A Ladle’s Tale

My name is Hannah, and I am a curatorial intern at Huguenot Street. As a Senior art history and Italian Studies major and Ancient World minor at SUNY New Paltz, I am fascinated by language and the cultural material of previous generations and civilizations.

This week’s object is a slender ladle that I came across in collections storage. Although not necessarily an object that one would think of as incredibly noteworthy, I found myself drawn to its delicacy among the other beautiful, yet somewhat clunkier, teapots and dishes of the silverware cabinet. Additionally intrigued by the two-sided coin-shaped medallion at the bottom of the ladle’s head, I set out to explore its purpose, whether decorative, commemorative, or something else entirely. This exploration led to unexpected results. Far from being a simple silver object, this ladle, and many others like it can be tied to many facets of history. Indeed, it tells the story of parties and social gatherings, in addition to stories of public taste, migration from Europe to the Americas and even treason.

Although the use of ladles in Europe can be traced back to the Roman era, and the production of silver flatware is seen in Sheffield, England form as early as the thirteenth century, silver ladles were not wide-spread until the mid-18th century, following the rise in popularity of the silver soup tureen. Silver ladles were quickly produced in many shapes and sizes, and the number of ladle-type categories seems to have grown infinitely. Indeed, in addition to the silver soup ladle that was to serve as a companion to the soup tureen, we see the emergence of silver sauce ladles, stew ladles and slotted ladles, just to name a few. The slender and twisted handle of the ladle from our collection suggests that it would have either served punch or hot toddy, a warm bourbon-based beverage said to keep aches, pains, and the cold away.

Identifying our ladle as a punch or toddy ladle explains the presence of the coin- shaped medallion in the ladle’s bowl. This is in fact a true 18th-century English coin dating back to Queen Anne’s reign. As punch grew more and more popular following its introduction as a sweet and fanciful beverage among the European elite in the mid-17th century, ladles were required for proper service. 17th-century punch ladles, although not wide-spread across Europe, were substantial pieces of silver as they tended to be composed of a heavy round silver bowls and silver handles. The scarcity of silver in the 18th century, however, led to a change in punch ladle composition. Ladle heads became lighter, and their handles were carved from alternative materials, such as whalebone or horn. In order to counterbalance the loss in weight and strength due to the change of material composition, however, silversmiths began melding silver shillings in the bottom of their ladle’s bowls.

The increasing scarcity of silver in England led to the appearance of the Queen Anne style that was popular during and leading up to her reign from 1702 to 1714, and lasted well into the reign of her successor George I (1714-1727).  The Queen Anne style is characterized by its simplicity and lack of fanciful decoration. The slenderness of our ladle corresponds to this style, and is therefore indicative of its age. Additionally, we know that this ladle must date back to at least 1709, as this is the date indicated by the coin. Indeed, inscribed in Latin on either side, we know that it dates from the middle of Queen Anne’s reign. Anna Dei Gracia (Anne by the grace of god) flanks her portrait on one side, and MAG. BRI. FR. ET HIB. REG. 1709, (Magna Britannia, Francia et Hibernia Regina 1709 – Queen of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, 1709) surrounds the insignia of the shield of Great Britain following the union of Scotland with England, Wales, and Ireland.

Interestingly, the scarcity of silver in England in the early 18th-century led to an increased and uncontrollable coinage vandalism. Indeed, silversmiths melted down coins, or acquired silver illegally from “opportunists who amassed bullion by clipping small pieces of silver from coins.” Many of the silver coins in circulation at the time were in fact marked by small chips, and the shortage of silver meant that the government could not replace the vandalized coins. Since the early seventeenth century, any form of coin vandalism had significant political connotations with severe outcomes, as it was seen as an attack on the monarchy and an act of high treason. If an individual was found guilty of these crimes he could be hanged, drawn, and quartered if male, or strangled and burned if female.  Needless to say, it is unsurprising that the “coined” punch and toddy ladles that come down to us today are, for the most part, unmarked and unidentifiable in terms of their creator.

Sources:

Cointrust. Queen Anne Coins. Accessed March 1, 2017.

Collectors Weekly. Antique Sterling Silver Ladles. Accessed March 1, 2017.

McNab, Jessie. Silver. New York: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1981.

Raising Sceptors.” Coins, Crime and History. Accessed March 1, 2017.

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