website, the more romantic reason is that shells often were found in tea chests exported from China, and this inspired the design. The more logical reason is that a scallop shell was placed in each chest to allow potential buyers to “sample the tea by smell and taste before the purchase”, says Stephen Helliwell in Collecting Small Silverware. Silversmiths modelled the spoons on the shapes of the shells, which explains why they often were called “caddy shells”. Collectors Cafe advances another practical reason. The caddy spoon, with its short handle, “was the ideal shape to portion out the precious leaves of tea” and their short squat design enabled them to be locked away conveniently with the tea in the tea caddy.
Whatever the reason for the design, by the late 18th century tea was becoming a popular drink in England and, according to Collectors Cafe, “the short, squat caddy spoon was an indispensable item in any fashionable home”. Helliwell says the spoons can be dated quite accurately as in a 1777 assay office price list they are not mentioned, but are included in the 1790 act as “being liable for assay and hallmarking”. Towards the end of the Victorian era, tea had become more affordable and treated with less reverence. The tea caddy was replaced with the more utilitarian tin or bottle and moved from the drawing room to the kitchen, where it was kept unlocked on a shelf or in a cupboard.
But by then, Collectors Cafe says, the spoon had become so popular that silversmiths continued its production. In the 19th century it became a popular christening or wedding gift. They were produced in hundreds of different designs, mostly by Birmingham silversmiths or “toy makers” who, Helliwell says, “specialised in such small gewgaws”. Birmingham silversmiths were responsible for the most elaborately designed spoons around 1800.
Elizabeth de Castres says, in A Guide to Collecting Silver, that earlier examples were more delicate than those produced in the later Victorian era, which were usually cast in heavy designs with more ornate handles. De Castres says one of the more sought-after designs is the eagle’s wing with the handle in the shape of a bird’s neck and “the bowl composed of beautifully embossed feathers”.
Other popular designs popular included round or oval bowls, the acorn, the thistle, the leaf and the horse’s hoof. Jeremy Astfalck of The Old Corkscrew in Franschhoek, says prices of caddy spoons range from R1200 a spoon to R17000 for rare pieces. Judith Miller, in Antiques Price Guide 2003, prices a George III silver caddy spoon, probably by John Shea, London, at £100 to £150, a 1798-99 Georgian sterling silver piece by Joseph Taylor, London, in the form of a jockey cap, and an 1808-09 Georgian sterling silver spoon, London, in the form of a hand, at between £400 and £450 each.