SUITORS have been giving love tokens to the apples of their eyes ever since Eve persuaded Adam to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
For today’s collectors, the tradition has created a wealth of collecting opportunities ranging from precious gold posy rings to glass rolling pins. Even pieces of furniture, such as wedding chests, chairs and dressers are found carved with lovers’ initials and often dates of their betrothal or birth of their offspring.
More often than not, it was small domestic objects such as lace bobbins, knitting sheaths and stay busks that were more likely to be adopted as love tokens, while for sailors, Valentines made from shells, or carved whales’ teeth made on long, lonely voyages were the gifts of choice.
The best were made personally by the hand of the giver but vast quantities were produced commercially and examples of such things as pottery inscribed with love messages or heart-shaped pincushions with girls’ names or messages spelt out either in embroidery or pinheads are still relatively common and readily affordable.
Collectors of naive and primitive works of art are naturally drawn to the rustic love tokens carved in wood throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Collectively, such pieces aretermed treen – that is objects made from trees – and easily the most special are the delightful and often intricate love spoons, found primarily in Wales and also the West of England, Scandinavia and Switzerland.
Treen can be regarded as the true folk art of the British Isles and in this mass-produced world, the love spoon is a reminder of gentler times when courtship and marriage had infinitely more meaning than today.
The custom of carving love spoons as tokens of affection to be given by a suitor is thought to represent a prelude to serious courtship, but never as a sign of engagement, generally between country folk, or by those kept away from home for long periods such as sailors.
They signified a desire “to spoon”, a term given to us by the Victorians, and if a young woman was particularly attractive and sought after, she might have several on display in her home.
Whether the tradition began in Wales is not clear, butt one of the earliest examples can be seen in the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff, which is dated 1667. However, the majority of those found today date from the 18th to the late 19th century and while they might vary hugely in complexity, types of wood and symbolic meaning, all the best were carved painstakingly by hand.
Made by both amateurs and professionals alike, the latter supplementing their income by selling their products to others either less capable as themselves or with less time on their hands, love spoons tended not to adhere to any specific patterns, but most carry common symbolic meaning.
The heart obviously denotes love; the wheel represents hard work; a spoon carved with a double bowl is a reference to a union and the carved wooden balls held inside intricate wooden “cages” or lanterns represent the number of children desired by the giver. Alternatively, it denotes love held safe.
Sadly, not all love spoons are carved with a date, making it difficult to assess with any certainty the exact age of a piece. Fashion had little bearing on life in the countryside and a young man might well copy the patterns used by his father and even his grandfather to make a love spoon for his intended.
However, experience can easily tell whether a spoon is antique, the patination that develops only over the centuries being impossible to replicate on the new spoons being manufactured before today’s tourist and bridal industry – they are popular with both visitors to the Principality and as favours for guests at a wedding receptions.
It is interesting to note that love spoons were often carved from apple wood, not just because it was readily worked but also because of its association with Adam and Eve. However, carvers used whatever hardwoods were readily available locally, one of the most popular being sycamore.
It is also difficult to associate a particular style of spoon with its maker. Those carved with motifs such as chain, anchor, ship, dolphin or the barley sugar shapes taken from rope are clearly the work of bored sailors whiling away the hours on a voyage, as are those with incised lines filled with red or black wax.
Arguably the most difficult of all decoration applied to a love spoon is the running chain which, when one considers that it was carved from a single length of wood, must have taken hours of patience and care to complete. The chain symbolises the links of marriage, but also the chains of wedlock and perhaps the fate of the giver as her husband!
There are myriad other symbols used in the design of love spoons.
- Anchor: Security, steadfastness.
- Bell: Wedding.
- Birds: Lovebirds.
- Cross: Faith and marriage.
- Daffodil: Wales’ national flower and a symbol of affection.
- Diamond: Wealth and good fortune.
- Double spoon: Togetherness.
- Dragon: Traditional symbol of Wales and protection.
- Flowers: Affection.
- Grapes: Love grows.
- Harp: Traditional Welsh symbol.
- Heart: My heart is yours and true love.
- Hearts entwined: We two as one.
- Heart-shaped bowl: Full and bountiful life.
- Horseshoe: Good luck.
- House: My house is yours
- Key and keyhole: Home together, security.
- Knot: Everlasting and together forever.
- Leaves: Love grows.
- Ring: Together forever.
- Spade: I will work for you
- Vine: Love grows.
- Wheel: Supporting a loved one.
- Double spoons: The couple together forever.
- Triple spoons: Family.