Old, everyday Breton spoons

In the breton countryside nearly everyone had a wooden spoon and perhaps a knife to eat their simple diet of soup, pottage, vegetables and stew - a spoon was often a peasant’s only personal possession.

 These everyday spoons were kept in a porte-cuillères, (Breton: parheiler, English: spoon rack) that was usually hung from the ceiling or stood on a table. This photo is of a plain porte-cuillère  in my collection, with the spoons it came with, from a cottage in the village of Guerlesquin in Finistère.

Porte-cuillères were a practical storage method to keep spoons dry, aired and relatively clean in a small cottage. At the end of a meal each person would lick their spoon clean, perhaps even wipe it on a sleeve and then replace it in the porte-cuillères, which could often then be raised up out of the way by means of a counter weighted pulley. In this way it was possible to allow the spoon to air dry - avoiding the development of mold. It also, in theory, prevented mice and other vermin from reaching the spoons. A spoon for each individual is a refinement that avoids disease transmission via saliva, but makes it necessary to be able to identify you own spoon, amongst many similar spoons.

This process is suggested by an old spoon with stars carved on the handle, or the one carved with the name “coz”. Perhaps these spoons even herald the start of the spoon decoration tradition?

Typically, porte-cuillères varied widely in style throughout Brittany, with each area having a distinctive type (thie subject of another blog!). The everyday eating spoons, however, were remarkably consistent across the whole of the region. Most museums have only a few of these everyday spoons in their collections, often they were acquired along with the porte-cuillères in which they were stored. Far from reflecting a scarcity in everyday life, the rarity of everyday spoons in museums must surely be due to them simply being thrown onto the fire once they became too battered to be of further use. They were simply not considered worth keeping.

It can be seen from spoons that are in various collections (above: Quimper and Nantes x2) how uniform these everyday spoons were, and how often they had a cylindrical neck and spatulate end to the handle (a form also seen in the famous carte postale - la veille marchande de cuillères en bois, below).

Wooden spoons were made by artisans throughout Brittany. Some were made and sold by dedicated spoon sellers as can be seen from this postcard above, dating from the 19th century. Others were made by chiffoniers (pilhaouer in breton) who travelled the countryside collecting old rags in exchange for wooden spoons and bowls that they made. Everyday spoons and bowls were also made by boisselliers (woodworkers) and sold at the market as seen in this postcard (below) of a market in Guingamp.

Still more everyday spoons were pretty obviously home made (Pont l'Abbé 66-5-1 below) but rather crude examples like this are rare!

This shape of everyday spoon is seen in the oldest five decorated spoons in museum collections.  (see the two pictured above with stars and "coz", plus the three below) These everyday spoons were usually a little longer (and thus less portable) than the decorated cuillères d’apparat.  

The oldest dated breton spoon in any museum is 365 years old (MuCEM 1889.3.3 picture above). It is described as originating from around Quimper in Finistère. It is made of box wood and it has an inscription “COZ 1654” along the front of the handle. Coz is breton for “grandfather”

There are four other rather crudely decorated spoons in the same museum - the Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée (1936.1152, 1936.1893.14, 1888.3.2, 1936.1893.11 above and below). These spoons are also all made of box wood and three are dated: 1675, 1764, 1793. There is no record of whereabouts in Brittany these came from, which is not really surprising as this type of spoon was ubiquitous throughout the region throughout that time.

These spoons appear to be nicely carved everyday spoons that have been personalised, sometimes quite crudely by their owners. The name "Goff" on one of them is a common breton name meaning blacksmith. They were probably not made to be taken to festivals or weddings, they were not intended as status-symbol items like the true cuillères d’apparat that came somewhat later.

But perhaps they are at the start of a tradition of decorating and personalising spoons that  was to flower so extravagantly in Brittany over the next century.


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