WELSH LOVE SPOON - a description that is not without its controversies. For decades it was thought that the love spoon was only associated with one area in Europe - namely Wales. The so-called “Welsh Love Spoon” had become an emblem of a whole nation. This viewpoint had its explanation in the fact that the modest wooden spoon had become an object for sale to tourists and business was brisk.

In 1988 a paper in a Welsh history journal (Bwletin y Bwrdd Gwybodau Celtaidd / The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies) drew attention to some of the discrepancies in this matter. 'Lovespoons in Perspective' by Herbert E.Roese, Vol.35, pp.106-116  [access here] revealed that love-spoon-carving was practiced in many European countries and spoon carving per se in some African countries and in the Far East as well. 

One person took on the challenge, Cardiff born Dave Western (www.davidwesternlovespoons.com); he investigated the claims. The results of his research were published in four papers in 2015 by Woodworkers Institute (GMC Publications Ltd),  Issues 143-146:

For over 360 years, by the early 21st century, love spoons have been carved throughout Europe.  Although Wales is the only country in which love spoons are still being carved in appreciable numbers, the regional carving styles of the Scandinavian, Alpine and Balkan regions have had a heavy influence on love spoon design.

Nowadays there is a growing awareness that the notion of the “cawl”/soup-spoon being ancestral to the Welsh love spoon (and thus by implication to all love spoons), is erroneous. First of all, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever, material or literal, to suggest that known love spoons were carved before the mid-sixteen-hundreds. 

Secondly, research into the cultural habits of the Middle Ages, produces more and more insight into such customs, as the making and giving of love tokens to women. That began with the troubadours (primarily noblemen), who performed love poems for their adored ones. But this was a very slow process and could only be appreciated by those who had some education that enabled them to read and write and develop liberal ideals. Women had (to our modern ideas) a most deplorable position in society, well into the Renaissance (the period that followed the Middle Ages), even into the 19th century if one includes the Suffragette movement (e.g. Professor Robert Bartlett’s Inside The Medieval Mind, the UK-Open University). It is much more likely that the so-called love spoon was a product of the Late Renaissance. At that time, wooden spoons carved with "romantic" emblems emerged all over Europe but in conjunction with other everyday chip carved objects such as knitting-sheath, stay-busk, butter presses, small boxes, milk stools, walking sticks, etc, not as individual items. The prevailing rules of Puritan society in Britain at the time may have slowed down the development in Wales. Often the objects were part of a dowry and were given by the couple to each other as love tokens. Therefore, the source of love spoon carving and giving needs more serious research into the customs and traditions of society of that period, the 16th /17th century, rather than simply assuming that the custom had an on-going, linear past. 

David Western's researches have shed an important light on the matter. His preliminary conclusions were published in 2012 in a book on the subject of wooden spoon carving: "HISTORY OF LOVESPOONS - The Art and Traditions of a Romantic Craft" (published by Fox Chapel, P.A., USA). Here are a few brief quotes from his book, e.g. 

page 15, 'The Beginning': "Precisely why the humble spoon became such a romantic symbol is unknown, but several dated examples help tell us when the spoon-carving tradition began. We can be relatively certain it occurred in the mid-seventeenth century, around the same time it became more common to decorate and present other wooden utilitarian objects as gifts. At this time, the explosion of art and culture, which had worked its way northward from Italy and downward from the nobility, reached the masses. Throughout Europe, the standard of living of the poorest citizens (...) improved slightly, allowing folk art to flourish". Also 

page 19, 'Similar Traits': "Despite primarily being made by rural folk of limited financial means who rarely journeyed more than a few miles from home, love spoons from Wales and Sweden to the far reaches of the European continent share several similar traits. The use of simple chip-carving techniques, geometric patterns, and various romantic symbols are common to spoons carved throughout Europe". 

In a personal note he adds: "The more I research the spoon, the more it appears to me that metal spoons were indeed the inspiration for the idea of an ornately carved wooden spoon. They are so different from cawl spoons that I honestly don't see any connection at all. It's that spoon bowl shape which is the clincher for me. Combine that with the fact that 'lovespoons' were carved throughout Europe and the idea of a Welsh soup spoon spawning the entire adventure seems far-fetched". 

As has been suggested in the paper “Lovespoons in Perspective”, it looks as if the mid-seventeenth century examples mentioned above, are likely to represent the very beginning of love spoon carving as we know it. There is good reason to assume that the basic character of the ‘fancy’ wooden spoon was modelled on that of the table spoon, particularly the silver one, especially when it became an object for decoration. The latter has always occupied a privileged position. The very earliest ones being used for ritual purposes only, i.e. that of administering libation. Nothing illustrates this privilege better than the saying that ‘some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouths’. Notable in this context, is the reference to silver rather than gold. It is therefore reasonable to presume, that when country folk began to indulge in (copy) the making and giving of special symbolic spoons, the silver table spoon acted as ‘god-parent’.

The idea that love spoon design (at least as of the 17th century) was probably based on "the metal spoons used by the wealthier members of the community" was also mentioned by J. Geraint Jenkins in 1978 in his book ‘Traditional Country Craftsmen’, (Routledge & K. Paul), page 72. 

In 1995 Johan Knutsson of the Nordiska Museets in Stockholm/Sweden wrote in his publication "Friargavor - fran kaenningn til trolovning" (page 14) the following: "Among the more permanent gifts, wooden spoons seem to have been the most common. Inspiration might have come from noble sources, such as traditions within the nobility, where betrothal spoons, made of silver, were used during the 16th century. When this custom was introduced among the commoners, they used not only silver spoons, but also carved wooden spoons, to be presented long before there had been talk of any betrothal" (translation).