Thursday, 7 October 2010

Teeth, Sheep, Apples And Cheese: An Age-Old Problem Solved

By guest writer Geoff Smaldon

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Few of us look forward to a visit to the dentist, but we are now accustomed to a level of dental care unheard of in the past. It was not until 1858 that the first dental hospital
opened in the UK and the Royal College of Surgeons started to license dentists in the same year. Prior to that, ‘barber-surgeons’ and even blacksmiths performed
extractions on unwilling patients and it is likely that, away from major towns and
cities, dental care was very limited.

So, imagine how you would cope if your front teeth were badly diseased, painful or

even absent: how would you bite into that delicious Cox’s Orange Pippin, or that tasty
but hard piece of cheddar? You could cut pieces off with a knife, or you could use
a scoop which would allow you to minimise waste and which would be easy to slip
into your pocket after use. Such scoops have been known for many centuries and were
made of a hard wood e.g. boxwood, silver or most commonly, bone. The knuckle-
bone of the sheep was most frequently used, one end being sawn off and the other
cut back on one side and rounded off at the end: the result was a strong and useful
implement which was personal to you.

These bone apple-scoops, sometimes called apple-corers, are increasingly rare
although they were certainly in use well into the 20th century: I have purchased a
couple found in the cutlery drawer of a house being cleared in Witney. There is
no doubt that they were very personal items; scoops bearing the owner’s initials
are not uncommon and folk-lore in some regions suggests they were buried with
their owner. A scoop found in a tenth century grave in Ireland gives some credence
to this story although it could not be proved that the skeleton and the scoop were

Decoration on scoops can range from a simple cut cross (a sign for good luck) to
intricate carving of initials and even messages. Scoops were sometimes given as love-
tokens, much in the fashion of Welsh love spoons, and often bear carved hearts and
the initials of the betrothed couple.

Strangely enough, written accounts of the use of apple scoops are few: there is a
20th century description of a woman using a scoop to remove the flesh from an
apple ‘leaving the skin intact, until it would crumple in the hand like paper’, but I
know of no other accounts. There is little doubt that these scoops performed another
function of removing the core of an apple prior to cooking, but the very personal
nature of many of them suggests that their main use was in eating.

The illustration gives an indication of the variety of scoops which can be found: let
me comment on these examples, going from left to right, as this will bring up some
interesting points.

The first is a plain unadorned scoop with no decoration
Second is a scoop showing a saw-cut cross, a very common form of decoration.

The third scoop shows slightly more complex cross-hatching, again done with a saw

The fourth is more complex and accomplished

The fifth is where the owner has really gone to town with a saw and a drill!

The sixth is more organic in design and more difficult to achieve

The seventh is a typical example showing the owner’s initials, in this case ‘W.B’

Number eight; now we get really complicated! This scoop has carved on it ‘JG July
30th 1853 ME, and on the shaft ‘Remember’. What lovers’ tryst resulted in this being
skilfully carved: one can only imagine….

Number nine is clearly a love token: dated 1771, with a prominent heart carved on it
and three further hearts on the reverse, plus the initials AC. A very professional piece
of work

Ten is another mystery: The initials M and H are separated by two hearts with the date
1856 below. What you cannot see from this photo is that on the shaft is carved ‘Here
we suffer grief and pain: here we meet to part again : Goodnight’. I suspect this one
does not signify a happy occasion.

The cut-out carving on number eleven is again of hearts and nares (nostrils), elements
which figure frequently on Welsh love spoons. Around the top are carved a hen and
two chicks!

The scoop with the wooden top ( bottom of the photo) obviously has some
ecclesiastical connections: why the cross? What is the significance of the carved
crown? I don’t know.

Finally, here’s one to think about: The whitish scoop with the fancy initials on it
is carved from ivory, but it mimics the sheep- bone examples. Why carve such a
thing in ivory? Perhaps it comes down to fitness for purpose, and maybe a member
of the gentry saw a servant using a bone scoop to good effect and had it copied in a
more ‘upmarket’ material!

WriteAntiques is grateful to Geoff Smaldon for permission to reproduce this article.

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