Traditional Lovespoon Symbolism Explained

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Traditional Lovespoon Symbolism Explained:
Dave Western explores the meanings behind the signs and symbols used in lovespoons

Dave Western explores the meanings behind the signs and symbols used in lovespoons

Understanding lovespoon symbolism can be a tricky business. Loads of mythology has sprung up over the years to explain the origins and meanings of the many romantic symbols found on Welsh lovespoons. Likely originating in Victorian times, much of this lore is more the product of vivid imagination than cold, hard fact. With the advent of the internet, ever more fanciful ‘information and lore’ floods us, with the result being complete confusion.
Nowadays, carvers and those interested in the history and tradition of lovespoon carving are rightly perplexed about what actually does constitute traditional design and how can we tell the difference between lovespoons and those spoons which are merely ornamental.
I will examine traditional and modern lovespoon design. I will highlight the important symbols of both eras and will show you how to use them to improve your own designs and techniques. At the end of this article, I will include a couple of patterns which you can use to practise your lovespoon carving or which you can build upon to create your own design for that someone special.
In this article, I will focus on the chief symbols common to the majority of historical spoons which have been gathered by museums and private antique collectors.
Although I can’t pretend to have seen every lovespoon ever carved or to have catalogued every symbol which has appeared on a spoon, I have viewed enough of them to gain an insight into which symbols are historically traditional and which are of a more modern vintage. 

Hearts
Without doubt, the foremost lovespoon symbol is the heart. Instantly recognisable throughout the western world as the dominant symbol of romance and romantic passion, its use on a lovespoon leaves no reservations that the spoon has a loving intent. From the oldest Welsh spoons in museum collections to today’s CNC-produced souvenirs, the inclusion of a heart in the design strongly indicates a suggestion of affection.
There are a variety of ways the heart can appear on the spoon. It can be fretted through the handle or stem, it can be carved in low or high profile, it can be three-dimensionally carved or simply inlaid (either with contrasting wood or, more commonly, with sealing wax). I have seen it suggested that fretted hearts were considered ‘less passionate’ than carved hearts. I doubt there was any such grading of passion among the carvers or those who received their work. Much more likely the type of heart was a product of the carver’s skill level and the type of design being carved.
I should note that on some European spoons originating from strongly Catholic countries, the sacred heart (or heart of Christ) sometimes appears on spoon designs. This type of heart can often appear with a cross, flames, or piercing arrows and may be misconstrued for a love heart when, in fact, its meaning was actually more religious. 

No matter how it appears, the heart always symbolises love and affection

Comma or raindrop
Where the heart is an undeniable symbol of love, this common symbol on historic and modern spoons is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Generally called a ‘soul symbol’ in Welsh lovespoon circles, it has been claimed its origins lay in Egypt where it was said to be a hieroglyphic symbol for the nostril, the part
of the body where the soul enters the body at birth and exits it at death.
Further embellishments to the story tell of Welsh sailors bringing the symbol home with them after voyages to the Middle East. It’s a fabulously romantic tale, but unfortunately not likely to be true. The hieroglyphic symbol of soul (ka) is not nostril-shaped and no written evidence exists to prove sailors had anything to do with its arrival on Welsh spoons. A second theory has it being a paisley pattern from the Middle East. This explanation is more plausible but for the fact that some spoons featuring it are known to have been carved before the popularity of the paisley pattern had spread to the British Isles. A much more plausible explanation is that it is a ‘raindrop’ and thus a symbol of fertility and growth.
This symbol could be commonly found throughout France and Germany in the 1600s and 1700s and still appears to this day in the hex designs found on Pennsylvanian barns. It may appear as single commas throughout a design or as a grouping of several arranged in a wheel formation or border.

As with hearts, the comma shape can be fretted, carved in relief, or rendered fully in the round

Diamonds
Diamonds were a symbol of prosperity. Likely the prosperity on offer was more a promise to provide food, clothing and shelter rather than the manor house and servants. Nevertheless, young lovers dream and they generally dream big, so there was no harm in wishing for more than they probably got. I have only ever encountered stylised fretted diamonds and have never seen an old spoon with a more realistic profile carved diamond. No doubt the symbolism was clear enough with the basic shape.

Simple and elegant, the diamond profile indicated a desire to provide

Circle
Ironically, the simplest symbol commonly appearing on Welsh lovespoons is also the most complex. The circle is a well-known symbol of eternity due to it having neither a beginning nor an end (the reasoning behind the adoption of the wedding band to represent endless love). It can also represent the circle of life or notion of work and livelihood, especially when it appears on spoons carved by sailors as a ship’s wheel, or by farmhands as a wagon’s wheel. It can be carved as anything from a simple fretted hole to a complicated geometric pattern. Most often the circular pattern is seen with a six-point ‘flower’ – an almost infinite variety of these can be found on antique spoons.
Easily rendered with a simple compass or even with rudimentary dividers, these geometric patterns enabled carvers to decorate their circles and create designs which seemed more difficult than they actually were. Particularly dexterous carvers would often carve a pinwheel pattern that was much more popular on the continent.

The simple circle could become wonderfully convoluted and decorative using basic geometric patterns. Highly segmented pinwheel patterns tested the carver’s skill, patience and tenacity

Chains and ball-in-cages
Once again, loads of Victorian sentiment and fanciful internet yarn-spinning has made more of these traditional carver’s tricks than perhaps was the original case. While the chain is said to be a representation of a promise to provide security (or, more romantically, a way of saying the carver is held captive by his love) it is also suggested that it was the carver’s way of indicating a desire for children.
Given that many spoons have good lengths of chainwork, the thought of having masses of children might not have been a particularly appealing consideration for a young woman who risked her life every time she bore one. The same symbolic meaning is also conferred on the ball in cage and in this case, it would certainly seem more plausible as the numbers of balls in cages found on historical spoons seldom ranged too high. Although I love the romance of these theories, it’s probably more likely that carving chains and balls was simply a demonstration of skill and tenacity by the young man and likely not much more was read into them.  

Although the true symbolic meaning of chains and balls-in-cages might be unknown, they make for a formidable display of craftsmanship and tenacity

Miscellaneous
Although they appear much more occasionally than the previously-mentioned symbols, a variety of lesser symbols can be found on historical examples. These range from double bowls (which indicate the notion of ‘we two are as one’) and triple bowls (said to indicate the desire for children – the extra mouth to feed) to keyholes and crossed keys to signify security or the heart held captive.
Occasionally, fretted glasses and pitchers may have denoted a wish for prosperity and a full belly. Anchors and wax-inlaid sailing ships spoke of a sailor’s desire to settle with his love and engraved images of houses offered a similar sentiment for landlubbers. Simple vines and flowers often suggested fertility or the growth of the relationship and, every so often, birds in pairs would suggest love and bonding.
Less frequently, the carver would simply engage in flights of fancy, making up patterns which may have had no purpose other than to look good and nicely fill a space in his design.

Minor symbols turn up on historical examples, but not in significant numbers. While keyholes and anchors are easily understood, many of the other designs are a bit more esoteric and harder to discern

Designs
If you’d like to try a traditional styled Welsh lovespoon of your own, I have included three basic designs for you to get started with. While these aren’t copies of any particular spoons, they are accurate representations of antique spoons of similar styling. They feature many of the most popular symbols and make lovely replica-type spoons.
You can practise technique and get a feel for the traditional style of design by copying them directly, or use them as inspiration for your own versions. Either way, I know you will enjoy the carving.

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